Alabama Heat Exchangers: Keeping Customers Up and Running

The Alabama Heat Exchanger team prides itself on its history as a family-owned company that continues to cherish family values.

Alabama Heat Exchangers is an engineered-to-order fabrication and repair company that has been in business since 1986. Heat Exchanger World spoke to President and CEO Ricky Lightcap, Jr., to learn more about the family company culture, the different processes and capabilities, and how Alabama Heat Exchangers continues to provide unmatched quality and customization to its clients.

By Charlie Evans & Sara Mathov

A family company was founded

Alabama Heat Exchangers is a family business and always has been. “My mother and father started the company in 1986. After many years working in the industry and listening to the needs of his clients, my father decided to start his own heat exchanger company. His first job for this new company was re-tubing a heat exchanger in his own garage. Shortly after that, they opened a small office, and a few years later, moved into our current location in Theodore, Alabama,” said Lightcap.

Over the years, the company has grown to have the reputation it does today. “I started here in high school sweeping floors and doing deliveries, eventually getting to know welding and fitting and taking over the lead in Quality Control (QC) for six years, and then moving into the role of CEO,” stated Lightcap. “We have grown a lot and continue to do so, but we do not forget our company values and one of those values is family. We hire families. We have always had siblings working here and families working together. It is a different dynamic than most companies, but one we are proud of.”

Processes and specialties

Alabama Heat Exchangers offers a variety of services, including drafting and engineering, machining, welding, and fitting, as well as service, repair, and quality control. “For new custom equipment, we start the design process,” began Lightcap. They begin thermal engineering, wherein they size the heat exchanger and get approval from the client, ensuring that it is the desired product. From there, it moves onto the purchasing phase, where all the desired materials are acquired. “Once the materials arrive, QC performs a thorough inspection before issuing to production. Then we begin building, fitting, welding, machining, testing, and finishing until we have a completed custom piece that meets our customer’s production needs.”

This can also begin further along in the process, as there are many ‘in-kind’ replacement exchangers as well as vessels and reactors. The company also regularly performs repairs and alterations to the same type of equipment – in-house or on-site.

Horizontal mixing vessel - carbon steel with PWHT and high-temp coating
Horizontal mixing vessel – carbon steel with PWHT and high-temp coating

The company’s welding capabilities include a wide variety of alloys, including carbon, stainless steel, nickel, Hastelloy, and more. “We complete a lot of dissimilar welding. This is monitored closely by our quality control process,” explained Lightcap.

Alabama Heat Exchangers uses a mix of in-house and third-party testing depending on the requirement. “We can also meet just about any non-destructive testing requirements provided by end users or any governing standard, usually ASME,” he continued.

“Not only do we meet the code, but we also exceed it. We view code requirements as the level where the bar is set, and we always go above the bar. It is woven into the fabric of our culture as a top-quality mindset. Everyone from our experts to someone who sweeps the floor knows that quality matters and knows our code.”

Unmatched quality and speed

“One of our unique elements is that most new fabrication is made from scratch and customized to meet our end users’ requirements,” explained Lightcap. Alabama Heat Exchangers is also known for going out to take field measurements to ensure a piece of existing equipment can be replaced with exact dimensions. “We fabricate a replacement that fits perfectly back into place without the client needing to change any piping.”

Their main clientele is specialty chemical manufacturers; however, other applications include paper mills, power generation, marine, petrochemical, and clean/alternative fuels. “Our mantra is to keep the customer up and running,” Lightcap continued.

“Customers come to the company because of our depth of technical knowledge. We are a go-to resource for ASME codes, as well as safety and more. Customers feel comfortable in our hands, and that helps us stand out.”

Not backing down from a challenge

Referring to their mantra to keep the customer up and running and keeping downtime to a minimum, Alabama Heat Exchangers has multiple examples of going above and beyond the expectations of their customers. Lightcap recalled when a paper mill sent a fairly large heat exchanger, about 30 feet long and 5 feet in diameter, all 304L stainless steel, for a re-tube. However, when it arrived, they found stress-corrosion cracking throughout the entire exchanger, making the equipment barely operational.

“Our mantra is to keep the
customer up and running.”

“After telling the customer they essentially needed a new heat exchanger, they came back saying they would need it in four weeks. So, I spoke with my team and we agreed to get it done, and we shipped on time. The end user was pleased as they did not lose any days on their shutdown window. We are very proud of that.” For reference, the normal turnaround on a similar job is estimated at about three months.

“Another project we are proud of was when a plant wanted to add three feet of vertical length to a 15-foot diameter tank in place on site. First, we developed a plan of action. Then, we fabricated a new section of the tank. We cut the original tank and, using a portable water jet system, put the new assembly in place. The customer was so pleased because everything fit within a 32nd of an inch, over the entire 15-foot diameter,” shared Lightcap.

Obround-to-cylinder chiller.

Clean energy and emissions

Lightcap said there has been a large increase in clean energy projects, including biodiesel plants, CO2 scrubbers, and custom equipment to meet emission requirements. “We have done projects at several universities and new green start-ups, all related to clean energy emissions and research,” he said.

“Customers come to the
company because of the depth
of our technical knowledge.”

One of the first initiatives that was highlighted was wind energy. “Using compressed air for wind farms, in times without wind, was something we played a part in. We built tanks, pumps, and ASME code equipment, to help with the pilot version of this. We then scaled it up and built the full-size version, that still exists in Texas as one of the largest single-piston pumps ever built, at 14 feet diameter and 40 feet tall.”

“We are going to play a big role in building these custom pieces of equipment for companies that have great ideas of how to harness energy. We are excellent at following specifications, codes, and safety, along with a very high-level skill in welding, machining, and fabricating. Combined with our get it done and get it done right attitude, we will provide great support for companies in clean energy initiatives.”

Eductor for a chemical manufacturer, used in a carbon capture process at the plant. It is made of Hastelloy C276.
BEM style gas cooler.
14’ × 40’ tall vertical pump

The future of Alabama Heat Exchangers

Going forward, Alabama Heat Exchangers will continue to grow and expand. “We have been around the same size facility for about 30 years, and we are ready to take the company to a higher level. Because of that, I plan to expand into different regions.

We have always built equipment that has gone all over the world, but I would like to start expanding our presence, starting in the Houston and Louisiana areas,” said Lightcap.

“One of our unique elements is that most new fabrication is made from scratch and customized to meet our end users’ requirements, combined with our get it done and get it done right attitude.”

“Over the years, we have stayed in a smaller area radius, where most of our work is done. We are now at the point where I want to bring our skills and expertise to a larger area and maintain a greater reach. The company is growing, and I am excited to be leading that initiative,” concluded Lightcap.

Vertical NEN style turpentine condenser with stress corrosion cracking (before repair).
Vertical NEN style turpentine condenser rebuilt in 4 weeks (all 304L SS).

About this Featured Story

This Featured Story was first published in Heat Exchanger World Magazine in February 2024. To read more Featured Stories and many other articles, subscribe to our print magazine.

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