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Optimising steam systems: part I

Simple techniques to reduce the cost of ownership of a refinery’s steam

distribution system and condensate return using steam traps and separators

Ian Fleming
Spirax Sarco

o far 2010 is proving to be
Potential savings in a refinery’s steam distribution system and condensate return
another challenging year for
the refining industry. Not only
is it currently experiencing spare oil Measure Fuel saved, % Payback period, yr Other benefits
production capacity of over 6 Improved insulation 3–13 1.1
Steam trap maintenance 10–15 0.5
million barrels/day, leading to a
Steam distribution

Automatic steam trap monitoring 5 1

fall in refining margins, but the US Leak repair 3–5 0.4 Reduced requirement
Environmental Protection Agency for major repairs
(EPA) has confirmed its stance, that
Flash steam recovery/ Dependent on existing Variable dependent Reduced water
greenhouse gases (GHGs) are a condensate return use for flash steam on application consumption and
threat to health and welfare. This water treatment costs
has led to the Mandatory Reporting
of Greenhouse Gases Rule, requir- Condensate return alone 10 1.1 Reduced water consumption
and water treatment costs
ing all US oil and petrochemical
companies, as with all sectors of the
economy, to monitor and report Table 1
their GHG emissions. In Europe,
the EU has committed to cutting its
CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020 from 
1990 levels. Critical
This article, and part II to be
published at a later date, looks at Evaporation
ways of optimising the steam
system, to reduce energy costs 

(lowering GHG emissions), water E

Lines of
consumption and boiler chemicals. constant

In addition, ensuring the steam is B C D pressure

of the correct quality, quantity and 
pressure when it arrives at its point
Saturated Dryness fraction lines
of use can improve process water line Superheated
performance. steam region
It is estimated that steam genera- 
tion accounts for approximately
50% of the total energy consump-
tion in a typical refinery, with Dry saturated
steam line
energy costs accounting for more

than 50% of the total operating A       
expenditure. %NTHALPYH K*KG
The US Department of Energy HF HFG
estimates that steam generation,
distribution and cogeneration offer
the most cost-effective energy effi- Figure 1 Temperature enthalpy diagram
ciencies in the short term, with
potential energy savings of more for the steam distribution system Further savings can be achieved
than 12%. Table 1 estimates the and condensate return of a US in the powerhouse where steam is
typical savings that can be achieved refinery. generated. However, this article PTQ Q2 2010 47

requirements. Effective deliver
relies on correct sizing of the steam
distribution lines and control valves
Steam serving the application. This can
become an issue when processes
Condensate are upgraded or additional assets
Steam are added, as it increases the steam
Slug load beyond the steam mains origi-
nal specification. This results in
increasing velocities within the
steam system, causing higher pres-
sure losses through the distribution
system. If the steam pressure is
Figure 2 Development of conditions for water hammer lower than the acceptable design
pressure, the process is de-rated, as
will examine only steam distribu- of the cogeneration or combined the steam is at a lower saturation
tion and condensate return. heat and power (CHP) system. temperature, reducing the energy
Before looking at potential For heating purposes, super- transfer rate.
improvements and ways of optimis- heated steam offers very little extra Several key areas have the great-
ing the steam system, it is worth energy and, in fact, the steam has est effect on reducing energy costs
understanding the basic properties to cool to saturated temperature and improving efficiency: steam
and characteristics of steam. These before the enthalpy of evaporation system insulation, water hammer
can be outlined in a temperature can be released. Therefore, using and steam trapping.
enthalpy diagram (see Figure 1). superheated steam instead of satu-
When energy is added to water, rated steam at the point of use Steam system insulation
the temperature rises until it actually slows down the heating Steam mains and ancillary equip-
reaches the point of evaporation process. ment must be effectively insulated,
(point B in Figure 1), which varies For the process to achieve maxi- in particular valves, strainers and
with pressure. The energy required mum efficiency, steam needs to separators, which have large surface
to reach point B is sensible heat (hf). arrive at the correct: areas. After any maintenance work
Any additional energy will convert • Quality: target dryness fraction of on the steam system, the insulation
the water to steam at a constant 100% must be replaced properly; good
temperature. At point D, all water • Quantity to allow the process to insulation reduces heat losses by up
has been completely converted to meet demand to 90%.
steam, which is known as dry satu- • Pressure, which determines satu- To put this into context, 1m of an
rated steam with a steam quality rated steam temperature and uninsulated 100mm steam main
(dryness fraction) of 100%. specific volume, so affecting ther- operating at 10 barg emits approxi-
The energy added between points mal transfer. mately 1.0 kW, which is equivalent
B and D is the enthalpy of evapora- Steam quality is a measure of to wasting nearly 16 tonnes of
tion (hfg) and is the energy steam dryness fraction. If the dryness frac- steam a year. This assumes that the
gives out as it condenses back to tion is lower than 100% (say, point pipe is dry and there is no wind
water. It is the enthalpy of evapora- C in Figure 1), the available energy/ chill. Good insulation reduces these
tion that is used in refining. kg of steam is less. Steam quality loses to approximately 1.6 tonnes of
If further energy is added, the can be improved by ensuring the steam a year.
steam’s temperature will increase, mains are well insulated and But even when insulation stand-
creating superheated steam (E). condensate is removed effectively ards are good, a certain amount of
Superheated steam is used in a using steam traps and separators. steam condenses out during distri-
typical powerhouse (at approxi- The quantity of steam required bution. This needs to be removed
mately 100 barg and 450°C) as part will depend on the process energy to maintain steam quality and
prevent the possibility of water
Flash steam
Water hammer
As steam begins to condense,
condensate forms droplets on the
inside of the walls. These are swept
along in the steam flow, merging
Flash steam bubble Cool into a film. The condensate then
implodes as steam condensate
condenses gravitates towards the bottom of
the pipe, where the film begins to
Figure 3 Development of conditions for thermal shock increase in thickness.

48 PTQ Q2 2010

Three main types of steam trap

Mechanical Thermodynamic Thermostatic

Principle of operation: Principle of operation: Principle of operation:
Distinguishes between steam and Distinguishes between steam and Uses difference in temperature between
condensate using difference in density condensate through variation of flow steam and condensate
between steam and condensate dynamics between the two fluids
Condensate has to cool below the steam saturation
Removes condensate as it forms Removes condensate as it forms temperature before the trap will open, which leads
to backing up of condensate

Table 2

The build-up of droplets of when the steam collapses conden- Steam trapping
condensate along a length of steam sate is accelerated into the resulting Some of the most common prob-
pipework can eventually form a vacuum. As the void is filled, water lems found in a steam system can
slug of water, which will be carried impacts the centre, sending shock be traced back to either the steam
at steam velocity (25–30 m/s) along waves in all directions. trap application or poor condensate
the pipework (see Figure 2). This Thermal shock can, therefore, removal. These issues can normally
slug of water will eventually slam occur where higher temperature be resolved through good engineer-
into bends in the pipework, valves return systems containing flash ing practice, selection of the correct
or separators in its path. steam are discharged into sub- steam trap and a steam trap
There is a second cause of water cooled condensate return lines. The management programme.
hammer known as thermal shock. forces resulting from water hammer
This occurs in two-phase systems, can be immense, causing steam Types of steam trap
where water occurs in two states mains to physically move or, in When selecting steam traps, it is
(water and steam) in the same pipe. worst-case scenarios, rupture. worth remembering that most use
It can also occur in steam mains, At best, water hammer increases three principles of operation,
condensate return lines and heat maintenance costs and at worst a summarised in Table 2. Each princi-
exchange equipment. Steam bubbles ruptured steam main will bring the ple has its strengths and weaknesses,
become trapped within pools of plant to a halt, possibly causing dependent on the application being
condensate, which have cooled injury to personnel. Water hammer served. Table 3 gives examples of
sufficiently below saturated temper- can be prevented easily through applications and the preferred type
ature and immediately collapse. good engineering practice and by of trap for the application.
Since a kilogram of steam occu- using steam traps at regular inter- There are some general rules and
pies several hundred times the vals to prevent the build-up of guidelines on where to position
volume of one kilogram of water, condensate. steam traps:

Preferred type of trap for various applications

Application Trap types Comments

Process applications Mechanical Mechanical steam traps will remove the condensate as it forms, regardless of fluctuating loads,
eg, heat exchangers: ensuring maximum steam space and heating surface area within the heat exchanger
Preheaters Mechanical steam traps also have the greatest capacity, making them ideal for process applications
Water heaters

Distribution lines Thermodynamic Thermodynamic traps are robust and relatively low cost. TDs remove the condensate as it forms,
eg, steam mains so eliminating the risk of condensate backing up into the steam line

Thermostatic Thermostatic traps, by their nature, will back up with condensate, but they are robust and relatively low cost.
Thermostatic traps can be used on distribution mains, providing there is a “cooling leg” between
the trap and the steam mains

Critical tracing Thermodynamic Thermodynamic traps are the first choice, as they are compact, robust and low cost. They remove
eg, sulphur lines condensate as it forms, ensuring the traced product does not solidify

Mechanical Mechanical traps are also used, but tend to be less compact

Non-critical tracing Thermostatic Thermostatic traps allow the condensate to sub-cool within the tracer before being discharged. This makes
eg, instrumentation use of the sensible heat in the condensate and reduces the release of flash steam, particularly important
if the trap is discharging to grade

Table 3

50 PTQ Q2 2010

• Along the steam main at approxi-
mately every 30–50m intervals,
using a pocket that is the same Flow TD trap with
diameter as the steam main up to inbuilt strainer

100mm. This will ensure all conden-

sate running along the bottom of Condensate
the pipe is captured and removed
(see Figure 4)
• At all low points on the steam Steam trap set
main and wherever the steam main
rises; at a gantry, for example Figure 4 Steam trap arrangement
• Before control valves, in particu-
lar valves serving a process. A
separator ensures steam entering
the process is dry, saturated steam,
improving the efficiency of heat
exchange. It also minimises the risk
of erosion of the control valve, VALVE
reducing maintenance costs, and
h(IGHv h,OWv
ensures condensate is drained when PRESSURESTEAM PRESSURESTEAM
the control valve is in the closed
position, preventing the risk of
water hammer. A typical separator 3TRAINER 0NEUMATIC
and trap installation protecting a 3EPARATOR
pressure control valve station is 4RAPSET
shown in Figure 5
• Before steam isolation valves, to
remove the potential build-up of Figure 5 Typical separator and trap installation
condensate when the valve is closed
• At the end of each steam main; (HP), medium-pressure (MP) and
this should be fitted with either a
During a steam trap low-pressure (LP) steam mains
steam trap with good air venting
properties or a separate air vent.
audit, it is not unusual when failed open. Although the
figures are conservative, this clearly
Modern steam trap stations to find more than shows the need to ensure steam
normally consist of quick-fit connec- traps are checked regularly and
tors, which allow traps to be 10% of the steam failed traps replaced as soon as
isolated and changed in minutes. possible. HP traps should be
This has significantly reduced main- trap population checked at least every six months,
tenance costs and the total cost of while MP and LP traps annually.
ownership of steam traps. failed open During a steam trap audit, it is
not unusual to find more than 10%
Testing and maintaining steam traps of the steam trap population failed
Modern steam traps are gener- sate line. This is because the open, where a customer has not
ally reliable and robust, assuming differential pressure across the implemented a steam trap manage-
they have been correctly sized and steam trap has been reduced, so ment scheme. In value terms, this
selected for the given application. less condensate will pass through a normally shows potential annual
However, they can fail. A steam given sized orifice. savings of $100 000s, with a payback
trap has two modes of failure: it can Table 4 shows typical steam of less than six months. Figure 5
fail either open or closed/blocked. losses from a single 1/2 inch TD shows examples taken from actual
If a steam trap fails open, there steam trap used on high-pressure steam trap audits.
are two major consequences:
• Steam wastage, resulting in
higher energy costs/greater emis- Steam losses from a 1/2 inch TD steam trap
sions, increased consumption of
water and boiler feed chemicals Line pressure Approx steam loss, t/yr* Approx steam loss, t/yr*
(discharging into condensate line) (discharging to grade)
• If the condensate is being 100 barg 460 920
returned, the condensate line 20 barg 95 190
becomes pressurised, which can 5 barg 25 50
have the effect of de-rating the * Based on 8700 hours/year
capacity of any other steam trap
discharging into the same conden- Table 4 PTQ Q2 2010 51

Cost of steam wasted from failed Air and
Steam trap audit results from a UK refinery incondensable
open traps from a US chemical plant
gases vented

Unit Steam loss, $

Aromatics 51 111
Failed closed Failed open
or blocked 15% Not in use Fire water 6975
20% 5% Flare skid 28 087
Light olefins 323 847
OSBL PR 58 667
Pipe rack 45 054
Working correctly Pyro naphtha 21 932
Cyclohexane 28 811
Air systems 20 454
Annual loss 584 938

Table 5 Steam trap audits of UK and US refineries

Cold steam traps • Corrosion and loss of heat

Cold steam traps are either failed transfer on tracing lines, leading Figure 6 Steam system separator
closed, blocked or have been to higher pumping costs or
isolated (having failed open). solidification of the product being receives dry saturated steam, so
Although it is harder to achieve a traced improving performance; and drain
return on investment by repairing • Blade erosion, vibration and the build-up of condensate
these traps, the consequences of drive shaft wear on turbines. upstream of the control valve when
ignoring this situation can be much in the closed position
more costly. Failing to replace or Separators on a steam system • At boiler off-take, to knock out
maintain cold traps can result in: Separators are used to remove any carry-over prior to distribution
• Corrosion leading to system entrained water in the steam • Downstream of desuperheater
degradation and increased mainte- system, to bring the steam quality stations, to remove any remaining
nance costs to nearly 100%. They consist of water that was not absorbed by the
• Water hammer, with the poten- baffle plates, which separate the superheated steam
tial for catastrophic failure of the water droplets from the steam flow • Upstream of steam turbines,
steam system — a major safety (see Figure 6). preventing the risk of damage
issue Separators should be installed in through water droplets or water
• Freezing, leading to pipe the following applications: hammer.
ruptures • Upstream of control valves,
• Valve erosion, wire drawing, particularly just before a process Desuperheater stations
vibration and failed valve packing, where they: protect steam Superheated steam is generated in
where traps have failed upstream equipment from erosion caused by most plant powerhouses as part of
of control valves wet steam; ensure the process the cogeneration or CHP process.


7.5 M
Air PE Desuperheated
Superheated PG
HP steam Desuperheater TE MP/LP steam

1.5 M 3M


Figure 7 Desuperheater application on a letdown station

52 PTQ Q2 2010

The pressures and temperatures associated with this. If the tempera- • Putting in place a steam trap
generated are far too high to be ture is too high, excessive superheat management programme
used in most refining and petro- will remain, affecting the perform- • The use of separators
chemical processes. Therefore, this ance of the downstream process. • Checking the installation and
HP superheated steam is let down Although not much can go wrong performance of desuperheater
to the MP and LP distribution lines, with the average desuperheater, it stations.
using turbines or pressure-reducing is worth checking the required set The second part of this review of
stations. points for temperature and pres- steam system optimisation will
All steam desuperheaters work sure, and whether the desuperheater consider steam at the point of use
on the same principle: injecting is still correctly sized, particularly if and the importance of returning
water into the superheated steam, operating conditions or parameters condensate back to the powerhouse.
where it evaporates, absorbing have changed. It will also look at examples of why
excess energy and resulting in heat exchangers stall and how this
steam with approximately 5°C of Conclusion has been overcome, together with
superheat. This remaining super- This article has discussed the ways of utilising flash steam within
heat is soon lost as the steam is importance of ensuring steam the plant.
distributed to the point of use. reaches its point of use at the
Figure 7 shows a typical desuper- correct quality, quantity and
heater application on a letdown pressure, and has looked at some of
Ian Fleming is Market Development Manager
station. the key areas to consider in reduc- for Oil and Petrochemicals at Spirax Sarco,
The quantity of water required ing maintenance costs and energy Cheltenham, UK. He has 20 years’ experience
to desuperheat the steam is control- losses; namely the impact poor in steam systems.
led by maintaining the steam steam quality can have on the steam Email:
temperature downstream of the system and how this can be
desuperheater to between 5°C and improved through:
10°C above the steam saturation • Ensuring the steam system is
temperature. properly insulated Links
If the temperature is too close to • That condensate is promptly
the saturation curve, there is a risk removed from the distribution More articles from the following
that too much water will be injected system
Heat Transfer
into the system, leading to poor • Using the correct steam trap for a
Thermal Technology
steam quality and all the problems given application PTQ Q2 2010 53