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Systematic Approach to Study and analysis of Boiler Tube Failures in Sub‐Critical Boilers and Preventive 

measures for minimizing recurrence. 

---- Biranchi Narayan Swain

Boiler Tube Failures-Causes, Mechanism and Remedial Measures

Boiler tube failure accounts for major forced outages into newly built boilers as well as boilers that have
run for a continuous period of 10-15 years. This leads to undermining of the grid capacity affecting the
other power stations connected to the grid. This is a major reason for plant outages. BTFs account for 70
% of the forced outages in a power plant .If managed and taken care off, these can be minimized to the
extent possible and increase the availability factor for the plant. This paper outlines the various causes
underlying the tube failures in a boiler ranging from 200 Mw to 660 Mw plant capacity.

Causes of Boiler Tube failures:

Mechanism of Boiler Tube Failures:

Effects of Boiler Tube Failures.

Primary Causes of Boiler Tube Failures (Broader View)

1. Tube Internal (Inner) Processes and Effects

2. Tube External Effects
3. Tube Material of Construction and Thickness
4. Tube Diameter
5. Tube Metal Structure Integrity

A. Tube Internal Processes and Effects


A.1 Steam Superheated

Wet Steam

A.2 Water - Water Chemistry (Treated DM Water)

B. Tube External Processes and Effects

B.1 Tube Flame impingement

B.2 Unburnt Fuel (Oil)
B.3 Unburnt pulverized fuel and carbon particles (Coal)
B.4 Tube Location
B.4.1 Zone of Boiler ( WW, LTSH,RH, LTRH, Economiser, Steam Cooled Wall)
B.4.2 Furnace radiation Zone
B.4.3 One Side Insulation /One Side Exposed/ Tube Entirely Exposed
B.4.4 Furnace Back Pass or Convection Zone

B.5 Fly Ash Erosion

B.6 Flue gas velocity and temperature
B.7 Flue Gas turbulence
B.8 Fly Ash Temperature
B.9 Furnace Exit Gas Temperature
B.10 External Impingements
B.11 Paint/Coated Tube Surface
B.12 Soot Deposition/Ash Deposition on Tube Surface
B.13 High Ash Content of Coal (Coal Quality)

C. Tube Material of Construction and Thickness

C.1. MOC (Material of Construction) Determines Melting Point

C.2. Local Vaporisation
C.3. Tube Thinning (Secondary Effect)
C.4. Tube Scaling (Secondary Effect)
C.5. Pressure Sustainability
C.6. Weld Joints/Stub Joints
C.7. High Temperature Oxidation
C.8. Pitting

D. Tube Diameter :
D.1 Design for Flow of Steam Else lead to choked flow
D.2 Uniform or Uneven Diameter

E. Tube Metal Integrity

E.1 Manufacturing Process/ Seamless Extrusion method

E.2 Radiography /UT tests for soundness of the material
E.3 Hydraulic test/Leak test processes
E.4 Embedded Defects
E.5 Metal Flaws
 Scaling – Water Wall Tubes & Economiser Tubes
 Creep Failures-Reheater
 Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC)- WW Tubes

Main Secondary Causes of Tube failures (as per Boiler Tube Failure Analysis)

(i) Oveheating
(ii) Decarburization
(iii) Creep Voids and Fissures
(iv) Grain Growth
(v) Hydrogen Damage
(vi) Stress Corrosion Cracking
(vii) Defective material
(viii) Fly Ash Erosion
(ix) Corosion
(x) Fly Ash Corrosion( Erosion-Corrosion)
(xi) Oxidation of Fire Side Tube
(xii) Over temperature Fatigue
(xiii) Material Flaw or Defects: This can be Design defects or fabrication/manufacturing defects
Design Defects would be tube spacing or pitch within the furnace for accommodating the flue
gas velocity
(xiv) Maintenance Damage
(xv) Pitting
(xvi) Erosion
(xvii) Vibration
(xviii) Stress Rupture
(xix) Thermal Fatigue
(xx) Acid Dew Point Corrossion
(xxi) Caustic Gouging
(xxii) Corrosion fatigue
(xxiii) Sulphide Attack
(xxiv) Hydrogen Embrittlement
(xxv) Creep
(xxvi) Improper Commissioning of Boiler


1. Solid Particle Erosion occurs by the impact of fly ash and unburnt carbon particles and foreign
materials in the flue gases, contributing to the thinning down of the tube wall by impingement and
Results ,Hoop Stress (σd ) = p d/(2t)
Where, t keeps on decreasing due to erosion, which in turn increased the hoop stress resulting in
catastrophic failure through fish mouth opening or pin hole rupture.

Pin holes occur due to problems with water chemistry leading to localized scaling and over-heating and

Failure Mechanism:

1. Change in the microstructure: (i) Due to External Effects

(ii) Due to Internal Effects

(iii) Due to Ageing

2. Change in the physical and chemical properties of the metal during the external and internal effects:

Initiation of changes in microstructures due to temperature variations and thermal stresses /fatigue
leading to development of weak zone cause by change in metallurgical properties. Development of Weak
zone due to cyclic uneven stresses . Propagation of the stress up to the weak zone and finally crossing
the breaking/yield strength of material leads to failure in the form of rupture, crack, pin hole, fish mouth

Failure are of two types :

1. Catastrophic Failure

2. Fatigue/Gradual Failure

Flue gas Side:

(i) Stress Corrosion Cracking

(ii) Caustic Embrittlement
(iii) Fly Ash Erosion
(iv) Flame Impingement/Hot Spots
(v) Steam Erosion leading to Secondary Damages
(vi) Coal Quality i.e High Ash Content in Coal
(vii) Creep Voids and Fissures

Process Fluid (Steam/Water) Side :

(i) Decarburization
(ii) Hydrogen Damage
(iii) Oveheating due to Scaling and DNB(Departure from Nucleate Boiling)
(iv) Water Chemistry

Failure appears as
(i) Bending

(ii) Bulging


(iv) Wearing/fracture

(v) Rupture

SCC ,Hydrogen Embrittlement, Creep, Flame Impingement, Sulphide Attack, Weld Attack,Acid Dew Point

Design of Boiler pressure parts plays an important role in determining the possibility of tube failures.

The most important parameters are :

(i) Clearance of Reheater and Platen Coils

(ii) MOC of reheater and superheater tubes in flame impingement zone
(iii) MOC of Lower circuit coils of the radiant zone
(iv) Spacing of LTSH coils/primary Superheater Coila
(v) Spacing of Economiser coils
(vi) Clearance between Rear Arch tubes and butterfly panels

 Determination of velocity through CAVT(Cold Air Velocity test) in Economiser and LTSH
 Identification and Provision of Protection Shields at various erosion prone zones
 Combined Internal and External Effect
 Microstructural Changes during failure process

Preventive Measure for Avoiding Frequent Tube Failures

(i) Material Selection for Boiler Areas ( Water Wall, Economizer and LTSH )
(ii) Cost Optimization
(iii) Study of Temperature dynamics inside Boiler
(iv) Study of Ash Corrosion and unburnt particles effect on tube
(v) Study of Water Chemistry, Scaling process, Chemical Composition of Scale material

A. Case Hardening of Boiler Tubes and checking through Micro hardness testing

B. Better Quality Control on Boiler Tube manufacturing and Erection process.,

Boiler Tube failure Zones:

(i) LTSH (Low Temperature Super Heater)

(ii) Economizer
(iii) Water Wall Panels and Bottom S-panel in Ash fusion Area
(iv) Reheater
(v) Superheater
(vi) Steam Cooled Spacer
(vii) Steam Cooled Walls
(viii) Rear Arch tubes
(ix) Screen Tubes
(x) LTSH /LTRH Terminal tubes
(xi) Eco Coil Support tubes

Boiler First Pass/Furnace pass:

1. Platen Superheater
2. Water Walls
3. WW S-Panels
4. Rear Arch Tubes
5. Reheater Coils

Boiler Back Pass/Second pass

1. Final SH
4. Economizer
5. LTSH terminal Tubes
6. Steam Cooled Wall
7. Steam Cooled Spacer
8. Extended Side Wall Tubes

Material of Construction/Boiler Tube Material Specification:

Melting Creep Yield

Segment Material Chemical Composition
Point Strength Strength UTS
Water Wall/


Rear Arch

LTSH Terminal
Eco Coil Support
Steam Cooled

Screen Tubes
Final /Finish
Steam Cooled
Chemical Composition and nomenclature of Some Commonly used Tubes

1. Carbon Steels (SA-178A,SA210,SA106) 450ºC
2. Carbon + 1/2Mo (SA-209,T-1) 480 ºC
3. 11/4 Cr +1/2 Mo(SA213-T11) 550 ºC
4. 21/4 Cr +1 Mo (SA213 T22) 580 ºC
5. 18Cr-8Mo (SS-304,321,347) 700 ºC
6. (SA335T91) 680 ºC
Major Failure Mechanisms :
 Overheating (Prime cause)
 Long Term Overheating leading to
1. Grain Growth
2. Disintegration of Pearlite
3. Spheroidization of Carbide
4. Graphitization
5. Decarburization
 Short Term overheating
 Creep
 Corrossion/Stress Corrosion Cracking
 Erosion
 Hydrogen Damage
 Fatigue

Boiling System :
(i) Water Walls and Circulation System
(ii) Superheater
(iv) Economizer

50 % of the unscheduled shutdowns in a power plant are due to boiler tube failures. Bursting ,
cracking,slit or hole formation,pin hole, bulging,blistering are some of the physical failure occurrences.

Failure Analysis :

This involves identifying the root cause of the failure and establishing the mechanism of failure to take
preventive measures to avoid frequent recurrences.
1. First is to identify the root cause of failure
2. Study of change in microstructures of failed tubes through various metallographic and
fractograhic techniques.
3. Establish the mechanism of failure
4. Working out the process of stopping the root cause
5. Preventive measures through improved system operations, better quality material etc .

Coal composition and analysis i,e proximate and ultimate analysis is essential for establishing the external
side i.e fire side corrosion issues. Based on the ash content , blending may be required to improve the
quality of combustion and lesser corrosion.

Water chemistry/steam purity and operation parameters to be studied for internal side scaling,
overheating, steam corrosion etc. Based on water analysis, the corrective action may be taken for
improving the DM water quality to the required standards through addition of chemicals, ultrafiltration,
blow down mechanisms etc.
Techniques to Analyse Failed Tubes :

1. XRD- X-Ray Diffraction Analysis

2. SEM-Scanned Electron Microscopy
3. Optical Microscopy
4. Tube Thickness Measurement & Dimension
5. EDX- Energy Dispersive X-Ray Analysis
6. Fractographic Studies
7. Metallography
8. Chemical Analysis
9. XRF- X-ray Fluorescence Analysis
10. X-ray Crystallography
11. Photomacrograph or Photomicrograph
12. Electron Paramagnetic Resonance
13. Transmission Electron Microscopy
14. X-ray Microscopy
15. X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy
16. Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy in SEM

Prevention of Tube Failures/Remedial Measures

1) Proper Water Chemistry

2) Proper Soot Blowing at Regular Intervals
3) Availability of ASLD( Acoustic Steam Leak Detection System) to avoid secondary tube damages
4) Proper Coal Analysis and use of better quality coal with low ash content
5) Proper and safe operations
6) Inspection of Boiler at Regular Intervals
7) CAVT(Cold Air Velocity Test) in various zones in the bOiler such as Economiser and LTSH for
ensuring uniform and correct velocity in proper design and spacing of coils
8) Use of Protection Shields/cassette baffles for avoiding erosion at corners and bend regions
9) Periodical Inspection & Removal of fly ash deposits from tubes.
10) Controlling of Soot Blowing cycles & Start up-Shut down procedures
11) Ensuring proper circulation through operation of CC Pumps
12) Hydrostatic test during major shutdowns.
13) Chemical Cleaning for removal of scales/rust during lifetime of a boiler as per design
14) Tube thickness survey during major overhaul
15) Controlling the furnace temperature & fire ball portion to avoid flame impingement & hot spots
16) Maintaining the furnace temperature to avoid acid dew point corrosion
17) Use of compressed air for cleaning of pressure parts
18) Purging for 30-40 minutes before start up
19) Controlling the steam pressure and temperature
20) Steam Water Purity
21) Blending of coal
22) Avoiding any foreign particles like iron,aluminium etc in coal which can badly affect the tubes
23) Avoidance of Ash fusion at bottom of panels by maintaining proper temperature and ensuring
proper operation of bottom ash system
24) Inspection for foreign materials in Boiler through air-heater
25) Controlling of flue gas velocity through proper operation of FD and ID fans .Optumum velocity to
be maintained for proper heat exchange and reducing time for fly ash impinging and eroding the
26) Viewing of temperature profile at various zones of the boiler
27) Freeing of all hangers and supports
28) Removal of expansion constraints
29) Identifying and removal of hot spots in tubes during annual maintenance/shutdown
30) Ensuring proper circulation ratio for proper heat transfer at the tube metal interface to avoid
31) Coal quality checks at various intervals etc

Effects of Boiler Tube Failures :

1. Shutdown of the Unit

2. Generation Loss
3. Secondary failures due to primary failed tube
4. Lost Man hours for repair and replacement/rectification of failed portion
5. Failure Analysis
6. Inspection of all boiler parameters during which the failure occurred
7. Abnormal operation of boiler
8. More DM water consumption due to loss of process fluid through the failed tube
9. Devising the corrective/preventive mechanism for the failure
10. Loss of Revenue/Grid Penalty
11. Spares Consumption, which again need replenishment of spare tube stock.
Boiler is composed of number of tubes .It covers the following heating zones:

1. Water Wall and Circulation System

2. SuperHeaters
3. Re-Heaters
4. Economiser

Boiler Tube Failure Mechanism:

1. Short Term Overheating (Stress Rupture)

2. High Temperature Creep (Stress Rupture)
3. Dissimilar Metal Welds (Stress Rupture)
4. Caustic Corrosion (Water Side Corrosion)
5. Hydrogen Damage (Water Side Corrosion)
6. Pitting-Localized corrosion (Water Side Corrosion)
7. Stress Corrosion Cracking (Water Side Corrosion)
8. Low Temperature Corrosion (Fire Side Corrosion)
9. Water Wall corrosion (Fire Side)
10. Vibration Fatigue
11. Thermal fatigue
12. Corrosion fatigue
13. Maintenance Cleaning Damage (Quality Control)
14. Chemical Excursion Damage(Quality Control)
15. Material Defects (Quality Control)
16. Welding Defects (Quality Control)
17. Steam/Condensate Erosion
18. Ex-foliation

Temperature element that causes a change in the microstructure of the tube material changing its
original nature and characteristics.

Establishing the type of change as per Fe-C equilibrium diagram helps in identifying the microstructures
at which such failure occurs and taking appropriate corrective action to prevent such changes.

Velocity of flue gases in various sections of the tubes inside furnace.

Fly ash erosion mechanism.

Circulation ratio inside water walls.

Mechanism of temperature control within furnace (fire side)

Mechanism of temperature control inside tube (water side)

Control of flue gas velocity by speed variations of fan and furnace pressure control.

Other Mechanism:

Grain Growth

Creep Voids and Fissures

Hydrogen Damage

Stress Corrosion Cracking

Defective Material

Pearlitic disintegration

Overheating: 1. Long Term

2. Short Term

Common Failures Associated with Boiler Tubes:

1. Pitting
2. Erosion
3. Stress Corrosion Cracking
4. Hydrogen Damage
5. Vibration
6. Stress Rupture
7. Corrosion Fatigue
8. Caustic Gouging
9. Distortion
10. Thermal fatigue
11. Acid Dew Point Corrosion
12. Over Temperature fatigue
13. Maintenance damage
14. Material Flaws


Boiler tube failures are a common phenomenon in newly operational and commissioned units. This has
lead to forced outage of units leading to generation loss and losses to the power producer.

The frequency of tube failures is very high in some boilers.This decreases the PLF (plant load factor) due
to forced boiler outages.

Preventive Measures :

1. Tube and header internal cleaning with compressed air and light hammering to remove any rust
or mill scales inside, which formed during the storage period.
2. Tube inspection using borescope or flexible intrascope .
3. Ultrasonic test of tube joints for flaw /defects.
4. Tube thickness survey for uniform thickness and removal of thinned wall tubes.
5. Quality Control over tube manufacturing process.
6. Erection damage due to slings and pulleys causing dents .
7. Avoiding arc strikes on tubes by welders during tube joints.
8. Denting due to hitting of other material
9. Proper circulation and operation from control room

Tube Design Parameters:

1. MoC for Temperature of service

2. Thickness from Pressure

3. Internal Diameter for Flow

Failure Analysis:

1. Material Flaws

2. Water Chemistry

3. Flue gas Chemistry

4. Combustion dynamics

5. Mal Operation

6. Operation dynamics

Causes of Tube failures:

1. Overheating
2. Erosion
3. Corrosion
4. Material Defect
5. Manufacturing Flaw
There are six major groups into which all tube failures can be classified. These six groups can
be further divided in to a total of twenty-two primary types. All high pressure boilers commissioned and
put into operation go through a stabilization period, during which some teething problems occur,
including a few tube failures.

Classification of tube failures

Tube failures are classified as in-service failures in boilers. These failures can be grouped under
six major causes:

1. Stress rupture
2. Fatigue
3. Water side corrosion
4. Erosion
5. Fire side corrosion (Called also as High temperature Corrosion)
6. Lack of quality control.
 These lead to twenty-two primary causes that can cause a tube failure in a high pressure boiler:

 Short term overheating failure
 Long term overheating failure (called also as creep failures)
 Dissimilar metal weld failure
 Fatigue caused by vibration
 Thermal fatigue due to temperature fluctuation
 Corrosion fatigue failures
 Caustic corrosion inside the tube
 Hydrogen damage in water wall internal surface
 Tube internal pitting
 Fly ash erosion
 Falling slag erosion
 Soot blower erosion
 Coal particle erosion
 Low temperature flue gas corrosion
 Fire side waterwall corrosion
 Coal ash corrosion
 Oil ash corrosion
 Damage during maintenance cleaning
 Chemical excursion damage
 Material defect and weld defects

Tube failure during stabilization period

The tube failures in a boiler during initial phase of operation are different from the types that occur after
prolonged operation. During the initial period of operation of boiler the type of tube failures seen are
short term overheating, weld failures, material defects, chemical excursion failure, and sometimes fatigue
failures. The short term overheating failure is mainly due to blockage in the fluid path by some foreign
material which gets into the tube surface during fabrication or during erection of the unit. The blockage
can also happen when debris after acid cleaning of the boiler is not removed completely. This failure can
be visually identified by it characteristic appearance of a fish-mouth-like opening and so is also called as
fish mouth failure.
Tube failure during normal operation period
Any of these twenty-two mechanisms can be the cause of a tube failure during normal operation. However, a few like
water side corrosion, caustic corrosion, hydrogen damage in the water wall, soot blower erosion, damage during
maintenance cleaning, and tube internal pitting can be totally eliminated in a boiler if good operating and maintenance
practices as told by the boiler designers are followed. The failures due to long term overheating, fatigue, fly ash erosion,
fire side corrosion, falling slag damage, etc can still happen in a boiler due to fuel quality variation, operating
temperature, startup and shutdown rate, etc. Hence it is not fully possible to avoid tube failures in a high
pressure boiler, but the number of them can be minimized by analyzing all failures and taking corrective and
preventive action.

Tube failure in high pressure boilers follow a normal bath tub curve, with higher rate during initial operation period,
stabilizing to a lower rate during the normal operating period and again increasing as the boilers age and cross ten to
fifteen years of operation. During this period the boiler pressure parts are evaluated for their remaining life and
corrective action taken. A few photos of tube failure are shown below.

Short term over heating, Long term over heating & Thermal Fatigue failure