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Forced Draft Combustion vs Natural Draft Combustion

Conference Paper · December 2017

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Forced Draft Combustion vs Natural Draft Combustion
AFRC 2017: Bloom Engineering
Michael Cochran, Dave Schalles,

Combustion of any fuel requires providing oxygen (usually in the form of atmospheric air) and fuel in the
proper amounts, and adequately mixed. (While combustion with pure oxygen is appropriate for some
processes, the scope of this paper is for fuel and air combustion. Therefore, for simplicity, in the balance
of this paper, the term “air” will be sufficient to describe the oxidizing agent in combustion.) There are
several ways to bring the constituents of combustion together. One way, as in a bonfire, is simply to allow
the fuel and air to find one another. (Generally, this method is not practical for an industrial process, so
will not form part of the discussion in this paper.) Another way is to use a mechanical source to cause the
flow of both air and of fuel (i.e. a fan or blower). A final way of combining air and fuel is to rely on natural
pressure imbalances generated by temperature differences or velocity differences in order induce flows
of either air or gas.

Each of these approaches has obvious advantages and obvious drawbacks. This paper focuses primarily
on the relative merits of the latter two mixing strategies mentioned above.

Classification and definition of drafts

The pressure imbalances described in the introduction are used to generate a flow of a fluid, known as a
draft. Obviously, a fluid will flow from an area of high pressure to an area of lower pressure any time a
pressure gradient exists. Clever combustion engineers exploit this fact to move fluids through a system.
There are several ways to effect this, generally classified as forced and natural draft.

First, it is important to define and to clarify some terminology. There is understandably some confusion
about the terms natural draft, forced draft, induced draft, etc., due mostly to the fact that there is not
general agreement as to what they mean. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, the following
definitions and differentiations shall apply.

A less dense fluid will rise in comparison to a denser fluid, which is why oil (less dense) floats on water
(more dense). The density of a gas is inversely related to the bulk temperature meaning that with
increased temperature, the fluid becomes less dense. (Hence, a hot air balloon works because the heated
air in the balloon is less dense than the atmospheric air, causing it to rise.) Design of a chimney functions
based on this concept. Warm, less dense gases as the bottom of a flue gain buoyancy (due to increased
temperature) and rise through the chimney. As it does so, a pressure gradient develops, and gases
continue to flow up the chimney following the pressure gradient. This phenomenon is known as a “natural
draft” (i.e. it occurs naturally with no external impetus).

An important subset of natural draft is “induced draft”. Here, a high-pressure fluid passes through a
venturi (restriction) generating a negative pressure thus entraining another fluid. A classic application of
this principle is a carburetor. A flow of relatively higher-pressure air passes through an engineered
restriction, thus lowering the pressure and drawing in a flow of atomized gasoline. (The flow of air induces
a flow of gasoline to provide a combustible mixture.) Figure 1 gives a schematic representation how an
induced draft works.

Figure 1 - Schematic of an induced draft burner

In contrast, a draft requiring some outside force is called “forced draft”. Commonly a forced draft system
will have an external fan or blower that will create a pressure difference, and thus the draft. In a
combustion system, fans usually provide air and in some cases, they pull waste gases out of the
combustion chamber.

Special Considerations for an induced draft combustion system

Air Fuel Ratio

The carburetor, as previously mentioned, is a simple device used to obtain a combustible mixture of air
and fuel by creating an induced draft. However, there is a reason that carburetors have fallen out of favor.
They work well at a precise point for an exact air/fuel mixture and a specific firing rate. However, if any
parameter changes (e.g. air temperature or density, fuel source or pressure, etc), the carburetor performs
less efficiently. Furthermore, it is not easy to alter the characteristics of the combustion system (flame
shape, capacity, etc.) should the process change for some reason, a corresponding change in the
combustion system is not easily accomplished.

Proper combustion requires a certain mass of air for a given mass of fuel. An induced draft system
provides a given volume of air for a given volume of fuel. As long as no conditions change, the volume
delivered by the pressure difference induced by the flow will also remain constant. If, however, some
physical parameter changes, the mass delivered will change, and it will not be possible to achieve optimal
combustion. Take, for example, a system that uses ambient air (assumed to be 60°F) for combustion.
When the temperature of the air changes, the density (and thus the amount of mass in a given volume)
changes. Figure 2 shows the profound volume changes produced by a modest change of temperature
(±35°F, which is not uncommon for a reasonably temperate climate). Based on the temperature, the
combustion system could receive ±7% air compared to the design. The more startling result appears in
Figure 3. Here the percent fuel use corresponding to the relevant temperatures appears for waste gas
temperature of 2000°F. (Results will vary slightly with waste gas temperature, but conceptually, similar
results will occur.) On a moderately cold day, for example, the system could use as much as 7% more fuel
compared to the design conditions, and on a very hot day, as much as 12%!! It doesn’t take many hot
days before the fuel bill becomes very large.

Operationally, the forced air combustion system requires less excess air for stability and proper mixing as
compared to a natural draft system, inherently increasing combustion efficiency.

Figure 2 – Air mass vs Air temperature

Figure 3 – Fuel use vs Air temperature (2000°F Waste Gas Temperature)

Uniformity and Operational Flexibility

Some applications require stringent uniformity windows. It is usually possible to stay within these
windows either by tailoring the flame shape, or by providing sufficient waste gas volume to ensure that
cold spots do not develop. It is very difficult to accomplish either of these strategies with an induced draft
burner. Their very design means that there is no way to deliver more waste gas, and it is also very difficult
to alter the flame shape in order to avoid hot spots, thus making temperature uniformity very difficult
with an induced draft burner. Because there is more mixing energy with a forced air system (compared
to an induced draft system) the air and fuel combine more readily, generally leading to smaller flame
envelopes, which, in turn, allows for smaller combustion chambers.

There are times when it might be required that the combustion system operate at a reduced capacity. An
induced draft system does have some ability to decrease capacity, but for extreme cases, a burner can
lose flame shape and stability. A common way to combat these problems is to increase the excess air in
order to provide stability. This strategy is not readily available with an induced draft burner as induced
draft burners provide a fixed ratio of air volume and gas volume.

Emissions – Nox and Particulate

Careful consideration of flue gas emissions continues to be increasingly important. Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)
are particularly problematic, and present important challenges to the combustion engineer. These oxides
are key players in the formation of ground level ozone and smog, with all of the well-documented adverse
effects on human health. While there are ways to mitigate the effects of NOx, through post-combustion
processing, it is often more cost effective and less maintenance intensive to manage NOx at the point of
formation. Because flame temperature has a disproportionate effect on the formation of NO x, finding a
way to lower the peak flame temperature is an effective way to cut NOx formation dramatically. Flame
temperature is at a maximum when the exact amounts of air and fuel are well mixed and present at the
same physical location. One of the most common ways to lower the flame temperature, while still
efficiently using the heat available from the fuel, is to delay the mixing through staging of the fuel or air.
Doing so causes regions within the flame envelope that are fuel rich or fuel starved. Of course, as a whole,
the flame envelope has the appropriate amounts of fuel and air, but because the combustion in each of
the staged zones occurs at other-than-stoichiometric ratios, the theoretical peak flame temperatures are
not reached. The magnitude of NOx reduction depends on the degree of stoichiometric ratio variance, as
well as the amount of heat liberated prior to completion of the combustion envelope. Figure 4
schematically shows how combustion staging works. Remember, the correct amounts of air and fuel allow
complete combustion, but the delayed mixing means that the flame temperature is sufficiently reduced
to impact NOx formation.

While staging is possible with an induced draft burner, forced draft combustion offers more flexibility for
NOx mitigation strategies. Because an induced draft burner is engineered for a specific fuel, any variation
in fuel composition (unless corrected for the Wobbe Index) will have a different flame shape and or
pattern which will affect the NOx formation. It is also impossible to provide additional tempering air (if
required) for proper flame structure at reduced capacity.
Figure 4 - Schematic representation of staged combustion

A further important technique for NOx reduction involves ‘flue gas recirculation (FGR)’. This means that
reacted gas (products of combustion) are recirculated back into the flame region. This can be
accomplished in several ways, both in-furnace or by external means. In general, it becomes more difficult
to achieve FGR with induced-draft mechanisms, since the kinetic energy needed for flue gas entrainment
is also needed for inducing the flow of reactants.

Furthermore, the superior mixing achievable with a forced air system helps to minimize particulate (PM10,
PM2.5 etc) formation especially with liquid or higher hydrocarbon (>C3) fuels.


One of the most effective ways to enhance fuel efficiency is to use a heat exchanger to draw more heat
from the waste gas and into the process. In fluid heating applications, the unheated liquid passes through
the cold side of the heat exchanger, and the waste gas through the other side, so it is possible to strip
much of the heat of combustion away from the waste gas before it leaves the system and thus retain it in
the process. If the product to be heated (such as metals or minerals) is not amenable to use in a heat
exchanger, it is possible to preheat the combustion air to an elevated temperature before delivery to the
burner. For industrial applications, the most popular way to effect this heating is with a heat exchanger
that passes the spent waste gas through the hot side, and the combustion air through the cold side. In
this way, the combustion air can pick up heat from the waste gas and return the heat to the combustion
chamber (furnace). As shown previously, the induced draft system moves a constant volume of air as a
passive device, and does not account for variations in temperature/density of the air. Therefore, it
becomes difficult, or impossible to accommodate preheated air. In other words, for practical applications,
induced draft combustion systems are limited to ambient air combustion. For comparative purposes, an
ambient air combustion system at 2000°F furnace temperature has a combustion efficiency of about 35%.
A rather modest preheat temperature of 700°F gives a combustion efficiency of almost 50%, meaning that
to provide the same net heat to the process, the hot air system would only require 70% of the amount of
fuel. Where practical, the use of Regenerative heating techniques can often provide even greater
efficiency gains.1

Regenerative Burners- Are They Worth It?, David G Schalles, presented at AFRC 2004 Fall Symposium (Maui)

The proper (and safe) performance of any natural draft system relies both on the correct stack design,
and a specific waste gas temperature. Variations of waste gas temperatures (due either to a deliberate
change in the process, or to a temporary upset condition) could lead to an uncontrollable combustion
process. While it is possible to mitigate some of these effects with stack dampers and oxygen sensors for
trim, oxygen sensors are notoriously unreliable making it risky to rely on them for primary control.
Furthermore, some jurisdictions forbid such a combustion control scheme as unreliable and unsafe2.

As we saw above, induced draft combustion systems can have inherent efficiency concerns based on the
fact that the flow of air is completely dependent on the flow of fuel. Furthermore, because the air always
“follows” the fuel, as the burner increases its output, the air lags behind, causing an instantaneous excess
of fuel. Not only is this situation inefficient, it is also potentially dangerous. Depending both on how
quickly the air responds to the increase in fuel input, and how quickly the fuel moves in the first place,
there could be a delay of a few seconds where the combustion system is running with excess fuel. The
inherent dangers of this situation should be obvious. Lacking the proper amount of air to combust, not
all fuel will burn in the combustion chamber. There remains the possibility that it might combust when
the fuel laden waste gas finds enough oxygen as it leaves the exhaust system. Even more dangerous,
though, is the very common occurrence of generating dangerous levels of carbon monoxide (CO) which is
toxic even at very low concentrations.

Additionally, due to the changing flame characteristics offered by an induced draft burner, flame detection
and safety may be tricky. As just discussed, a flame can vary from fuel rich to fuel deficient as a system
changes its heat demand, which can make it difficult for a proper flame signal.

Finally, it would be difficult to overstate the benefits of a complete forced draft, mass balance system
(from a safety standpoint) because of the additional control flexibility available. Double Cross-Limited
Lead Lag control is a popular control strategy that ensures that the combustion system operates in a safe
manner. Because it is possible to control air and fuel flows independently, this control strategy ensures
that regardless of the heat demand, the combustion system will always change in such a way as to have
a slight amount of excess air (with certain process requirement exceptions). Specifically, when the system
calls for an increase in temperature, the air valve moves first (leads), thus assuring that there is never
excess fuel. For a decrease in demand, the gas valve closes first, again ensuring that the system never
reaches a fuel rich condition. In addition, the control system limits how quickly the leading valve can open
relative to the lagging valve. Without this safety enhancement, it would be possible for the air to get so
far ahead of the gas so as to cause inefficiencies or other process difficulties. Of course, none of these
controls options are available with a simple natural draft combustion system.

Miscellaneous Considerations

Natural draft burners are normally physically larger than a forced draft burner of the same capacity,
because a natural draft burner doesn’t have the same amount of pressure drop available, and it must be
bigger to pass the same amount of air. The implication, here, is that a forced air system usually requires
smaller (or fewer, or both) burners for the same amount of heat to a system. (API 5353 claims that the

See, for example, TSSA Code 2.1.34
API Recommended Practice 535: Burners for Fired Heaters in General Refinery Services, 3rd edition, 2012.
typical heat release range for a forced draft burner can be as much as four times that of a natural draft

Special considerations for forced draft burners

In fairness, there are important considerations for a forced draft combustion system. Generally, there is
more physical equipment (valves, switches, etc.) and the controls strategy is consequently more involved.
Furthermore, there is obviously a fan or blower with its attendant controls, utility connections and
maintenance, as well as reliability concerns. (For example, one way to address the reliability concern is
to use a steam-turbine fan as a back-up in the case of loss of electricity.) Finally, the skill level for operators
and maintenance staff are generally correspondingly higher due to the added complexity of the system.

In most cases, though, the benefits available from a forced draft system (emissions reductions, better
uniformity, operational and fuel flexibility, improved efficiency, enhanced safety, etc.) outweigh the
additional challenges.

Examples and Case Studies

Asphalt Heater

As part of the refinery process, an asphalt preheater required a large amount of waste gas at an elevated
temperature. The mass required was such that the products of combustion alone were not sufficient, so
the process required entraining about 60% excess air (that is, extra air not necessary to combust the fuel).
The previous combustion scheme operated outside of an existing NOx emissions specification. Figure 5
shows a schematic of the heating chamber and the location of the burner with air connection and the
location of the VOC lines.

Figure 5 – Schematic representation of the Asphalt heater

In order to bring the combustion system into specification, it was necessary to use an ambient air forced
draft burner. By thoroughly introducing the fuel and the air at the baffle (remembering that there was an
excess of 60%) the fuel and air became sufficiently mixed such that there were no hot spots within the
flame envelope, and the flame temperatures remained low enough that NOx formation was minimal. It
is worth noting that if the process had not required excess air, the thorough mixing would have likely
enhanced NOx formation because the flame would have been able to burn quicker and hotter. As it was,
the additional cold air introduced into the air/fuel mix cooled the flame sufficiently to inhibit NOx
formation. This combustion strategy (aka ‘Lean Premix’) handily met the specified permit of 30 ppm at
3% O2 from nominal firing (approximately 8.0 MMBtu/hr) to minimal firing of approximately 2.5

Vertically-Fired Fluid Heater

For a fluid heating application, it was necessary to provide a combustion solution that would meet the
same NOx requirement (30 PPM at 3% O2), but without relying on excess air to temper the flame. The
solution was to use air staging (see Figure 4). Starting with a burner similar to the one just described,
(with careful mixing directly at the baffle), and introducing a staging philosophy where there was a region
of high excess fuel (where combustion is incomplete, and therefore cooler), later followed by a region of
high excess air (where the excess air keeps the flame temperature lower). Of course, the entire flame
envelope has the correct amounts of air and gas for proper combustion. Because it was possible to control
air flow and fuel flow separately, it was also possible to engineer the system with great care to minimize
emissions. Figure 6 shows the original design (a) and the improved design (b). Here, peak flame
temperature decreased by more than 100°F, with a 30% reduction in NOx.

(a) Original Design (b) Improved Design

Figure 6 – Original and improved design for NOx mitigation for a fluid heater

The system performed well and met the NOx requirement for firing conditions from approximately 5.0
MMBtu/hr to 1.25 MMBtu/hr. The process called for occasional excursions in firing rate to about 0.6
MMBtu/hr. In order to effect this extreme turndown, it was necessary to modulate the gas, and provide
excess air for stability. Burners relying on an induced draft do not have this option available, as the flow
of air is completely dependent on the flow of fuel.


For direct reduction of iron (DRI), a source of the required reducing gases (hydrogen and carbon
monoxide) is often a ‘reformer’. A reformer takes a hydrocarbon feedstock and, with the application of
indirect heat and a catalyst, splits it into the required constituents. Many reformers, due to the physical
size and required thermal capacity, take advantage of a natural draft system as a way to minimize capital
expense. However, such a system has limited flexibility, and it is difficult to tailor the flame profile. Figure
7a shows the temperature profile of a reformer burner as originally designed. Notice that there was a
significant hot spot, as well as a relatively cold end. Using a burner with significantly higher air supply
pressure allowed for tailoring the flame (Figure 7b) to give a more uniform heat distribution, for an
improved process. (Furthermore, specific tailoring of flame shape and mixing patterns resulted in NOx
formation that was less than 20% of the original design, even considering that both the air and fuel were
preheated and the fuel contains a high percentage of hydrogen).

(a) Original Design (b) Improved Design

Figure 7 – Original and Improved design for temperature uniformity of a gas reformer

The operational and performance benefits available from a forced draft combustion system are
pronounced and proven. With proper engineering and careful execution, it is possible to design a system
that gives greater efficiency, better safety and enhanced performance as compared to a simple induced
draft solution.

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