Maintaining a safe steam system with proper trap management
04 July 2023
Steam remains one of the most widely used energy sources for powering today’s industrial plants, due in part to its efficiency, cost and relative safety. However, as with all power sources, dangers lurk and can arise if a steam system is not maintained properly. From burn injuries and explosion hazards to environmental disasters and property damage, the list of potential dangers is long. But those dangers can typically sprout up from a common problem: a faulty steam trap.
Image: Armstrong International
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In fact, one faulty steam trap among thousands can cause major damage, which is why it’s so important to implement a comprehensive steam trap management program. Doing so will not only help prevent dangerous situations, but also lower costs and increase energy efficiency.
What does a program like this look like? Here are the three marks of a safe and efficient steam trap management program.
The primary function of a steam trap is to remove condensate from the steam system as quickly as it collects, helping to prevent equipment damage and enhance the overall efficiency of the building's heating system and process equipment. But like all technology, steam traps fail and when they do, the system can lose efficiency or worse. Engineers are at most risk when the systems they are maintaining are not working properly, which is why prevention should be the number one priority. Continually monitoring for system performance can help identify and prevent issues before they become significant problems.
Historically, managing a steam trap population has been a headache, especially in facilities that have upwards of 10-20,000 steam traps. The cumbersome but necessary process typically includes stacks of binders, endless Excel sheets that can be corrupted over time, and thousands of documents – leaving the door open for error, which can ultimately result in a dangerous or even disastrous situation.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be done this way anymore. Advancements in technology have given us much safer and more efficient ways to manage a trap population. Software developments have given rise to smart management products that offer 24/7 thermal utility monitoring, featuring regular updates, precise documentation, custom-filtered reports, and real-time alerts that enable managers to take control of the process and stay abreast of any malfunctions before they become major hazards. In addition, we have tools like steam-loss calculators that can offer real-time emission- and energy-loss data, trend analysis, historical reporting, performance KPIs, benchmarking and much more.
Image: Armstrong International
Regular inspections can help identify and address potential issues before they become serious problems, such as leaks, faulty equipment, or buildup of scale or other debris. Water hammer, for example, can be one of the most dangerous situations resulting from a failing steam trap that goes undetected. This often occurs when condensate cannot be drained from the piping system, causing wet steam. The repeated shock wave of water being redirected by the steam will weaken the pipe, eventually causing serious damage and premature failure. In addition to causing leaks, water hammer can create catastrophic failure resulting in excessive damage and even loss of life. An example of this occurred on 18 July 2007 when a giant explosion in New York City shot manholes and debris as high as 40 stories, killing at least one person and burning 80% of another person’s body, all due to water hammer causing a pipe to burst.
Disasters like that are often preventable and can be avoided with regular inspections. It’s true that the operating expenses of a proactive program may cost more up front but the savings over the long run will far exceed any program that does not have these safety measures in place. In fact, one failed steam trap among thousands can cost a company over $60,000 (£47,000) per year in energy losses alone. But beyond that, constant monitoring protects the engineers from harmful situations by giving them insight on any potential issues before they become dangerous problems.
Regular inspections can also play an important role in cutting trap failure rates from 5-15% down to 3-5% at any given time, significantly reducing the risks to the engineers. Of course, not all companies are equipped to test as often as others and must get creative to ensure optimum safety and efficiency with the budget they have. At the very least, steam traps should be tested annually. When working with limited budget and resources, it may be appropriate to prioritize the testing of high-risk steam traps or use a combination of pricier wireless testing and more affordable manual hand-held devices. There are a lot of options available, depending on the steam system, so partnering with an experienced energy management provider is often the most recommended path forward.
Industry-wide data show as many as 5-15% of steam traps will fail on an annual basis, which means that some systems will need hundreds of replacements in a given year. Therefore, having the knowledge and wherewithal to react quickly and appropriately to a failure or malfunction is key not only to a successful steam trap management program, but also to avoid hazardous situations for the crew and anyone in close proximity.
Philippe Moock, Armstrong International
Swift replacement is also important financially. The longer the system is not working efficiently, the more that energy costs will go up and the potential for further damage increases. With that said, companies should have a find-and-fix mentality and look for ways to safely repair the problems without having to shut down the entire system.
One solution to this is a “double block and bleed” piping configuration, which is a critical safety solution in steam production utilized to protect users from steam burns. This design involves the use of two inlet valves and two outlet valves, each comprising a bleed valve to isolate the steam trap safely during maintenance or repair – enabling the quick replacement of the failed trap via the trap valve station (TVS). While it’s important to remember that replacing steam traps can be dangerous, especially if the person is inexperienced, it’s even more dangerous to allow a failing steam trap to go unnoticed or stay in use.
A comprehensive steam trap management program is essential for a well-functioning and safe steam system. By implementing a program that includes smart management, frequent testing and rapid replacement, organisations can ensure the safety of their employees and the community at large, not to mention protect their investments. Overlooking this responsibility is akin to playing with fire and should never be an option.
About the author:
Philippe Moock, Global Director Thermal Insights Group at Armstrong International, started his career in factory automation before joining Armstrong in 2011. He currently leads the “Thermal Insight Group” focused on digital transformation of thermal utilities and providing insights to optimised them. He holds a master in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA. Citizen of the world, he has lived and worked in Belgium, Florida, India, and China before moving to Michigan, US in 2017.
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