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PREVENTION OF WATERHAMMER IN STEAM AND
CONDENSATE PIPEWORK
Waterhammer is another word for pressure shocks in piping systems. The stresses caused by such shock waves or
pressure spikes may exceed the design limits of equipment installed in a system, and in extreme cases can lead to
failure of the pipes. Usually waterhammer is accompanied by loud and sometimes violent noises.
We generally distinguish between two types of waterhammer:
1. HYDRAULIC WATERHAMMER in systems with cold fluids.
2.THERMAL WATERHAMMER in steam and condensate sytems.
Hydraulic waterhammer is of course also possible with hot fluids.
HYDRAULIC WATERHAMMER in a pipe flow can be imagined like this: when a fast-acting valve is closed so that
the flow is suddenly stopped, inertia forces will prevent the liquid from instantly coming to rest downstream of the
valve, and a vacuum is thereby formed. The liquid column is consequently drawn back against the closed valve,
where it rebounds and sets up a pressure wave. This wave now oscillates back and forth, diminishing over time.
By contrast, THERMAL WATERHAMMER occurs when steam bubbles, which are either entrained in condensate,
created by flashing or from any other cause, come in contact with undercooled condensate. The steam bubbles
are then forced to condense rapidly, thereby creating a vacuum which immediately draws in condensate from all
directions, causing an implosion (collision of condensate).
By undercooled condensate we refer to condensate that has given up some of its sensible heat. We choose that
terminology to illustrate that the condensate doesn't have to be "cold" for such events to occur.
This type of thermal waterhammer can release enormous forces, far in excess of those possible with hydraulic
waterhammer events. There have been extremely serious accidents due to this phenomenon, one of the more
recent and highly publicised being the "steam explosion" in New York in 2007.
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One person was killed and another two seriously burned when they were unable to escape from a valve pit they
were working in when a 24" (600mm) steam main failed catastrophically as a result of thermal waterhammer.
Usual causes of thermal waterhammer include:
a) Lack of proper operator training and/or supervision, leading to incorrect manipulation of valves or other
equipment.
b) Wrongly sized or applied equipment such as steam traps.
c) Faulty equipment.
d) Inappropriate design and/or installation of pipework and pipeline equipment.
The severity of a thermal waterhammer event depends mainly on the contact surface area of steam and undercooled
condensate, the temperature differential and the steam/water velocity (however, a large flow rate as such is not
necessary to trigger an event), and of course the masses involved. The presence (or absence) of air as an insulating
layer or film between stagnant steam and condensate can also play a role.
With steam mains, it is imperative that the piping layout is not only professionally designed, but that its maintenance
is assured.
A design which is based on practical experience with steam systems will encourage proper maintenance.
If at any stage there are reports from plant personnel (or others) that waterhammer noises are heard in a system, it is
vital that an investigation is carried out immediately and the root cause is found, so that remedial action can be
taken. First and foremost must be the protection of personnel and plant safety. The longer waterhammer is tolerated,
the more equipment damage is likely to occur. In particular, steam traps, which are the best defence against
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waterhammer, are also amongst the most vulnerable components on the steam main.
When investigating steam main waterhammer problems, keep in mind this fundamental rule:
Water (condensate) will only flow upwards as a plug that fills the entire cross-section of the pipe. If you think that
the pressure or velocity of steam will push condensate up hill to the nearest drain point as anything other than a
plug, FORGET IT! It is vital to ensure that plug formation in steam mains is prevented, by draining condensate at
every low point in the system. It is not too uncommon that we have to convince a maintenance person who is
unfamiliar with steam that even the smallest rise in a steam line must be provided with a drain outlet. The following
sketch hopefully makes this clear.

This should illustrate the importance of laying the pipework so that there is a definite fall towards a properly sized
drain collection point. We deliberately emphasise collection point, since the condensate must be able to find the
drain (it's no good just providing a small-bore drain socket on a large diameter steam main).
Steam mains often don't appear on the radar of maintenance staff until things go bang somewhere. This should be
guarded against by proper scheduling of inspection and timely maintenance.
While it is essential that steam mains are kept free of condensate accumulations, the opposite is the case with
condensate pipework. Here we want to make sure that as much condensate as possible stays in the system until it is
returned to the boiler, or gainfully utilised in some other way.
In many ways, designing of condensate pipework is more difficult than for steam mains, because it is almost
never just a matter of dealing with a pipe full of condensate (hot water).
Condensate is the "left over" after the latent heat of steam has been extracted for heating purposes. It normally exits
the process equipment via a steam trap.
Upstream of the steam trap, condensate contains the sensible heat of water at the saturated steam pressure in the
process equipment.
At the steam trap orifice, condensate pressure is reduced to the prevailing pressure in the condensate return line,
which is less (mostly much less) than the steam pressure.
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In line with the laws of physics, the sensible heat content of condensate is now instantly reduced to the sensible heat
content corresponding to the reduced pressure in the condensate line.
For example, a heat exchanger is fed with 10 barg steam pressure. Its sensible heat content is 782 kJ/kg, which is
also the sensible heat content of the condensate before the steam trap, after 10 barg steam has given up its 2000
kJ/kg of latent heat.
Let's assume a condensate line pressure of 1 barg after the steam trap. According to our trusty steam tables, the
sensible heat of water at 1 barg is 506 kJ/kg.
So what happens to the difference of 782 - 506 = 276 kJ/kg of heat content? There's only one option: it has to
be given up to the condensate downstream of the steam trap. This additional heat can only do one thing, namely boil
off (evaporate) some of the condensate. Hey presto, we've got FLASH STEAM, and lots of it in this case. The
calculation for the amount of flash steam runs as follows:
Sensible Heat upstream - Sensible Heat downstream / Latent Heat Downstream x 100 = Percent Flash Steam.
782 - 506 / 2201 x 100 = 12.5%
Say this heat exchanger uses 200 kg/hour of steam, so produces 200 kg/h of condensate.
That means in this case 12.5% of 200 kg/h would flash into steam just downstream of the steam trap = 25 kg/h of
steam created.
At 1 bar g, the specific volume of steam = 0.88 m3/kg.
25 kg/h x 0.88 m3/kg = 22 m3/h volume flow of steam is created.
You might guess by now where this is leading: we now have 22 m3/h of steam and 0.175 m3/h of water (200 - 25
kg/h) to deal with.
Right away we can say that the volume flow due to the condensate can be practically ignored for the purpose of
sizing the condensate line.
However, we are not concerned with pipe sizing here (that comes later!), but want to look at the waterhammer
implications.
Obviously we have to deal with a two-phase flow situation (#1 phase = steam, #2 phase = hot condensate).
Because of this, many times the approach has been (and still is) "let's get rid of that flash steam nuisance as soon as
possible, then get the condensate back to the feed tank".
We think the times are well and truly gone where 12.5% of the steam heat value can be thrown away.
So, rather than venting this valuable resource, we must find ways to keep it in the condensate system until we can
use its expensive heat.
Ideally, we should utilise the flash steam in the vicinity of its generation, for instance via a flash vessel heat recovery
system. Many times this is not so easy to accomplish, and the flash steam has to be piped somewhere.
That's where we get back to waterhammer. The sketch below illustrates a heat exchanger installation where
condensate has to be lifted into an elevated condensate header.
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The first picture shows that condensate has to completely fill the pipe cross-section before it can be elevated into the
vertical riser pipe. That means that condensate has to accumulate in the heat exchanger and/or the horizontal outlet
pipe section before a plug of water has been established. Not infrequently with such layouts, the condensate actually
backs up right into the heat exchanger, with the consequence that not only is proper heat transfer interfered with,
but there is also the very real risk of waterhammer due to steam imploding against undercooled condensate. It's not
that hard to imagine that the dynamics of this kind of condensate flow are an invitation for waterhammer.

The second picture includes one of our Condensate Damping Pots. It is designed to create a cushioning effect so that
smoother lifting of condensate can be accomplished. A damping pot has often proved to be a real problem solver in
such situations.
The other drawback of having to lift condensate is the need for start-up and shut-down drainage, to
avoid condensate draining back and accumulating at the low points of the system, which again gives rise to
waterhammer problems, as well as creating operational and maintenance issues. Most often manual drain valves are
employed, with all their attendand problems - how often have we seen manual drain valves left open for hours
before someone notices the plume of steam!
We have available an automatic start-up drain valve, which is controlled purely by line pressure, without any
auxillary power source being required.
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This inexpensive device will automatically perform the function of a manual drain valve, and therefore can be a
useful tool for the prevention of waterhammer.
Contact us if would like further information on this subject.
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PREVENTION OF WATERHAMMER IN STEAM AND CONDENSATE PIPEWORK
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THERMGARD | Page last updated: Jul 21, 2008
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