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CUI: An In-Depth Analysis

By Hira S. Ahluwalia

Corrosion under insulation (CUI) is a well-understood problem, and mitigation

methods are well established. However, it is pervasive and continues to cost the
process industry many millions of dollars annually. In 2002 a large chemical
company spent over $5 million dollars replacing 304 stainless steel equipment
because of chloride stress corrosion cracking (CSCC) under insulation.(1) The cost
of the downtime due to the loss of production was even more significant. In
another example, one petrochemical company estimates that CUI accounts for as
high as 40 to 60 percent of the companys piping maintenance costs.( 2) Similar
case histories are commonplace within the process industries. An effective CUI
prevention strategy based on life-cycle costs can significantly reduce costs due to
downtime, maintenance repair, and inspection. The corrosion of carbon steel
under wet insulation is nonuniform general corrosion and/or highly localized
pitting. In austenitic stainless steels, the main forms of corrosion are pitting and
stress corrosion cracking caused by chlorides.
Corrosion of Steel Under Insulation Mechanism

Figure 1 shows a section of a large carbon-steel storage that has undergone

corrosion in a localized region leading to a through-wall hole. The corrosion
occurred on the sidewall near the tank bottom where the coating failed, exposing
the carbon steel to wet corrosive conditions under the insulation. Carbon steel
does not corrode simply because it is covered with insulation, but because it is
contacted by aerated water. In a corroded system, insulation can provide an
annular space or crevice for the retention of water with full access to oxygen (air)
and other corrosive media. If not careful, the insulation can provide a material
that may wick or absorb and may contribute contaminants that increase or
accelerate the corrosion rate. The corrosion rate of carbon steel is principally
controlled by the temperature of the steel surface, availability of oxygen and
water, and the presence of corrosive contaminant species in the water.
Water sources. There are two primary water sources involved in CUI of carbon
steel. First, breaks in the weatherproofing can lead to infiltration of water to the
metal surface from external sources such as rainfall, drift from cooling towers,
condensate falling from cold service equipment, steam discharge, process liquid
spillage, spray from fire sprinklers, deluge systems, washrooms, and from
condensation on cold surfaces after vapor-barrier damage. Second, a major
corrosion problem develops in situations where there are cycling temperatures
that vary from below the dew point to above-ambient temperatures. In this case,
the classic wet/dry cycle occurs when the cold metal develops water condensation
that is then baked off during the hot/dry cycle. The transition from cold/wet to
hot/dry includes an interim period of damp/warm conditions with attendant high
corrosion rates.
Contaminants. Chlorides and sulfates are the principal contaminants found under
insulation. These may be leached from the insulation materials or from external
waterborne or airborne sources. Chlorides and sulfates are particularly
detrimental because their respective metal salts are highly soluble in water, and
these aqueous solutions have high electrical conductivity. Furthermore, hydrolysis
of the metal salts can create acidic conditions leading to localized corrosion.
Temperature. It is generally accepted that carbon steel operating in the
temperature range of -4C (25F) to 149C (300F) is at the greatest risk from
CUI. Equipment that operates continuously below -4C (25F) usually remains free

of corrosion. Corrosion of equipment above 149C (300F), above the boiling point
of water, is reduced because the carbon-steel surface remains essentially dry.
Corrosion tends to occur at those points of water entry into the insulation system
where the temperature is below 149C (300F) and when the equipment is idle.
Figure 2 shows the corrosiveness of water versus temperature. The problem of
steel corrosion under insulation can be classified as equivalent to corrosion in a
closed hot-water system. In an open system, the oxygen content decreases with
increasing temperature to the point where corrosion decreases even though the
temperature continues to increase. (3) In a closed system, the corrosion rate of
carbon steel in water continues to increase as the water temperature increases.
Estimated corrosion rate data of carbon steel under insulation plotted in Figure 2
that were obtained from actual plant case histories confirm that the rate increases
with temperature in a manner similar to that of a closed system.(4) It is inferred
that the same oxygen cell corrosion mechanism is taking place as in a closed
system. The corrosion rates from field measurements are shown to be greater
than laboratory tests, due to the presence of salts in the field. Salts increase the
conductivity of the water film and thereby influence the corrosion rate.
Insulation. CUI of carbon steel is possible under all types of insulation. The rate of
corrosion may vary depending on the characteristics of the insulation material.
Some insulation materials contain water-leachable salts that may contribute to
corrosion, and some foams may contain residual compounds that react with water
to form an acidic environment. The water retention, permeability, and wettability
properties of the insulation material also influence the corrosion of carbon steel.
Corrosion of Stainless Steel Under Insulation

CUI in austenitic stainless steel is manifested by chloride-induced stress corrosion

cracking (CISCC), commonly referred to as external stress corrosion cracking
(ESCC) because the source of chlorides is external to the process environment.
Figure 3 shows ESCC of a 4-inch 304 stainless steel pipe that operated in the 50to-100C range. Figure 4 shows the typical transgranular lightning-strike
appearance of ESCC in the pipe. ESCC of austenitic stainless steel is possible
when the equipment is contacted by aerated water, chlorides, or contaminants in
the temperature range of 50 to 150C in the presence of tensile stresses.
The Mechanism

A detailed discussion on the mechanism of stress corrosion cracking (SCC) can be

found in a number of publications.(5, 6) The mode of cracking is normally
transgranular. It is well established that the propensity for ESCC is greatest when
the following conditions
are present:

A susceptible 300 series austenitic stainless steel

The presence of residual or applied surface tensile stresses

The presence of chlorides, bromide, and fluoride ions may also be involved

Metal temperature in the range 50 to 150C

The presence of an electrolyte (water)

Alloys. The stainless steels that are commonly affected by ESCC in the chemical
process industries are the 300 series stainless steels, 304 type (UNS S30400 and
S30403), 316 type (UNS S31600 and S31603), 317L (UNS S31700), 321 (UNS

S32100), and 347 (UNS S34700). It should be noted that other stainless steels
could also undergo ESCC under specific corrosive conditions.
Role of stress. For ESCC to develop, sufficient tensile stress must be present in the
material. If the tensile stress is eliminated or greatly reduced, cracking will not
occur. The threshold stress required to develop cracking depends somewhat on
the severity of the cracking medium. Most mill products, such as sheet, plate,
pipe, and tubing, contain enough residual tensile stresses from processing to
develop cracks without external stresses. When the austenitic stainless steels are
cold formed and welded, additional stresses are imposed. The incidence of ESCC
is greater in process piping because of the high hop stresses normally present in
piping systems. As the total stress increases, the
potential for ESCC increases.
Chlorides. Chloride ion is damaging to the passive protective layer on 18-8
stainless steels. Once the passive layer is penetrated, localized corrosion cells
become active. Under the proper set of circumstances, SCC can lead to failure in
only a few days or weeks. Sodium chloride, because of its high solubility and
widespread presence, is the most common corrosive species.(5) This neutral salt
is the most common, but not the most aggressive. Chloride salts of the weak
bases and light metals, such as lithium chloride, magnesium chloride, and
aluminium chloride, can even more rapidly crack the 18-8 stainless steels under
the right conditions of temperature and moisture content. The sources of chlorides
in ESCC are from insulating materials and external sources. The insulating
materials include insulation, mastics, sealants, adhesives, and cements.
Experience has shown that insulating materials with chloride content as little as
350 parts per million (ppm) can contribute to ESCC. Typically, if the insulating
material is the source of leachable chlorides, failure occurs only after a few years
of operation. However, external sources of chloride account for most of the ESCC
failures. The sources include rain, coastal fog, wash water, fire- and delugesystem testing, and process leaks or spills. Other sources of chloride ions known
to be aggressive include chlorine, hydrogen chloride gas, hydrochloric acid, and
hydrolyzed organic chlorides. Clearly, the presence of chlorides under acidic
conditions is more aggressive than neutral or basic conditions. Failures due to
chlorides from external sources tend to occur after 5 or more years of service.
The concentration of chlorides necessary to initiate SCC is difficult to ascertain.
Researchers have developed cracking in solutions with remarkably low levels of
chloridesless than 10 ppm. The situation of chlorides under insulation is unique
and ultimately depends on the concentration of chlorides deposited on the
external surface of the metal. Deposits near ESCC failures have been found with
as little as 1,000 ppm chloride. If chlorides are detected, there will probably be
some localized sites of
high concentration.
Temperature. The most important condition affecting chloride concentration is the
temperature of the metal surface. Temperature has a dual effect: 1) Elevated
temperatures will cause water evaporation on the metal surface, which results in
concentration; and 2) as the temperature increases, the susceptibility to initiation
and propagation of ESCC increases. ESCC occurs more frequently in the range 50
to 150C. Below 50C, chlorides do not concentrate to levels that cause ESCC.
Above 150C, water is not normally present on the metal surface, and failures are
uncommon. Equipment that cycles through the water dew point is particularly
susceptible because during each temperature cycle the chloride salts in the water
concentrate on the surface.

Electrolyte. Water is the fourth necessary condition for ESCC. Since SCC involves
an electrochemical reaction, it requires an electrolyte. As water penetrates the
insulation system, it plays a key role at the metal surface, depending on the
equipment operating conditions. Examination of the phenomenon of corrosion of
steel under insulation provides a better appreciation of the widespread intrusion
of water.(7, 8, 9) In effect, water may be expected to enter the metal and
insulation annulus at joints or breaks in the insulation and its protective coating.
The water then condenses or wets the metal surface, or if it is too hot, the water
is vaporized.(7) This water vapor (steam) penetrates the entire insulation system
and settles into places where it can recondense. Because the outer surface of the
insulation is designed to keep water out, it also serves to keep water in. The
thermal insulation does not have to be in poor condition or constantly water
soaked. A common practice in chemical plants is to turn on the fire-protection
water systems on a regular basis. This deluges the equipment with water. Some
coastal locations use seawater for the fire-protection water. Hot food-processing
equipment is regularly washed with tap water, which contains chlorides. All
insulation-system water
barriers eventually develop defects. As the vessel and insulation system breathes,
moist air contacts the metal surface. From the insulation standpoint, the outer
covering acts as a weather barrier to protect the physical integrity of the
insulation material. The outer coverings are not intended, nor can they be
expected, to maintain an airtight and watertight system.
Prevention of CUI

When designing an insulation system the goal is to prevent ingress of moisture.

Poorly designed or applied insulation and protrusions through thermal insulation
permit water to bypass the insulation, thereby corroding the substrate material.
References 10 and 11 provide detailed information on the mechanical design of
insulation systems. Attachments to vessels and piping stems are common
locations that allow water to bypass the insulation and to concentrate at the
attachment point. Examples of such attachments are shown in Figures 5 and 6.
Attention to details such as these is important in order to produce a high-quality
insulation system. Although the design of the insulation system is important,
prevention methodologies based on design alone are not advisable or practical in
a chemical plant. The physical characteristics of thermal insulation materials can
vary widely. Some insulation materials contain a leachable inhibitor to neutralize
the pH of the water in contact with the metal surface. The degree of water
absorbency can also vary. For some systems, the coefficient of thermal expansion
will influence the system design. For example, cellular glass insulation expands
about the same as carbon steel, whereas cellular foam expands nine times more
than carbon steel and therefore requires expansion joints. General industry
experience over the last 20 years indicates that corrosion is possible under all
types of insulation. The common types of insulation materials and their
recommended service temperatures are listed in Table 1. Selecting and specifying
the correct insulation material can reduce corrosion of both carbon and stainless
Organic coating system. The application of organic coatings on both carbon and
stainless steel equipment beneath insulation is an effective method of having a
physical barrier to the corrosive electrolytes and thereby preventing corrosion.
This method is effective only if a holiday-free coated surface is obtained. In the
chemical plant environment, the average life cycle of a coating system is 5 to 13
years.(12) In some cases, when a correctly selected and applied coating system is
used, a 20-year service life can be achieved. Some of the parameters that need to
be considered when selecting a coating system include: coating selection,
surface-preparation requirements, environmental requirements, compatibility with
insulating material, coating tests, coating vendor selection, specifications,
inspection, and selection of a coating applicator. Coating systems that have been

used successfully in the process industries include liquid-applied coatings like

epoxies, urethanes, and polyurethanes; fusion-bonded coatings; brushable coal
tar or asphalt-based coatings; mineralization coatings; and tapes. More
information on the selection of protective coatings is available from coating
manufacturers literature and in Reference 10.
Personnel protection cages. In many instances, thermal insulation is used for
personnel protection from hot surfaces. The unnecessary use of thermal insulation
creates a location for potential corrosion. In these cases, wire standoff cages
should be used instead. These cages are simple in design, low in cost, and
eliminate the concerns with CUI.
Thermal spray aluminum (TSA). For services too severe for organic coatings, such
as temperature cycling above and below 149C (300F), TSA provides the best
choice for corrosion protection beneath insulation. TSA protects equipment by
acting as a barrier coating and serves as a sacrificial anode, protecting the
substrate at the sites of any chips or breaks in the coating. The U.S. Navy has
demonstrated that the use of TSA results in substantial reduction in the cost of its
corrosion-control efforts aboard ships.(13) A large petrochemical company has
increased the use of TSA in its plant and has shown that large savings can be
obtained based on life-cycle cost.(12) Over a 20-year cost analysis, the
replacement of an existing carbon-steel pipe with TSA-coated carbon-steel pipe
compared with the replacement with carbon steel that must be painted at least
once during this period resulted in a savings of over 100 percent.(12) The
development of more-mobile thermal spray equipment with high deposition
efficiency is likely to increase the use of TSA in the chemical process industry.
Aluminum foil wrapping of stainless steel pipe. This technique is widely used in
Europe by end users and engineering companies, but has not been widely
accepted in North America. Aluminum foil wrapping has been used successfully
for over 30 years in preventing ESCC by chemical companies in Europe. The
aluminum foil provides electrochemical protection by preferentially undergoing
corrosion and maintaining a safe potential for stainless steel. The system relies on
good weatherproofing and the prevention of immersion conditions. The system
can be applied by the insulation contractor and, furthermore, it takes less time to
apply than a coating and has minimum substrate preparation.
Wrapping pipe with 46 SWG 0.1 millimeter (mm) aluminum foil can prevent CISCC
of stainless steel pipe operating continuously between 60 and 500C. The pipe
should be wrapped with 50 mm overlap, formed to shed water on the vertical line
and held with aluminum or stainless wire. The foil should be molded around
flanges and fittings. Steam-traced lines should be double wrapped, with the first
layer applied directly to the pipe, followed by the steam tracing and then more foil
over the top. On vessels, the aluminum foil is applied in bands held by insulation
clips and insulation support rings.(14)
Use of higher alloyed material. To eliminate ESCC, higher-nickel, chromium, and
molybdenum-containing alloys (super stainless steels), as well as the lower-nickel,
higher-chromium duplex alloys can be used. These alloys are more resistant to
SCC and have been found to be resistant to ESCC under insulation. The higher
cost of some of these materials makes this option unattractive. However, in some
applications the lean duplex stainless steel alloys may offer a low life-cycle cost
Inspection for CUI

Inspection of insulated piping, vessels, and other components is a major challenge

and can be both costly and time-consuming. The goal for the process industries

should be to move toward an inspection- and maintenance-free philosophy by

using the appropriate corrosion-prevention methods described in the previous
section with a focus on life-cycle cost. The American Petroleum Institute code, API
570, Inspection, Repair, Alteration, and Re-rating of In-service Piping Systems,
(15) identifies corrosion under insulation as a special concern and requires that an
appropriate amount of external visual inspection be conducted on piping systems
within susceptible temperature ranges. The use of risk based inspection (RBI)
assessment conducted in accordance with API RP 580(16) provides a methodology
for prioritizing CUI-related maintenance and inspection activities. The intent of
using RBI is to manage the probability of failure in piping and vessels while
establishing an optimum inspection program. At the same time, a significant
portion of the risk in the plant can be addressed by focusing on a relatively few
items in the unit. The factors that are usually considered in a RBI analysis include:
location of equipment, temperature, materials of construction, age of the
equipment, the type and condition of the coating system, insulation type and risk
potential in terms of process, business, environment, and safety. Guidelines on
how to conduct a visual inspection to detect signs of CUI are detailed in
references 10 and 17.
Quantifying CUI in piping in most cases requires the removal of insulation and
surface preparation prior to inspection. The cost of insulation removal, inspection,
and reinstallation can be very high. A number of nondestructive evaluation (NDE)
methods that do not require removal of insulation have been developed to inspect
for CUI. The Materials Technology Institute (MTI) sponsored a project to identify
and evaluate the effectiveness of several NDE methods.(18) The NDE methods
evaluated were neutron backscatter, tangential radioscopy, through transmission
radioscopy, pulsed eddy current, electromagnetic encircling coils, and three types
of ultrasonic guided wave methods. The study concluded that the NDE methods
could detect CUI; however, no technique is suitable for every application. The
techniques vary widely in several ways, including speed, ease of inspecting
piping, detectability of defects, and safety. The factors that influence the ease of
inspecting piping include pipe orientation, number of obstacles like hangers and
valves tees, proximity to the large metal masses, insulation tie wires, and jacket
straps. Detectability of defects is influenced by the orientation, size, and type of
defects. It should be noted that the CUI pattern may be nonuniform, and spot
nondestructive evaluation may be misleading.
Reprinted with the permission of ASM International. All rights
reserved, Also, please not when citing the original
work, this
article was published in the ASM Handbook Volume 13C.