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Many processes today require an indirect method of heating, which implies the use of a heat transfer medium, instead of

circulating the process directly into a heater. Thermal oil, water, glycol mixtures, and steam are the most commonly used
heat mediums for indirect heating. Thermal oil is often preferred over steam for high temperature applications because there
is less maintenance, such as water conditioning and blowdown systems. Steam processes require higher pressures when
compared to oil systems at comparable temperatures, and require more ongoing regulatory oversight. Thermal oil heaters
are typically used in a non-pressurized closed loop system. Primary components include a pump, heater, piping and an
expansion tank. There are many factors that govern the size and selection of the heater and associated equipment.

The following guidelines will help you navigate what can be a challenging and time consuming task.

1. Know your process

Knowing your overall process will help in determining many factors regarding the thermal fluid heating system. Jacketed
tanks and reactors typically have lower pressure drops than extruders or presses. Shell and tube or plate type heat exchanger
manufacturers might have already assumed a certain pressure drop for the unit you purchased. This pressure drop is
instrumental in selecting the proper pump and motor.

Knowing how much thermal fluid is in the process and interconnecting piping will help determine the size of the expansion
tank. If you run a batch process that sees regular temperature cycling like an injection molding machine, multi-opening
press, or jacketed tank or reactor, the head load of the wetted parts within your machinery will need to be considered in
addition to the product within when making the overall heat transfer calculation. The initial heat up of the process may
dictate the heater size rather than the actual steady state process. For continuous applications for which you need to reach
temperature quickly and maintain that temperature, margin should be applied to the steady state heat load to make sure you
can reach that operating temperature quickly.

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2. Know your heat transfer fluid

There are several different types of heat transfer fluids


available, and each has its own particular set of advantages
and disadvantages. Water is an ideal heat transfer
medium, if you consider only the heat transfer properties,
but will obviously build pressure as the temperature
increases beyond the boiling point. Thermal oils offer
high temperature capability at low pressures, and include
synthetics or aromatics, petroleum based, and silicones.
Molten salt has become very popular as an ultra-high temp
heat transfer fluid, with operation up to 1,000F possible.
Electric circulation heater installed on a direct fired heating unit.
Not all thermal fluids will be suited to your process.
Different fluids will have different boiling points, flash points, and operating temperatures. Vapor pressure of the fluid is
important to know, as this will determine the need for a pressurized expansion tank. Maximum film temperatures must be
considered as the fluid flows over the heating elements. The fluid you select will be a significant investment; the time spent
selecting that fluid will be good insurance to protect that investment.

3. Know your piping

Your piping layout is critical to making sure your system works properly. It is important in determining the amount of head
to overcome for pump sizing. Smaller piping will decrease cost, but will cause more pressure drop thus increase the motor
horsepower and pump size. The highest point of piping is important, as the expansion tank will need to be elevated above
this point or pressurized. If this is not considered, this point will form air pockets at shutdown, and possibly overflow the
expansion tank. It is also important that drain valves be located at piping low points, and vents at piping high points. When
installing and testing the piping for a hot oil system, it is important that water not be used, or if used, completely removed to
avoid excessive cook out times during commissioning.

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4. Pump Selection

Now that we know the process, fluid, and piping, we can accurately size the pump.
The pump must overcome the friction losses in the piping, the pressure drop
through the process equipment, and the pressure drop through the heater. Other
factors to be considered are restriction orifices, valves, or other instrumentation.
Flow rate is the next important decision to make. Fluid velocity across the
heating elements is critical to ensure the thermal fluid does not degrade due to
overheating and cracking, or possibly flash in the case of water. To insure that
Electric circulation heaters are used to flow fluid
you have the optimal velocity inside the heater vessel you should let your heater directly over the heating elements. This type of
manufacturer determine the required flow rate for the system, and note that the electric heaters is capable of heating a variety of
flow rate to the user can be varied using a control or bypass valve. fluids from gases to hard to heat liquids.

The two typical types of pumps are positive displacement (sometimes called gear pumps), and centrifugal. Gear pumps are
good for low flow (i.e., below 50 GPM), but have slippage around the gears in oil applications higher temperatures due to
reduced surface tension, and this causes lower flow rates. The spacing between the gears and the pump housing is very
small, and they are typically different materials. Due to the difference in thermal expansion, it is recommended to heat gear
pumps very gradually to prevent seizing of the pump. Centrifugal pumps are more flexible and are recommended for thermal
fluid heating systems. There are many types of centrifugal pumps on the market suitable for hot oil, and water or water-
glycol. These include air cooled mechanical sealed pumps, non-sealed pumps, such as canned and mag drive pumps, and
packed pumps. Packed pumps are not recommended for thermal fluid heating systems due to leaking. There are only a very
small number of application specific pumps that can be used for molten salt, and only a vendor that sells a pump specifically
for this service should be chosen.

Once the total dynamic head (TDH) has been determined, we can add a safety factor of approximately 20%. It is important
to not use the maximum impeller size of the pump. Try to stay at 75% of the maximum size for future growth or process
changes. Centrifugal pumps have a characteristic curve, stating flow and head. The process point on the curve should be
within 7080% of the best efficiency point (BEP). Pay close attention to the net positive suction head required (NPSHr). This
will determine the elevation or amount of pressure required on the expansion. Failure to satisfy the NPSHr will cause the
pump to cavitate and malfunction.

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5. Heater Selection

Heater selection is one of the most important steps in the thermal fluid heating system. Things to consider are heater watt
density, velocity through the heater, heater orientation, and control method. The watt density of the electric heater is critical
to protect the oil from degradation. Typical watt densities of heaters are 30 watts/sq. in. for water/glycols, 20 watts/sq. in. for
lower hot oil temperature systems, and 1215 watts/sq. in. for higher hot oil temperature units and heat transfer salts. Smaller
diameter heaters are preferred due to the increased velocity over the heating elements. Typically, a 1:1 ratio between flow
measured in GPM and kW will result in approximately 15F temperature rise through the heater.

Horizontal heaters tend to be self-venting while vertical heaters require an additional method to vent. Always exit a liquid
heater from the top to ensure the heater is flooded at all times. Always include a temperature sensor on the top element of
a thermal fluid system for overtemperature protection. Ensure you have allowed space for pulling and inspecting the heater
bundle periodically. When cooling is required, do not bypass the heater immediately. Always ensure there is adequate flow
through the heater to remove residual heat from the internal elements before attempting to bypass flow. Care must be taken
to protect the heater during an accidental blocked-in condition. A Pressure Safety Valve (PSV) should be included to prevent
overpressure of the heater caused by thermal expansion of the thermal fluid. Heater PSVs are typically sized for thermal relief.

6. Heater Controls

Heater controls are just as important as heater selection in a thermal fluid heating system. Thyristor control is preferred over
on/off control to allow the heater to run at lower temperatures and maintain tight control. Always keep the overtemperature
safety system separate from the control system. Use dedicated safety contactors to provide positive shutoff of the power to
the heater. This ensures a failsafe method of protection. Typical controls should be capable of receiving a remote setpoint
from the user control system, and should also be able to transmit the process variable to the user control system. The control
panel is typically mounted on the heater and pump skid, and pre-wired to the heater and pump. For hazardous areas, the
panel can be mounted in a remote safe location. Ensure the pump is interlocked to the heater, so that the heater will not
energize if the pump is not running.

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7. Know the Types of Insulation

There are many types of insulation on the market, but not all of them are suitable
for thermal fluid system service. Fiberglass insulation is easy and inexpensive
to install for water and water-glycol applications. For thermal oil applications,
fiberglass should be avoided as it creates a fire hazard, and closed cell insulation,
such as foam glass, should always be used. Ensure there is enough insulation
on the heater and piping to prevent injuries to personnel. OSHA typically
recommends a surface temperature limit of 140F, although you should verify with Electric immersion heaters are inserted into tanks
or vessels to heat many fluids by direct immersion.
your local authority or facility to be certain. Insulation also reduces heat losses Virtually 100% efficient as all of the energy is
to the atmosphere and preserves the efficiency of the system. Even if personnel transmitted into the fluid.
safety is not in question, your equipment and piping should still be insulated.

8. Liquid Expansion

As the thermal fluid is heated, it will expand or possibly even contract. Water and water-glycol have minimal expansion;
typically 10% or less. Thermal oil can expand as much as 30% to 40%, and will vary widely based on the oil type and
manufacturer. Molten salt actually contracts as it melts, and experiences very little expansion, as it continues to heat. An
expansion tank must be provided in thermal oil, water, and water-glycol systems to store the expanded fluid, and prevent
overpressure of the system. Ensure there is a liquid level switch installed in the tank, and interlocked to the pump and
heater for protection. A level gauge is recommended to provide visual inspection of the fluid level. Many expansion tanks
are vented to the atmosphere. At higher temperatures, it is recommended that a nitrogen blanket be installed on the tank
to prevent oxidation of the thermal oils. It is also necessary to pressurize the system with nitrogen when the bottom of the
expansion tank is not at the highest point of elevation in the system piping. It is recommended that the expansion tank be
designed and built to ASME Section VIII Div. 1; but the ultimate decision is at the discretion of the facility owner.

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9. Know Your Area Classification

Electric thermal fluid heating systems may be installed in hazardous and non-
hazardous areas. It is the facility owners responsibility to determine the area
classification based on their plant safety design considerations. Nema 4 or IP56
heater terminal housings are well suited for Class I Div 2 or Zone 2 locations.
Temperature controls are required to be purged with dry instrument air, or
Nema 7. For IEC applications, the panel must be manufactured per Ex p or Ex
d. Ensure there is a third party certification by a Nationally Recognized Testing
Laboratory (NRTL).
Electric heaters can be mounted and pre-wired
along with a control panel onto a common skid
base. This is the perfect solution for the job where
plug and play is desired. It is the easiest and the
10. Know Your Startup Options quickest way to get a heater up and running.

The commissioning and startup of your new thermal fluid heating system should be taken seriously. The system cannot
simply be turned on and operated without proper commissioning. Care must be taken to remove air from water and water-
glycol systems to prevent pump cavitation and potential damage. Air, steam, and contaminants must be cooked out of hot
oil systems in a very systematic and cautious way to prevent system overpressure and potential spills of hot oil. Molten salt is
in solid form during startup, and these systems are even more complex to commission. Insist that your vendor provides this
service, and ensure that they are providing a service technician that has significant experience in commissioning thermal fluid
heating systems.

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