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Preventing Fires in Thermal Oil Heat-Transfer Systems

Evaluatingfireriskseffectively

Jul01,2001

Thechemicalprocessingindustryhasusedheat­transferfluidsformore

thaneightdecades.Becausethermalfluidheatingsystemsincludefuel,air

andanignitionsource,theriskoffirealwaysispresent.However,plants

canminimizetheriskoffirebystrictlyobservingproperinstallation,

maintenanceandoperatingprocedures.

Evaluating fire risks

Firesafetyinthermalfluidsystemsdependsonthreemeasurements—flashpoint,firepointand

autoignitiontemperature.

Flash point

.Theflashpointofafluidisthetemperatureatwhichsufficientvaporisgeneratedforthefluidtoflash whenexposedtoanignitionsource.Twocommonmethodsofdeterminingaflashpointuseaheated containerwithafluidsampleandatemperatureprobe.TheClevelandOpenCup(COC)testmethod,

whichcomplieswithAmericanSocietyforTestingandMaterials(ASTM)D92,usesanopencuppartially

filledwithafluidsample.Thesampleisheatedatafixedrate.Asmallflamecontinuallypassesbackand

forthjustabovethefluidsurfaceuntilthefluid’;svaporignites.

ThePensky­MartensClosedCup(PMCC)method,whichcomplieswithASTMD93,usesacontainerthatis

closedexceptforasmallopeningthroughwhichthefluid’;svaporisexposedtoaflame.Resultsofthismethod

usuallyareseveralFahrenheitdegreescoolerthantheCOCmethodbecausetheconcentrationofvaporinthe

closedcupishigher.

Fire point

.Thefirepointisthepointatwhichafluidgeneratessufficientvaportosupportcontinuedcombustion.The

firepointtypicallyis40°Fto100°Fhotterthantheflashpoint.TheCOCisusedmostfrequentlytofind

thefirepoint.

Datacollectedfromthesetestsmustbeinterpretedinthecontextofactualoperatingconditionsforthermalfluid

systems.Forthevaportobeignited,thefluidmustbeattheflashorfirepointtemperaturewithasourceof

ignitioncloseenoughtothesurfacetoensureaminimumvaporconcentration.

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PreventingFiresinThermalOilHeat­TransferSystems|ChemicalProcessing

Inactualconditions,however,leakingfluidwillcoolquicklywhenexposedtoair,droppingbelowtheflashpoint.

Anyvaporsproducedwillturntosmokeiftheareahasadequateventilation.Thissmokeismostnoticeable

aroundsmall­volumeleaksknownasweepers.

Themostimportantuseofflashandfirepointsistoprovideanindicationofthefluid’;svolatilityoritsabilityto

generatevaporunderagivensetofconditions.Ifasignificantleakoccurs,afluidwithalowerflashpointwill

generatemorevapors,creatingagreaterpotentialforfire.

Autoignition temperature

.Thetemperatureatwhichafluidwillignitewithoutanyexternalsourceofignitionistheautoignition

temperature(AIT).ThecurrentASTME659­78standardsupersededthepopularASTMD­2155standard

severalyearsago.ASTME659­78callsforaninjectionofsamplefluidintoatestbeakerfilledwithhotair.

ThetemperatureoftheairatwhichthefluidsampleignitesistheAIT.Notallusersagreethistestmethod

isapplicabletoassessingriskforthermalfluidsystemsbecausetheairisheated,notthefluid.

Eventhoughthesetestsprovideusefuldata,noneshouldbeappliedastheonlyselectioncriterion.Heattransfer

systemstypicallyandroutinelyoperateattemperatureswellinexcessoftheirfluid’;sflashandfirepoints,but

neverinexcessoftheirAIT.Relativelyfewfireshaveoriginatedinthermalfluidsystems.Mostofthosethatdo

occurareinsulationfires,orarecausedbylossofflow,crackedheatertubesorleakage.

Insulation

Insulationfiresoccurwhenheat­transferfluidleakagefromvalves,gaskets,weldsorinstrumentports

infiltratesporousinsulationsuchascalciumsilicateorfiberglasswool.Theporousinstallation’;sopen

structureallowstheheattransferfluidto"wick"awayfromtheleakandspreadthroughouttheinsulation.

Spontaneousignitionmightresultuponthefluid’;ssuddenexposuretoairif,forexample,theprotective

coveringispunctured.

Themosteffectiveprecautionagainstinsulationfiresistheidentificationofallpotentialleakpointsandthe

specificationofhigh­temperatureclosed­cellinsulationornoinsulationatthesepoints.Closed­cellinsulation

preventsthefluidfromspreadingthroughouttheinsulation.Ifnecessary,flangesshouldbecoveredonlywith

metalcapswithweepholes—usersshouldavoidinsulatingtheseareasifpossible.

Loss of flow

Lossofflowoccurswhenaseriesofequipmentfailuresinterruptstheflowofthermalfluidtotheheater.A

pumpmotorloss,acouplingfailure,asystempressurecontrolvalvefailureorablindedfull­flowfiltermight

causetheinitialfailure.

Thesecondfailurethenoccurswhenfouling,burnoutorpoorlocationcausesthehigh­temperaturecut­offdevice

tomissthesuddentemperatureincrease.Astheburnerorelectricalelementcontinuestoputenergyintothe

nowstagnantfluid,thetemperatureincreasesrapidlybeyondtheAIT.Ifacrackdevelopsintheheatercoilorthe

pipingconnectedtotheheater,hotfluidisdischargedintothehotatmosphere,wherethefluidspontaneously

ignites.

Ifthepipingremainsintact,thevaporizedfluideitherdischargesthroughareliefvalveintothecatchtankor

pushesfluidupintotheexpansiontank,whichthendischargesthefluidintothecatchtank.Violentdischarges

havecausedfireswhenthehotthermalfluidvaporizesthevolatilematerialinthetank,andthevaporthenis

ignitedbytheheater.

Toavoidincidentsresultingfromlossofflow,low­flowshutdownshouldbeincludedintheburnersafetyinterlock.

Flowdetectorsthatareimmersedinthefluidarenotrecommendedbecausetheymightfailintheopenposition.

Pressuresensorshaveprovedtobethemostreliableforlong­termservice.Toprovideeffectiveindicationofa

no­flowsituation,plantscaninstallpressuresensorsacrossafixedrestrictionsuchasanorificeplateorthe

heateritselftomeasurepressuredrop,orashigh­andlow­dischargepumppressuremonitors.Catchdrums

shouldbelocatedinsideafire­proofcabinet,awayfromtheexitdooroftheheaterroom.

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PreventingFiresinThermalOilHeat­TransferSystems|ChemicalProcessing

Cracked heater tubes

Seriousfirescausedbycrackedheatertubesarerelativelyrare,butcanoccur.Cracksareformedby

excessivethermalcyclingornearhotspotsthatdevelopfrominternalfoulingorflameimpingement.

Leakingfluidwillburnoffimmediatelywhiletheheaterisoperating.However,whenthesystemisnotin

operation,fluidwillcontinuetoleakintothecombustionchamberastheresultofheadpressurefromthe

expansiontankandoverheadpiping.Inthemostseriouscases,fluidformsinalargepoolinsidethe

heaterduringaprolongedshutdown.Whentheheaterisrestarted,theentirepoolignitesanddestroysthe

heater.

Topreventexcessivethermalcyclingoftheheatertubebundle,oversizedheatersshouldbederatedbythe manufacturer.Flameimpingementwillcauseseverethermalcrackingofthefluidthatcanbedetectedbyroutine fluidanalysis.Heattubefoulingofteniscausedbydepositsthatresultfromfluidoxidation.Oxidationoccursifthe

expansiontankremainshot(morethan140°F)duringnormaloperationandisopentoair.Thereactionofthe

hotfluidandairformstarsandsludgethatcoatsurfacesandreduceheattransfer.Thesedepositscouldcreate heaterhotspotsthatultimatelycausecracks.Oxidation,whichalsoisdetectedbyroutinefluidanalysis,couldbe

preventedbykeepingtheexpansiontankcool(lowerthan40°F)andbykeepingairout.

Large-volume leaks

Large­volumeleakagefromthethermalfluidsystemmightbeadirectcauseoffireifthehotfluidcontacts

anignitionsource.Mostmajorleaksresultfromcomponentfailure.Expansionjoints,flexiblehoseand

rotaryunionsareamongthecomponentsthatmightfail.Iftheignitionsourceispartofthefailing

componentoristhesourceoftheleak,asignificantfiremayoccur.Forexample,ifapumpsealseizesup,

theresultingfrictioncouldheatthefluiduptoignition.Propersystemdesignpreventsmostofthesetypes

ofleaks.

Althoughsmallflangeleaksusuallyaremoreofanuisancethanahazard,theydocreateamess,aswellas

potentialsafetyproblems.Thistypeofleakcanbeminimizedwiththeuseof300­poundflangesandgaskets

madeofgraphiteorfiber­reinforcedTeflonmaterial.

Topreventleaks,plantsshould:

Allowexpansionjointsandflexiblehosestomovealongtheiraxes,neversideways.

Maintainlubricationsystemsforrotaryunionsandsupplythesesystemswiththecorrectlubricatingoils.

Installisolationandbleedvalvesinthepipingforeachpieceofequipmentsomaintenancecanbeperformed

withoutdrainingthewholesystem.

Usetheappropriaterecommendedstempackingforglobe,ballorplugvalvesinthermalfluidservice.

Installvalveswiththeirstemssidewayssoanyleaksrundownthestemandawayfromthepiping.

Properoperationandmaintenanceofthermalfluidsystemsalsoreducetheriskoffire.Maintenanceshould

includedailyandweeklyinspectionsforsignsofsmokefrompotentialleakpoints,especiallyvalves,flanges,

welds,instrumentportsandthreadedfittings.Byperformingtimelyinspectionsandunderstandingthefirerisks,

plantscanincreasesafetydramatically.

OetingerisasalesmanagerforParatherm,Conshohocken,Pa.Contacthimat(800)222­3611.

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