Why You Need To Pay Attention To Steam Traps
We connected this month with Todd Klanderud to bring into the spotlight an often forgotten but critical part in a steam system. In this Q&A Todd shares his knowledge on critical questions for steam operators interested in operating their system at peak efficiency to eliminate wasted energy and reduce CO2 emissions.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, your current position and a brief history of your career and experience?
I did over 20 years as a steamfitter, did a 5 years steamfitter apprenticeship and worked another 16 years as a journeyman. During that time, I worked on all sorts of Steam Systems, installing, demoing and servicing them. Working in all sorts of different environments, a lot of heavy industry. Also, I was a steamfitter apprenticeship instructor. My current position is within Everactive. I first started out as a Field Service Tech and then I went to Field Service Manager, having technicians underneath me. Now, I’m into education and training, and then also the subject matter expert for the steam straps and steam systems.
Can you explain what a steam trap is for the people that are not very familiar with it?
A steam trap is something that does exactly what the name suggests, it traps steam. There’s three main things that a steam trap is trying to do.
- First it’s trapping the steam to stop steam from going through and discharging out into the atmosphere or discharging into a condensate main. We want the steam trapped.
- Then, the second most important thing that a trap is doing is releasing condensate. As condensate builds up in a steam system, it releases that condensate to hopefully a condensate main or it can be collected and returned to the boiler.
- The third thing a steam trap does is it removes air from the system. Air inside of a steam system is very bad because it internally insulates against the steam.
Why is it bad if the condensate stays in the trap?
It can back up and flash within the system and it can create a violent reaction within the system. It’s like a miniature explosion within the system. Sometimes if it’s a large enough pipe and backed up enough, it can create a really violent explosion where it can cause damage to a facility or even worse, it could hurt a person.
Why is that bad if the steam moves along to the condensate side?
Because you’re wasting energy, you’re heating up and creating excess steam and just discharging it into the atmosphere or into a return system, which is very wasteful.
Can you tell us about the different types of steam traps that are available?
There are disk traps or thermodynamic traps. A lot of times the wear in a disk trap happens at the little disc itself internally, where sometimes that’ll get a little groove in there because the steam itself will actually eat into the disk. There are float traps that have a ball float in it, kind of like a toilet tank.The float that senses the level of the condensate and it opens a valve up once it gets to a certain level. Then, it also has a thermostatic trap, which reacts to the temperature itself. So, once it senses that it’s at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or above, it’ll close and below that it’ll open up to remove condensate and air. And there are inverted bucket traps, which are probably one of the best types of all around traps. Inverted bucket traps work by opening and closing a valve connected to a cylinder that resembles an upside-down bucket. As steam collects in the bucket, it causes the bucket to float higher and higher on the condensate collecting below it. When the bucket rises high enough, it opens the valve and the condensate drains away. Float and thermostatic and inverted buckets are the most popular traps out there.
Where are steam traps usually placed in a steam system?
There are main distribution lines in a steam system after the boiler, and they’ll have drip legs to remove condensate that might have built up in the steam line every so many feet. In some distribution lines the steam traps are placed every 300 feet as well as at changes in elevations, in other distribution lines they are placed every 500 feet, in some cases they are placed as often as every 100 feet throughout the whole distribution lines. From there the steam goes to a pressure reducing station and it might drop down from 150 psi to 60 psi and drip lines will also be installed there to remove more condensate as it goes through the pressure reducing station and as it comes out of the pressure reducing station as well. Then, finally the steam goes to whatever application it’s intended for. It might be a tank where we’re trying to heat up some product, and there’ll be a trap at each end of the heating coil or whatever process it’s going to. So, all throughout the system, there are steam traps.
Can you tell me the different ways in which a steam trap can fail?
It can start to leak, the seat inside of the trap will start to fail and just discharge a little bit of steam through there. After a while that little bit of steam eats away the seat, and there’s more and more steam that’s lost. Sometimes it eventually goes into a blow through state where the trap is hardly reducing any of the steam pressure at all. That’s obviously very wasteful. Another way in which a steam trap can fail, and some people would say it’s more of a serious situation, is when the trap itself becomes plugged because the condensate builds inside the pipe instead of being released by the steam trap and creates a really dangerous situation called pipe hammer in worst case scenario, that can lead to a pipe explosion and people’s lives can be put in jeopardy.
Why do you need to pay attention to steam traps?
Because of the failures that we talked about, open failure is wasting steam, a closed failure is creating potential hazards. It’s not just necessarily a hazard to a person or equipment, it’s a hazard to the whole process overall. It might shut down a process where a customer could potentially lose a million dollars in a day if it’s shut down.
What are the different ways in which steam traps are managed today?
Some steam system operators haven’t done anything with steam traps in awhile, because they don’t realize there’s a problem. They think that maybe somebody did something 10 years ago, and they assume everything’s fine and dandy. Some steam operators do a steam trap audit on an every other year basis. They’ll send a person out into the field to take temperatures or ultrasound readings at each trap and take a note of that, but that’s only one to two minutes spent at each trap by a person over one or two years. Some steam operators are really more proactive with it, and they’re doing a steam trap audit, maybe on a quarterly or monthly basis, but if they do it monthly, one day a month, for a minute, they’re still missing quite a bit of time where the steep trap might be malfunctioning. There have been some other actual steam trap monitor companies, similar to us, and they use ultrasound or other methods to try to determine a failure. However, usually they read less often than Everactive’s solution because they’re working off of a battery, and they’re trying to maintain their battery health.
What should be done if or when a steam trap failure is detected?
It should be put into the maintenance program, a work order should be created by the steam operator. It should be taken care of as soon as possible. Sometimes production won’t allow that to happen, they have to wait until production comes down. It could be a week or a month before they can get to it, but getting to it within a month is a lot better than waiting till the next year.
When they do get to it, what is the best way to replace the steam trap?
It can either be a lot of them, you can replace the internals of them so you don’t have to physically remove the trap itself, you just open up the trap and change out the internal guts of it. You can also just physically remove the trap itself and replace it with a brand new one. If you replace the trap you then have the option to rebuilt it and reuse it next time there is a similar trap that fails. Rebuilt will save you maintenance dollars and also reduce the replacement time and downtime of the operations.
How do you decide which steam traps to monitor?
All steam traps are important! I guess you could say that steam traps for comfort heating, which is seasonal, aren’t as important because they’re only on for five or six months a year. It’s still wasting money, if it’s failing for five or six months of the year, and if you are not monitoring them you’re not going to know that. What if you’re doing your steam trap audit during the summer, when that portion of the piping is off? You’re never going to catch that.
Basically, all the traps should be monitored from your perspective?
Yeah, I think there’s value with every type of trap and every application. There’s value to every one of them being monitored because even the low pressure heating ones that are at 15 psi, they still have large orifice diameters. So when it does fail, it is letting a lot of steam through there.
What are the advantages of self-powered continuous monitoring systems over the ones that are battery powered?
The ones with batteries take a lower frequency of samples because they’re trying to maintain their battery life. They might take a reading only every 15 minutes, or every hour, or possibly even longer than that. So, that could very well be missing a lot of intermittent blow through scenarios.
How often would they have to replace the battery once they go dead?
Some of them say up to three to five years, but we’ve heard and seen that it’s sooner than that. You might have to replace a battery once every year. Now you have a yearly maintenance task to take care of.
Right. At that time, you just go ahead and just do your regular manual maintenance tasks?
Right, a big nice thing about the Everactive solution is that you’re removing the need for a person to go to the field and get into this awkward, hard to reach spot, 30 feet up in the air or down in a pit where it might create a need for a confined space entry permit. There are a lot of good reasons to monitor a steam trap, because we’re going to save a lot of time.
What are other benefits that come along when a good steam trap management program is in place?
You’re going to lower all your costs, like the amount of make up water that you’re putting into your boiler system, the chemicals you’re putting in a boiler system. The dollar amount lost in gas that you’re using to heat up steam that’s getting wasted and reduced CO2 emissions as a result of that. There’s all sorts of different things that are bad if you’re not managing steam traps and constantly monitoring them.
What are some of the challenges that facilities are facing when they are trying to implement their steam trap management program?
It probably always comes down to money. Do they have manpower or time, so if they’re doing it themselves with a person going out into the field, they have to make time for that person to do it. A lot of times, steam operators are just running on a skeleton crew or they just physically don’t have time for it. Another problem is money. If you need to come up with $100,000 to monitor steam traps, then you have to have a good justification to do that. Which, that’s what Everactive solution offers with the savings in fuel cost from replacing a steam trap as soon as it fails instead of every year or every month.
How do you go about deciding if you want to outsource your steam trap management program?
Basically, like I said before, if you’re running on a maintenance crew that’s a skeleton crew. They don’t have time to do that, then it might make sense for them to hire it out.
Have you seen cases where they will also outsource the replacement step of the steam traps?
Yes. That’s what a lot of the audit companies offer, they’ll come in to audit it, then they’ll flag 10% of your traps as failed. Then, they’ll come back throughout the year, to replace the steam traps and they’ll schedule that with the steam operator to coordinate with shoutdowns.
Who is most receptive to support the implementation of wireless, batteryless steam trap monitoring?
There’s all sorts of different titles, but some sort of energy officer that’s trying to reduce cost at their site.
On the other side of the coin, who is skeptical or in opposition of adopting wireless batteryless steam trap monitoring?
Sometimes it’s the older people out in the field that are used to doing it manually. They’ve always done something a certain way for 30 years and it’s something new, so they’re really going to be skeptical of it.
Where do you see the future of steam trap management going?
To me, it’s a no brainer to have everything constantly monitored. I’m not just saying that because I work for Everactive, it just makes sense. If you’re going to only look at something once a year for one minute, versus every minute, all year long, it just makes total sense. Then you’ll know how your facilities are operating, and make sure you are not wasting money, production time or generating more CO2 emissions than you need.
Why are continuous batteryless steam trap monitors a game changer?
Well, just along the same vein, they’re a game changer because you can get so much data compared to manually doing it and you do not need to replace the batteries. If you are replacing the batteries you are just replacing one maintenance task with another and it is not sustainable over time. It’s kind of stone age technology, the old way of doing it versus Everactive’s way.