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Source: A Working Guide to Process Equipment

CHAPTER 43

Field Troubleshooting Process Problems

H umans have instinctive drives, among which is the desire to

fix things. I’d bet, having read this far, that you have that

inner desire to make repairs.

Growing inside me, growing stronger as I age, is a frantic, fanatical need to repair mechanical devices. There are times when I’ve risked my life on a rickety scaffold to measure an outlet temperature from a heat exchanger. My career is studded with the quick-fix solution to process problems. The quick fix that lost me a $100,000 engineering fee to redesign a fractionation tower. That overpowering desire to impose my will on the inanimate world, regardless of the consequences.

43.1 De-ethanizer Flooding

• Place: Texaco Refinery, Convent, Louisiana

• Time: 11:45 P. M . December 24, 2001

• Weather: Cold, windy, rainy

• Problem: Premature de-ethanizer flooding

• Contract value: $240,000 (U.S.)

Liz, Jerry, Mike, and I were partners in expanding the capacity of a naphtha reformer plant producing aromatic base stocks. The bottleneck was the reboiled de-ethanizer, limited by flooding. Our job was to produce a process design to debottleneck the reformer from

535

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40,000 BSD (barrels per day) up to 50,000 BSD of feed. But I was stymied by the following:

• The calculated percent of jet or vapor flood was 65 percent at current feed rates (40,000 BSD).

• The calculated percent of downcomer or liquid flood was 70 percent at 40,000 BSD.

• The de-ethanizer was known to flood at 41,000 BSD feed.

• The tower had been opened twice before, found to be both clean and in good mechanical condition.

• In theory, the tower should be adequate at 50,000 BSD without any modifications.

I didn’t know what to do. But fate intervened. A tube leak on an

upstream heat exchanger necessitated a short unit outage. The de- ethanizer tower was opened for one day so that we could carry out an internal inspection of the trays.

I crawled through the tower with Mike. Cold wash water was still

cascading down the tray decks. The trays were old-style valve trays. All 30 trays had a 0.5-in valve cap lift (see Fig. 43.1). All 30 trays except,

I found, the bottom tray, which had only a 0.25-in valve cap lift. Now my calculated ΔP dry (i.e., the pressure drop of the vapor flowing through the opening between the tray deck and the valve cap) was 2 in of liquid with the 0.5-in lift. With a 0.25-in valve lift, the vapor velocity would double. The ΔP dry would increase with the square of the velocity to 8 in. Further, the height of clear liquid in the downcomer would increase by an extra 6 in of liquid. This would certainly flood the downcomer from the bottom tray. (See Chap. 3.) Here then, was my naphtha reformer bottleneck—too small a valve cap lift in the bottom tray of the de-ethanizer tower.

43.1.1 What’s Next?

The wind was brutal as Mike and I, soaked and bruised, crawled out of the manway.

Valve cap 0.5-in lift Tray deck
Valve cap
0.5-in lift
Tray deck

FIGURE 43.1

promotes flooding.

A valve cap, fully open, with 0.5-in cup lift. Smaller lift

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“Well,” asked the night mechanical foreman, “okay if I close the manways? It’s 1:30 A . M . My guys are out here on overtime pay.” “No,” I answered. “Pull out the bottom tray panels. I want you to drill half-inch sieve holes between the valve caps. I’ll tell you how many sieve holes I want in 20 minutes.” I explained to Liz and Jerry my plan. It was too late to find new valve caps with a 0.5-in lift. The next best thing was to increase the bottom tray open area with sieve holes to match the open area of the other 29 tray decks. Sixty 0.75-in sieve holes would be drilled on the bottom tray panels. Jerry and Liz agreed with enthusiasm. Mike, however, was horrified. “Norm, what’s all this about?” asked Mike. “Look, Mike, I know what I’m doing. Have some confidence in me.” “Norm,” Mike whispered, “one of two things are going to happen with your stupid sieve holes. Either your idea will work, or it won’t work.” “Get to the point, Mike, I’m cold and getting colder.” “The point is, if your damn sieve holes don’t work, Texaco will think we don’t know what we’re doing and we’ll lose the contract. The point is, if your sieve hole idea does work, Texaco will cancel the project because the bottleneck will be gone. Either way we are going to lose $200,000. That’s my point,” Mike screamed. “Kindly do not yell at me,” I answered calmly. “Okay, Norm, then kindly explain to me your purpose for drilling the sieve holes.” “Mike, if you don’t know, I can’t explain it.” The sieve holes were drilled, the plant bottleneck was eliminated, we lost the contract, Mike is still angry, Texaco is now part of Chevron, but I’m happy. But if you don’t know why, dear reader, I can’t explain it.

43.2 The Elements of Troubleshooting

I once found a blue sapphire in Australia. It was imbedded in a gravel bed. It had been buried after a volcanic explosion in the gravel of the old stream bed for 65 million years. It was easy to find. All I had to do was to dig up and sift through four tons of gravel. It only took six days. But I knew it was there, so it was easy to find. Troubleshooting is like that. Part of every problem, embedded in the problem itself, is the solution. The solution is a component of the problem. Each problem consists of a number of components. And one of these components is the answer you seek. The first element of troubleshooting is an absolute belief that the solution exists. An absolute belief that you can find the answer.

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An absolute belief that it’s only a matter of time and determination. An understanding that you have to do the job alone. No one can help you because no one else is dedicated enough. No one else cares enough. The second element of troubleshooting is direct field observations. There is a piece of data you lack to intellectually grasp the problem. The difficulty is you don’t know what that piece of data is. It’s like looking for gems in the Australian outback. Often, a client asks me why I so desperately wanted some particular pressure. My answer is that it was physically possible to make the pressure measurement. I want all the data available because I don’t know beforehand which piece of data I really need. So I want all of it. How can one tell what samples, temperatures, and pressures are available if you don’t go out to the field and look? My personal preference is to obtain all plant data using my own tools, wrenches, gauges, temperature probes, and fittings myself. In my toolbox, I have every 0.25- to 1.5-in pipe fitting known to mankind.

I also have a set of instrument fittings and every possible adapter to

convert from piping threads to instrument threads. I routinely drag 30 pounds of bushings, elbows, sleeves, and nipples all over the world. I never know when I’ll need a 1 to 0.5-in reducer sleeve to make that definitive pressure measurement. But why do I have to unscrew that piping plug myself? Why must I use my own hands to pipe-up that pressure gauge? Why, at 60 years old, do I insist on climbing up 120 feet to a tower vapor line? First, the physical activity relaxes me. Also, it gets me away from other people. What I need is time to reflect on the problem without distraction. Also, if I get the data myself, I know they are correct. Or at least I know the range of uncertainty of the data. Basically, I just like climbing tall distillation towers and working with pipe wrenches and fittings. It’s fun. I guess one element of troubleshooting is to think it’s all a game, a challenge to be enjoyed. Honestly, I’d do it for free.

43.3 Field Calculations

Some people use calculators or computers. I have my K&E slide rule.

I used to be a computer guy in the days of punch cards and Fortran.

But I always take an electrochemical computer with me on all field troubleshooting assignments. It fits compactly beneath my hard hat. The ability to manipulate field data as it is obtained is the best way to speed success in field troubleshooting. For example, how much air is leaking into the incinerator duct at the sulfur plant in Aruba? What size hole in the duct is needed to allow this much air leakage? I can calculate the air flow based on the observed temperature rise in the duct due to afterburning of hydrogen sulfide in the incinerator effluent. Now I know that I need to find, and did find just yesterday, a 4-in by 4-in hole in the duct.

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What you need to do is carry into the field:

• Your technical training

• The tools of the trade

• The fanatical desire to solve the problem

• The absolute certainty that the solution exists and is accessible to you

Most of the equations you will need for common process equipment have been presented in the proceeding chapters. One of the purposes that we had in writing this book was to make such information available for field troubleshooting.

43.4 Troubleshooting Tools—Your Wrench

The tools of my trade are:

• Gear wrench. This is a two-headed wrench. One end is a valve wrench for turning valve handles. The other end has adjustable jaws for piping and fittings.

• 6-in crescent wrench for instrument fittings.

• 12-in crescent wrench for pressure gauges.

• A 16-in aluminum adjustable pipe wrench (steel is cheaper but twice as heavy).

• A short, curved knife for cutting through insulation.

• A digital pressure gauge that reads both vacuum and pressures to 30 psig.

• An infrared temperature gun that reads up to 800°F.

• An infrared temperature probe with laser pointer that reads up to 500°F.

• Spare, 9-V batteries for last three items.

• A hand-powered vacuum pump used for obtaining flue gas and samples of gas under vacuum down to 25 in of Hg. This is a $30 item purchased in an auto supply parts store. Its conventional use is to evacuate brake fluid lines.

• Plastic tubing.

• 5 ft of coiled stainless steel 0.25-in tubing, used as a sample cooler.

• Litmus paper for pH.

• Lead acetate paper to check for hydrogen sulfide.

• Inflatable plastic bag to catch gas samples.

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• About 60 assorted piping fittings and 10 assorted instrument fittings.

• A section of 0.5-in stainless tubing with an instrument fitting at one end and a piping fitting on the other end.

43.5 Field Measurements

My success as a process engineer is in proportion to my ability to take accurate field measurements, most often to obtain a differential pressure between two points. Since the differential pressure is usually

only a small portion of the total system pressure, consistent, if not precise measurement is critical. Use a digital pressure gauge of the smallest range. If you are checking pressures on a distillation tower that operates at 80 psig, use a 0 to 100 psig gauge, not a 0 to 500 psig gauge. The larger pressure range gauge has a potential error five times greater than the smaller range gauge. Digital gauges are always preferred because everyone reads the same pressure. Also, the orientation of the gauge does not affect its reading.

A good-quality digital gauge will cost $500 to $1000 (U.S.). Radio

transmissions affect the digital gauge reading, so shut off your radio when taking such a reading. Velocity affects pressure. Figure 43.2 illustrates the problem. This

is plant data from a hydro-desulferization unit. The 10-psi increase

in the pressure through the exchanger is due to the reduction in

velocity, resulting from flowing from the 6-in exchanger inlet into the 8-in exchanger outlet line. Certainly there are frictional losses

through the exchanger, but this is more than offset by the conversion

of kinetic energy into pressure.

When measuring a differential pressure, changes in elevation between the two pressure points should be
When measuring a differential pressure, changes in elevation
between the two pressure points should be corrected to take into
6 in
850 psig
860 psig
8 in

Field Troubleshooting Process Problems

Chapter 43: Field Troubleshooting Process Problems P 2 P 1 High velocity inlet
Chapter
43:
Field
Troubleshooting
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Problems
P 2
P 1
High
velocity
inlet

541

FIGURE 43.3

conversion of velocity into localized pressure.

P-1 will read higher than P-2, due to dynamic pressure—the

account the density of the flowing fluid (one psi equals 2.31 ft of water). (See Chap. 40 for an example.) Avoid “dynamic pressure” readings. Figure 43.3 illustrates the problem. The kinetic energy of the high-velocity inlet fluid will be converted to pressure as it impacts the vessel wall at P 1 . This is called a dynamic pressure. The pressure at P 2 will be lower than P 1 . The correct pressure to read is the static pressure measured at P 2 . Account for nozzle entrance and exit losses. (See Fig. 43.4.) The pressure at P 2 is lower than P 1 due to the acceleration of vapor through

P 2 Vapor P 1 FIGURE 43.4 Pressure at P-2 is lower than P-1, due
P 2
Vapor
P 1
FIGURE 43.4
Pressure at P-2 is lower than P-1, due to nozzle exit loss.

Pressure at P-1 is converted to velocity at P-2.

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the overhead vapor line. That is, the pressure of the vapor is partly converted to velocity. To correct the pressure at P 2 to static pressure at P 1 , add the nozzle exit loss as follows:

Nozzle exit loss (psi) = 0.3 ×

(

DV

)

( .)

62 3

×

V

2

( 227 . 7 )

where DV = Density of vapor in lb/ft 3 V = Vapor velocity in overhead line in ft/s

Better yet, just measure the pressure at P 1 and forget about the corrections for nozzle losses. On the other hand, the fluid flowing from a nozzle into a vessel will usually gain in pressure (pressure recovery). Don’t forget about time. Pressures in flowing systems naturally fluctuate by a few percent. To avoid the distortion of an observed differential pressure due to such fluctuations, select a reference pressure somewhere in the process. After each pressure measurement, recheck the reference pressure gauge. Correct your recent measurements for the observed pressure fluctuations. I could write a whole book just about making pressure and flow and level and temperature measurements in the field. Actually, I have. (Troubleshooting Process Operations, 3d ed., Pennwell Publications, Tulsa, Oklahoma.) But I’ve made my point. Making field measurements is complicated. There are too many variables to turn the job over to the unit outside operator. There are so many sources of potential error to consider and eliminate. There is only one way to make sure any job is done right and that’s to do it yourself. At least you will know which data are reliable and which data are questionable.

43.5.1 Indirect Flow Measurement

Relief valves, control valves, and isolation valves are subject to leakage. In a typical modern petroleum refinery, about 0.4 wt.% of crude charge is sacrificed in this wasteful manner, mainly due to valve leakage. Knowing that a valve is leaking is not much help in getting it fixed, unless an approximate idea can be obtained as to how much is leaking. Let me give an example as to how I handle this problem. Assume that a closed gate valve on a 3-in, 200°F, hot water line is leaking. We are sure that the valve is leaking because the piping downstream of the closed gate valve is hot to the touch. To estimate the leaking flow rate, proceed as follows:

1. Using your surface temperature infrared gun, check the temperature of the pipe immediately downstream of the leaking valve.

2. Repeat the above, 20 ft downstream.

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3. Calculate the observed sensible heat loss per pound of water. If the observed temperature difference between step 1 and step 2 is 20°F, then heat loss per pound is 20 Btu per pound of water.

4. Calculate the observed ambient heat loss from the 20 ft of 3-in pipe (with an area of 16 ft 2 ) using the formula:

Heat loss = (Δ T) (U) area

where:

• Heat loss = Btus per hour.

ΔT = Temperature difference between the average pipe surface temperature and the ambient air temperature, °F.

• U = Heat transfer coefficient. Use about 2 for skin temperatures of 200 to 300°F in still air. Use about 4 for skin temperatures of 400 to 600°F in windy conditions.

• Area of pipe, ft 2 .

For our example:

• Heat loss = (180 to 80°F) (2) (6) = 3200 Btu/hr.

• The (180 to 80°F) term is based on the average skin temperature of the pipe of 180°F and the ambient temperature of 80°F.

5. Divide the observed ambient heat loss (step 4) by the observed sensible heat loss per pound of water. In our example:

• 3200 Btu/hr ÷ 20 Btu/lb = 160 lb/hr

This is the amount of 200°F water leaking through the closed gate.

If the pipe is insulated, just make the skin temperature measure- ments on the external insulation. The heat transfer coefficients (between 2 and 4) will still apply in the temperature ranges noted above.

43.5.2 Using the Infrared Surface Temperature Gun

Checking a pipe surface temperature using a temperature gun requires following several rules:

• The gun needs to be 1 to 6 in from the surface. Do not be fooled by the laser pointer. Just having the red dot on the surface will not give you a good reading on a small pipe if you are 5 ft away. If it’s a large vessel, the longer distance is okay.

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• A shiny reflective surface will give erratically low readings. Stainless steel surfaces are bad. Rub some tar or black paint on such a surface. Wait until it stops smoking. A rough, rusty, black, or brown surface is best. For cool (100°F) pipes, surface conditions are not important.

• Try for the highest temperature reading possible. The angle you hold the gun at, relative to the pipe, does affect the observed temperature.

• Don’t waste time and money on an instrument with an emissivity reading. Just make sure the pipe surface is nonreflective by using the tar, black paint, or blackish grease. I’ve had no luck with the emissivity settings.

Use of the surface temperature gun, which is my main trouble- shooting tool, requires consistency, not accuracy.

43.5.3 Pressure Measurement Problem

Often one has to obtain a pressure reading on a vapor-filled line. Most technicians will realize that locating the gauge below the vapor line will result in an erroneously high reading because the line will

fill with condensate. But suppose the pressure gauge is located above the vapor line. If the line is self-draining (no loops or pockets), will a true pressure reading result? It depends on the diameter and length of the pressure sensing line. A sensing line less than 10 in is fine. If the pressure sensing line is 2 in or larger, it will be self- draining and that is good. But if the pressure sensing line is smaller than 0.75 in, the line will not be self-draining. The condensate will accumulate in the vertical section of the line, and the indicated pressure reading will be too low. Why this happens I cannot say. But

I have observed this problem for both hydrocarbon and aqueous systems.

43.6 Troubleshooting Methods

With tool bag in hand, you now set off to troubleshoot the process problem. There are three alternative methods to consider:

• Experience

• Trial and error

• Insight

To a large extent, experience does not help me solve very many problems. It isn’t that I don’t see the same problem repeatedly.

I certainly do. It’s just that a problem has so many different faces that

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I fail to recognize the true nature of the problem. Superficially, it looks unique. Relying on experience wastes time. Relying on experience as a guide drags me into the quagmire of trial and error. I have an inner weakness for trial and error solutions. It’s inertia and laziness on my part. It’s part of my propensity, carried forward from childhood, for the quick fix without the commensurate effort. It’s true many problems are solved by experience (someone has seen the same problem before). It’s true most problems are solved by trial and error (alternatives are tried until something works). My difficulty is that process problems that can be solved by trial and error or by ordinary experience rarely reach me. They are handled by the shift operators or solved by the unit engineers. It’s the intractable problems that are my domain. The ones caused by several malfunctions, all of which have to be corrected before any improvement is obtained. It’s the problems that appear to be unrelated to any prior plant operating experience. These sorts of problems I have been able to solve only by insight. First, I collect all the field data. Second, I discuss the situation with the plant shift operators. Next, I’ll examine tower internal drawings, pump curves, exchanger data sheets. Finally, I’ll perform the relevant engineering calculations. This usually does not result in reaching a resolution of the problem. What I must now do is that which I find most difficult. It’s the application of intellectual energy and insight.

I have to be alone. Alone and away from telephones. I do best

when out of the plant, perhaps walking in a park.

I have to accept all the data. I’ll repeat to myself the mantra, “Even

though you don’t like the data, the data represent reality. The data you wish to reject are just a reflection of your lack of intellectual honesty.”

I have to put aside all preconceptions. I have to discard the notion

that I’ve seen this situation before. Trying to solve a problem based on

experience creates mental confusion and wastes time.

I have to cast aside my ego. Often I’ve already taken a position in

some meeting. I hate to admit I’m wrong. I hate to admit that an analysis by some junior engineer was correct. Twenty-five years ago a young engineer from Standard Oil of Ohio asked me to define a step-wise approach to troubleshooting process plant problems. Honestly, I didn’t know how to answer her question. And I still don’t know. It’s a sense that grows inside me, rather like hunger or anger or joy. It’s a sense of growing com-

prehension. The seed of the solution existed in my mind all along. It will grow into comprehension given the right environment.

I call this insight, but if you don’t know what I mean, I can’t explain it.

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Thanks for reading our book. If you have any questions, please contact us at:

1-504-456-1835 (fax) 1-504-887-7714 (phone) norm@lieberman-eng.com (e-mail) Liz and Norm Lieberman 5000 W. Esplanade P.M.B. 267 Metairie, Louisiana 70006

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