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PROCESS puzzler

Foil a Future Fire

Readers suggest ways to improve safety at a cylinder storage site

This Months Puzzler

We had a fire and resulting explosion in our gas storage facility. The fire turned out to be caused by relief
valves popping off on individual liquefied-propane bottles stored in the sun on black top. The bottles are
standard high pressure ones equipped with simple safety-relief valves vented to the atmosphere. They
typically are stored in steel pallet racks side-by-side to maximize storage space. Our manager demands
that we redesign the facility so that such an incident can never happen again. How can we change the
layout and operating procedures of the area to reduce the risk to an absolute minimum?

TAKE SEVEN STEPS odically, say every 5 years, instead of trying to test or
Large fires and explosions in cylinder storage facili- overhaul the valves. New valves may leak if pop-tested.
ties occur because the flammable gas venting from A method to ensure new valves are set properly and
relief valves can catch fire and rapidly overheat dont leak is to test on air at 90% of set pressure before
nearby cylinders. placing them in service. In addition overfilling can be
It only takes a temperature of approximately 125F prevented with internal float valves, weighing, etc.
to lift the typical relief valve set at 250 psig. In addi- Covering the storage area would shield the cylin-
tion, the springs in older relief valves can fatigue, caus- ders from the sun. There should be adequate overhead
ing the valves to leak prematurely. Another concern is space to ensure good ventilation to keep the air tem-
overfilling the cylinders can cause relief valves to open perature down and allow any vapors to dissipate.
much sooner than expected because the liquid hydrau- Consider reducing the number of cylinders kept
lically overfills the cylinder as the temperature rises. on hand and changing to bulk storage, if practical.
Measures to limit the temperature are critical. This would significantly reduce the number of poten-
However, without an industry-wide change in cylin- tial leak points and the potential for problems caused
der design pressures there will always be the potential by a small fire to cascade.
for fire caused by a small leak to cascade through a A sprinkler system could significantly reduce
large group of cylinders. I propose the following coun- this fire risk. The only downside is that if a cylinder
termeasures: 1) ensure cylinders are painted white; 2) explodes due to localized fire impingement the
compartmentalize storage; 3) improve maintenance sprinkler system can be damaged. Periodic inspection
and inspection; 4) provide covered storage; 5) reduce assures that the deluge system improves as accidental
inventory; 6) install a deluge sprinkler system and fires are better understood.
inspect it; and 7) change the site culture. The manager never wants this to happen again.
The danger of overheating is not just from sitting on However, there is the inevitable pressure to minimize
blacktop. It also extends to cylinders sitting in trucks costs. The company can weigh the costs and associ-
waiting for delivery. The single most effective measure is ated risk reduction. If it is serious then it should do
to ensure the cylinders are painted white. There are low the majority of these items not the minimum.
absorption coatings such as roof paints that keep a roof Bob Siml, process specialist,
cool enough to touch in the middle of a summer day. S&B Engineers & Constructors, Houston
The surface of the blacktop should also be changed by
applying roof paint, dusting with concrete, etc. PAINT IT WHITE
The greatest risk from a small fire is numerous I once had a similar situation with a liquid chlorine
cylinders relieving with a high potential for causing cylinder stored on the east side of a building in Iowa.
an explosion. It is mandatory that bays be designed for We didnt want to build a shed, as that would have
pallets and separated with fire barriers like concrete made replacing empties hard because of the large size,
walls to keep a fire from spreading. Two ends of the 4 ft. dia. by 6 ft. We built a wooden cover that rested
bays should be left off to allow for circulation and on top of the cylinder and allowed for air circulation;
keep flammable vapors from collecting. we painted the cover white. Over-heating was never
The manufacturers of small inexpensive relief valves a problem! A forklift was used to remove the cover
often recommend outright replacing the valves peri- when a replacement cylinder was installed. The facility

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PROCESS puzzler

needs shade for its cylinders and air circulation. Also, temperature effects. Berms were built to minimize
venting to a flare system would help. contagion and everything was grounded. Dont as-
Donald Phillips, engineer sume that placing a cylinder on concrete or asphalt is
Phillips Engineering, Melbourne, Fla. enough if the pad is grounded. This isnt always safe.
Ground cylinders to racks. Ground racks individu-
LOWER THE FILL DENSITY AND TEMPERATURE ally to a plate or cable connected to grid grounded to
The problem has two dimensions, temperature earth; confirm soil conductivity during installation
and density. As the temperature and density of the of the grid sand is less conductive than clay. Take
propane, a liquefied compressed gas, increase so does care to avoid grounding to something thats painted.
the resulting pressure. The normal propane DOT Nonconductive fluids such as hydrocarbons generate
4BW-240 cylinder, a cylinder with a test pressure of electricity as they flow. Grounding at the destination of
480 psig and a rated pressure of 240 psig, is usually the flow is critical to avoid a spark. Unfortunately, relief
equipped with a pressure relief device set at 375 psig. valves are a special case. Nothing is more dangerous than
The permitted fill density for propane is found a hydrocarbon liquid atomized by a relief valve. Numer-
in 49 CFR 173.304a (d) and is 42% of the cylinders ous sources suggest setting a maximum velocity of 15 ft./
water capacity. sec. for hydrocarbons. This is probably impractical for re-
Current hazardous materials transportation ship- lief valves; however grounding of relief headers may help.
ping regulations permit the cylinder to be liquid full These sources also suggest that the energy exchanged
at 149F (65C) the problem is you are storing the between atoms of escaping hydrocarbons may produce
containers above that temperature. sufficient static electricity to cause an explosion in some
So, reduce the package fill density [kg propane/L] cases. There may be little that can be done to prevent all
by: a. understanding the variance associated with the fires with such gases as propane and propylene. Maybe
internal volume of your package; b. understanding the locating the relief vents so that they dont become blow
variance associated with your filling process (scale, op- torches when the relief valve lifts is the only sure option
erator, etc.); and c. utilizing a 40% maximum filling besides berms, shading and dispersing clusters of bottles.
density versus the 42% maximum filling density. Dirk Willard, process engineer
Reduce the radiant heat gain by: a. storing the Citgo, Lemont, Ill.
units on a lighter surface; b. covering the units from
Decembers Puzzler
the radiant solar rays; c. ensuring that the cylinders
are painted a light/reflective color (white or silver); and We add a polymer agent as a coagulant to a
d. cooling the units for 5 min. every hour (between 10 cosmetic tank. During development, the ingredi-
a.m. and 6 p.m.) with a water spray. ent was added by hand. In a large bulk tank, this is
Increasing the start to discharge pressure on the too inconvenient. So, we enlisted an open-impeller
pressure relief device from 375 psig to 390 psig will do centrifugal pump to batch the agent to the bulk
very little to help the problem. mixing tank, i.e., reactor. Now, however, the product,
William R. Fink, packaging engineer which should have a consistency of tapioca pudding,
Air Products and Chemicals, Trexlertown, Pa. resembles runny soup. How should we investigate
this problem and what could be the cause? How do
CONSIDER SPACE BLANKETS you suggest we can improve the consistency?
The first step is to minimize the solar exposure, so in- Send us your comments, suggestions or solu-
stall a roof over the storage area. If the area is so large tions for this question by November 10, 2008.
that crane access is needed, build the roof with remov- Well include as many of them as possible in the
able panels. The angle of the sun needs to be consid- December 2008 issue and all on www.Chemical
ered, so adequate overhang is provided to protect the Send visuals a sketch is fine.
bottles at the edge of the storage area. A less expensive E-mail us at or mail
solution would be to cover the cylinders with space to Process Puzzler, Chemical Processing, 555 W.
blankets to deflect the solar radiation. Pierce Road, Suite 301, Itasca, IL 60143. Fax: (630)
Darryl E. Laxo, consultant 467-1120. Please include your name, title, location
Windsor, Calif. and company affiliation in the response.
And, of course, if you have a process problem
ADDRESS GROUNDING youd like to pose to our readers, send it along
When I worked with explosive materials in the mili- and well be pleased to consider it for publication.
tary I noticed that everything was done to minimize

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Look Beyond the Lore

Dont rely on recollections about how a unit had performed

PLANT LEGENDS arise from a blend of hear- at 4 in. of water column (0.14 psi).
say, lack of time for proper analysis, and insuf- 2. The water seal in the flare drum is 10 in. into
ficient understanding of process fundamentals. the seal water (0.36 psi).
Such mythology often stands in the way of ef- 3. The piping has a 7.5-ft.-deep low spot in the
fective scope definition and troubleshooting, as system that eventually will fill with condensate
a recent experience at a trans-shipment terminal (roughly 2 psi).
certainly illustrates. Hydrocarbon vapors from the tanks obviously cant
The terminal is currently releasing hydrocarbons get to the flare. Even if the piping low spot is empty, A myth had
to atmosphere because its flare system is out of service. the seal drum requires 10 in. of water column to push
To get the flare running again, engineers propose the water out of the seal legs. Yet the tanks only hold 4 developed about
to replace components to bring the unit back to its in. column before the conservation vents open. the performance
original as-designed condition. Now plant mythology enters the situation. Many
Three tanks connect to a common flare seal drum people on site remember that the flare system worked of the flare.
(Figure 1). These fixed-roof tanks contain light hydro- when first installed. But it turns out that simply meant
they saw flame from the flare.
Likewise, the lack of visible flame
Excessive seal was the only consistent explana-
4-in. WC Condensate Flare seal tion of not working. So, the
relief buildup drum
40 ft. legend arose that a working flare is
To flare one with a visible flame.
4-in. WC
relief However, fundamentals dispel
40 ft. 7.5 ft. that myth. The pressure balance
4-in. WC 10-in. proves it was impossible for the sys-
Storage tank relief seal
40 ft. tem ever to have met its objective.

Storage tank Figure 1. Problems in the lines from the tanks to the
flare seal drum undermined successful operation.

Storage tank
Restoring the equipment to original
mechanical condition wont reduce
carbons. Temperatures significantly rise during the light hydrocarbon emissions. That goal demands an
day, causing tank pressure increases. So, some gas is in-depth repair removing the seal loop in the piping
vented. The flare system is intended to burn the vent- system and shortening the seal leg depth in the seal drum
ing gases to prevent their release to the atmosphere. to reduce the seal back-pressure on the tanks.
The drum uses a water seal. This provides a
nearly fail-safe method of setting a back pressure GET MORE INSITES
on the drum to minimize breathing losses from Past columns are available online at www.
the day/night cycle while keeping an open route
to the flare at all times. Because turning a single html. In addition, check out the answers to plant
valve in the flare vent line could isolate a tank, problems posted in Ask the Experts at www.
each tank has a local conservation vent. experts/index.html.
Postponed maintenance has rendered the flare
useless. Neither the flare tip nor the ignition system is Unfortunately, many plants have areas where the
physically capable of working anymore. The opera- definition of working hasnt anything to do with
tions department argues: Why bother to fix the flare? the actual process objective or fundamentals of how
It hasnt worked for years anyway. equipment functions.
Operations has good reason for this opinion after
all Figure 1 shows three mutually inconsistent factors: ANDREW SLOLEY, Contributing Editor
1. The conservation vent on the tank is set to relieve


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