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1 June 2002

Smart positioners to the rescue

By Riyaz Ali

Dangerous chemical leaks add to the inherent risks of industrial processes in the chemical
or oil and gas industries. And while safety instrumented systems (SISs) are meant to
reduce the likelihood of an emergency, they can't always prevent catastrophes.

SISs typically consist of three elements: field sensors to determine an emergency situation,
a logic system to determine what action to take, and a final control element to implement
the action. While all three elements of the SIS are crucial to safely isolate the process plant
in an emergency, they aren't fail safe. There's no such thing as risk-free operation.

Adding a smart positioner to an SIS reduces base equipment cost, testing time, and
manpower requirements by eliminating the need for expensive pneumatic test panels and
skilled personnel for testing. And it permits remote testing, saving time and reducing
maintenance inspection trips to the field.

The problem
Final control elements (emergency shutdown, venting, isolation, and critical on/off valves)
normally remain static-in one position-and reliably operate only in an emergency. Because
they're in one position for a long time, they have a tendency to become stuck in that
position (due to process fluid contamination and corrosion) and may not operate when
needed. The result: an explosion, fire, or leak of lethal chemicals into the environment.

Frequent testing is imperative with such volatile processes. Estimates indicate final control
elements, particularly discrete (on/off) safety valves, cause as much as 40% to 50% of
loop operational problems.

If an emergency occurred, the SIS couldn't respond properly. The SIS can fail in two ways:
a nuisance or spurious trip (resulting in an unplanned and costly process shutdown) and an
undetected (covert or hidden) failure, which allows continued, dangerous process

Conventional testing
The only sure way to completely test a final control element is with an in-line test that
strokes the valve from 0% to 100% (full open/full close). To close a shutdown valve
completely, you would have to totally shut down the process, causing lost production time.
Operations managers are reluctant to completely shut down a profitably operating process
just to test the safety systems. They usually wait until turnaround time, traditionally every
two to three years and now as long as six years.

Companies have devised methods for testing the SIS valves online so they don't have to
shut down the process. They might install a bypass valve around each safety valve. The
disadvantage is the process is unprotected while the bypass is in operation. Testers might

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also inadvertently leave the safety valve in the bypass position after testing, leaving the
process unprotected until an operator discovers the error.

There's also the mechanical limiting method, which involves a mechanical device such as a
pin, valve stem collar, or valve hand jack to limit valve travel to 15% or less of the valve
stroke. These tests involve complex and expensive pneumatic test panels.

A major drawback: The safety shutdown function is not available during the test period.
Likewise, the safety valve could remain in this mechanically limited condition, and a casual
inspection might not always catch it. So the valve could be out of service for a long time,
unbeknownst to operators.

The other methods of partial testing have similar

disadvantages. And these methods are only as good INSTALLATION
as the written procedures and the training of the test
You can add a smart positioner to
personnel. Plus, they test only the valve assembly
any valve-style configuration,
itself-they don't take into account sensors or logic
including linear sliding stem,
elements of the SIS, which undergo separate tests.
rotary, and quarter turn with
spring and diaphragm actuators,
Smart Positioners spring-return piston actuators, or
double-acting piston actuators.
Smart positioners are digital valve controllers- Two types of installation are
microprocessor-based, current-to-pneumatic possible: four wire and two wire.
instruments with internal logic capability. They Both installations use a solenoid
traditionally convert a current signal to a pressure valve and provide a redundant
signal to operate the valve. They receive feedback of pneumatic path.
the valve travel position plus supply and actuator
pneumatic pressures, allowing them to diagnose not The actuator pressure will always
only themselves but also the valve and actuator to be able to exhaust to allow the
which they are mounted. Using smart positioners as valve to move to the safe position.
part of the final control element permits partial-stroke,
If the solenoid valve fails, the
online testing of the valve and eliminates the need for actuator pressure exhausts
special mechanical-limiting devices. through the pneumatic path in the
smart positioner. If the smart
Partial-stroke testing confirms the valve is working positioner fails, the actuator
without disturbing the process. Because there's no pressure exhausts through the
need to shutdown the process, testing can occur more solenoid valve.
frequently. Because smart positioners hold the
programming of the test procedure, partial-stroke In a four-wire system the logic
testing happens automatically and requires no solver provides two separate
operator attention. outputs: a 24-VDC signal for the
solenoid valve and a 4-20 mA DC
Typically the partial-stroke test moves the valve 10% current signal for the smart
from its original position but can move it up to 30% if positioner. Both signals are
plant safety guidelines allow. Although partial-stroke generated based on sensors and
testing doesn't eliminate the need for full-stroke logic internal to the logic solver. It
testing (required to check valve seating), it does requires an additional pair of wires
reduce the required full-stroke testing frequency so it but permits the smart positioner to
most likely undergoes testing during plant turnaround. continue to communicate even
during emergency demand

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Some smart positioners alert the operator if a valve is

conditions. In a two-wire system
stuck. As the positioner begins the partial stroke, itinstallation, the logic solver
continually checks the valve travel to see whether it's
provides a single 24-VDC source to
responding properly. If it isn't, the positioner will abort
provide power for both the
the test and alert the operator that the valve is stuck.
solenoid valve and the smart
This will prevent the valve from slamming shut if the position, reducing wiring costs in
valve does eventually break loose. IT new installations and requiring no
additional wiring in existing
Riyaz Ali is a development manager at Fisher Controls installations.
International Inc. in Marshalltown, Iowa. He will
present his paper at the ISA Western Regional Conference, Training & Exhibition on 18-19
June 2002 in Las Vegas.

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