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Sea Cooling Water Corrosion

In petrochemical, oil & gas, refinery and other many industries, cooling water is the heart and soul of all
operations. Without cooling water system, there is no operation possible. Last to be down during shutdowns
and first to be up during start-ups, cooling water system is by far the most critical system yet containing a
non-toxic, non-flammable, non-hazardous fluid, water. However, any threat to the mechanical integrity of
this system may lead to plant downtime, lost production and maintenance cost impact. Therefore,
inspection, maintenance and operation of this system is as critical as this system is. No matter the leaking
fluid is water, plant is down for days.

There have been different sources of cooling water system like sea, canals, wells. Facilities installed near
sea use sea water as the cooling media. Similarly, facilities away from sea but near big rivers, seasonal
canals use these sources for water or the wells are dig to get this very important raw material to keep the
plant running. Based upon the source, corrosivity of cooling water differs. Then comes its handling and
treatment which also has an impact on its corrosive nature. Operation is another factor which directly
affects the erosion issues related to cooling water especially where valves are throttled and velocities are
not maintained.

In this very article, sea cooling water corrosion has been made the topic of discussion. Sea cooling water
corrosion and erosion issues affects almost all the commonly used metallurgy starting from carbon steel,
low alloy steel, all grades of stainless steel, copper, aluminum, titanium and nickel based alloys.
Metallurgical and material solutions to resist sea cooling water corrosion will be discussed in detail however
operational controls to mitigate sea cooling water corrosion are not addressed in this article.

Fig. 1: Sea water corrosion leak

What causes corrosion in sea water

There are three factors which impacts largely the corrosivity of sea water:
1. Chloride concentration
2. Oxygen
3. Temperature

Chloride concentration
Chloride ions are the present in sea water as the most aggressive agents which reacts with ferrous ions to
form ferrous chloride which eventually reacts with dissolved oxygen in sea water to form ferric oxide and
ferric chloride. Ferric ions are considered to be those agents which can cause severe corrosion.

Fe = Fe2+ + 2e-
Fe2+ + 2Cl- = FeCl2

Dissolved oxygen in sea water also plays an important role in the corrosivity of sea water. Chloride ions
presence changes the dissolved oxygen concentration in sea water. At 3.5 weight percent of NaCl,
maximum oxygen concentration is obtained. Below Chart A explains how corrosion rate of steel is affected
with the concentration of NaCl in sea water:

Corrosion Rate (mm/y)

Corrosion Rate (mm/y)

0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35
Sodium Chloride (wt. %)

Chart A: Effect of NaCl concentration on corrosion rate of steel

Corrosion of steels in water increases from 2 to 4 % per degree (oC) rise in temperature. Based upon this,
sea water corrosion is more aggressive in tropical areas compared to the cold ones. Serious scaling occurs
when outlet temperature of sea water goes beyond 46 oC.

Other than these three factors, velocity of sea cooling water directly affects the erosion-corrosion of
material. The impact of velocity is different for different metallurgies. Table 1 represents insights to this:

Material Maximum Pit Average Corrosion Rate

Depth (mm/y)
Still Seawater Flowing Seawater
8.2 m/s 35 - 42 m/s
Carbon Steel 2 - 4.5
Grey Cast Iron 4.9 4.4 13.2
Admirality Gunmetal 0.25 0.9 1.07
85/5/5/5 Cu Zn Pb Zn 0.32 1.8 1.32
Ni Resist Cast Iron Nil 0.2 0.97
Type 1B
Ni Al Bronze 1.12 0.22 0.97
70/30 Cu Ni + Fe 0.25 0.12 1.47
Type 316 Stainless 1.8 <0.02 <0.01
6% Mo Stainless Steel Nil <0.02 <0.01
Ni-Cu Alloy 40 1.3 <0.01 0.01
Table 1: Pitting depths and corrosion rates in seawater service

Affected metallurgies

Carbon steel
Bare carbon steel cannot withstand sea cooling water media as it corrodes and erodes at the same time in
presence of high velocities. And in case of still water, pitting starts which affects the steel and eventually
lead to leak.

Stainless steel
300 series stainless steel suffers from stress corrosion cracking, crevice corrosion or pitting corrosion
depending upon the operating parameters in sea water service. This makes this material vulnerable and
not recommended to be used.

Copper alloys
Copper alloys have also been used as one of the combatant materials against sea cooling water corrosion
since many years. They offer good resistance when compared to steels. Presence of oxide film plays an
important role. Studies have shown that with passage of time oxide film on copper alloys improve. Initial
corrosion rate is higher compared to long term corrosion rate. Chart B shows the corrosion rate of most
commonly used Cu-Ni alloy in flowing sea water.

Corrosion Rate of Alloy C70600 in Flowing Sea Water


Corrosion Rate (µm/y)


0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16
Years of exposure

Chart B: Corrosion rate of Alloy 70600 in flowing sea water

Copper-zinc alloys can suffer dezincification in sea water service.

Chlorides penetrate into concrete through its flaws and may affect the carbon steel substrate which would
eventually corrode to leak.

Recommended solutions

Isolation of steel through coating

Bare steel is not resistant to sea water corrosion and erosion-corrosion damages. However, the solution
which is being commonly used in industries to resist sea water corrosion is the coated steel, just isolate
the steel from sea water through application of an appropriate coating system. However, the question is
which coating is effective considering cost and the life of the coating material. There have been cement
lining materials, glass flake reinforced polyester, fusion-bonded epoxy, rubber lining to choose from.

Cement Lining
Cement lining is cost effective, easily available however the quality control practices shall ensure the whole
process of cement lining. Cementous material containing pores may lead to leak in very short time. Field
joints stand as a challenge and must be done with utmost care. Cement lining itself is a thick layer and
difficult to apply in small bore piping. Also, bigger pipe diameters are required when considering to apply
cement lining inside in order to have an effective required diameter.

Fig. 2: Cement mortar lining in progress

Glass Flake Reinforced Polyester

Glass flake reinforced polyester is another coating material being used in sea water applications. An easy
to apply coating system has its own drawbacks where its ability to resist erosion is challenged especially in
presence of marine growth, sea shells and other substances causing erosion at higher velocities.
Fig. 3: Glass flake polyester lining

Fusion-bonded Epoxy
Fusion-bonded epoxy is another internal coating system which is used to resist cooling water corrosion
agents’ permeation to steel substrate. Defect free epoxy coatings resist the diffusion of chloride and oxygen
however not impermeable to moisture. This property benefits in saving the carbon steel base metal to
come in contact with corrosive agents.

Fig. 4: FBE coating in progress

Cupronickels where 10-30% nickel is added, are the choices being made for sea water services since years.
Alloy C70600 provides better long term corrosion resistance. However, the application of cupronickels is
mostly within exchangers as tube materials and they are seldom used as piping materials for sea cooling
water service.

A very costly affair but the effective for long term applications and maintenance free operation is using
Titanium however its application is also limited to exchangers’ tube material.


Based upon the experience of different industrial sectors having sea water as cooling media, following is
the conclusion drawn:

For piping applications, coated steel with fusion bonded epoxy serves the best in sea water corrosion based
upon the industrial experience. Fusion-bonded epoxy is one part, heat curable, thermosetting epoxy resin
powder utilizing heat to melt and adhere to a metal substrate. With excellent adhesion, tough, smooth
finish resistant to abrasion and chemicals FBE coatings are combating with corrosion since 1960.

For best performance, the thickness is normally in the four hundred microns range.

FBE is currently in use in oil & gas, refining, petrochemicals and other industrial sectors all over the World.
Specifically, for sea water corrosion, it is well tested and providing excellent results from previous so many

Bio of Author

Ashfaq Anwer
Working as an Inspection Engineer with ADNOC Gas Processing, Ashfaq has got 13 years of experience in
inspection, corrosion, material selection for pressure equipment and piping in Ammonia-Urea,
petrochemical and gas processing complexes. He can be contacted at his email address