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and Reliability
J. THARAKAN, Suncor Energy Products,
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Minimize engineering errors with competency

and proper engineering review
Industry has seen numerous engineering errors during the ings. The top 24 ft. of the tower had a thickness of only 0.25
commissioning phase of projects. Errors that slip through re- in. Tall, thin, cylindrical, stack-like structures are susceptible
views could lead to costly equipment failures. How do these to wind-induced oscillation due to vortex shedding. This vi-
errors creep in? Are organizations learning from incidents and bration occurs in a direction perpendicular to the direction of
capturing those learnings in their standards? How many times wind flow. When the frequency of vortex shedding approach-
has corporate memory failed us? Some interesting examples es the natural frequency of the tower, the oscillations gain am-
of errors that will provide a taste of the broad and diverse plitude. The wind velocity at which the frequency of vortex
range of potential errors are discussed here. Standards and shedding matches the natural frequency of the tower is called
specifications can address repeatable errors, but competency critical wind velocity. Vortex shedding occurs at relatively low-
and the right level of engineering review are required to mini- er wind velocities. Wind speeds in excess of 50 mph always
mize random errors. contain gusts that will disrupt uniform vortex shedding.2 The
presence of attachments like platforms and ladders lower the
Reliability vs. low initial cost. A set of spherical pressure chance of vortex shedding, as well. The original designer of
vessels for butane storage were fabricated using carbon steel. the tower had calculated that the critical wind velocity of the
However, corrosion allowance was not specified because the tower as 32 mph in an empty erected condition without pack-
service was deemed non-corrosive. After 30 yr of operation, ings. With packings, the critical wind velocity improved to 45
the sphere experienced a low rate of internal pitting and cor- mph. The vessel designer included a note in the drawings that
rosion, which made it thinner than the design thickness. It is the tower should be supported with guy-wires each time the
difficult to categorize it as a design error if the original speci- packing is removed.
fied design life was 25 yr. The truth is that pressure vessels are The guy-wires turned out to be an expensive undertaking
meant to operate for much longer than 25 yr, so it is prudent during turnarounds when the packings were dumped. This
to consider a corrosion allowance for all carbon steel equip- situation could have been eliminated by using a slightly thick-
ment. In this instance, the operator was forced to resort to er plate for the fabrication of the tower. Organizations should
fitness-for-service and the application of protective internal place emphasis on reducing lifecycle costs, not upfront costs.
coatings to extend the life of the vessel. The standards of this
organization require corrosion allowance for all carbon steel Wrong metallurgy. Companies rely on a positive material
equipment, regardless of service. identification (PMI) program to capture deviations prior to
Steam methane reformers use high-nickel cast high-perfor- commissioning. Most mix-ups are in small-bore fittings in
mance (HP) alloys for the catalyst tubes, which have a flanged low-alloy steel piping/equipment. It may be hard to put this in
opening at the top for filling catalyst. Some designs have a the engineering error category. An engineering error is when
flange at the bottom, as well. The manufacturers used low-al- the wrong metallurgy is selected without a full understand-
loy steel flanges at the top end of the catalyst tubes and carbon ing of the potential damage mechanisms. Such errors have
steel flanges at the bottom end. This cost-reduction measure
resulted in dissimilar welds on the catalyst tube, which are
prone to failures. The dissimilar welds at the top cracked due
to thermal fatigue (FIG. 1). The bottom flange is a dead-ended
section outside of the furnace. The dissimilar weld suffered a
combination of hydrogen (H2)-assisted cracking and carbonic
acid (H2CO3 ) corrosion.1
The designer of a carbonate regenerator adopted a unique
design premise to reduce the initial cost. This tower was 140 ft.
FIG. 1. Cracking of dissimilar welds at the top of the catalyst tube.
tall, had a diameter of 10 ft. and was filled with random pack-
Hydrocarbon Processing | OCTOBER 2017 67
Maintenance and Reliability

led to many serious incidents in industry. Operating within The gasket seating stresses relax after assembly, and it is rec-
integrity operating windows (IOWs) is equally important to ommended to impart sufficient assembly load to compensate
avoid unforeseen material damages. The operating manuals for future relaxation. For example, the A193 B7 bolt should be
will not indicate the rationale behind material selection and stressed from 40 kilopounds per square inch (Ksi) to 70 Ksi
the corrosion control documents (CCDs) being created to fill for joint integrity; although, the flange design calculation uses
this gap. The American Petroleum Institute (API) published an allowable bolt stress of 25 Ksi. Many leaks on heat exchang-
RP 584 IOWs in 2014, and RP 970-CCD is expected to be er body flanges could be traced back to low-assembly loads
released in 2017. selected by vendors thinking that they should stay within the
design allowable stress of the bolt. With the release of ASME
Undersized equipment. Gas-liquid separators are sized for PCC-1 in 2010 and training and qualification requirements in
a recommended residence time to enable the separation of the the 2013 revision, this knowledge gap has narrowed.
vapor and liquid phases. If the sizing is not appropriate, liq-
uid can carry over to the downstream systems. These are not Lack of understanding of the design intent. At times,
easy fixes. FIG. 2 shows the failure of a compressor’s diaphragm we fail to communicate the design intent to the user. During
(stationary guide vanes) due to liquid carryover from an un- an engineering review, the author came across a case where a
dersized separator from which the compressor took suction. pressure relief valve (PRV) was twinned, but the operations
It may be worth noting that no knockout drum was present lined up both sets of valves, which doubled the relief capac-
between the separator and the compressor suction. ity. If a relief scenario were to occur, this setup could poten-
tially lead to valve chattering and seat/disk damage. Only one
Misinterpreting flange assembly loads. Flange joints set is supposed to be in line, and the other should be a spare.
are generally the weakest component in a pressurized system. Per API 520 Part 2, when spare relief devices are provided,
a mechanical interlock or administrative controls—which
manage the proper opening and closing sequences of the iso-
lation valves to ensure that only one set is lined up at a time—
should be provided.

Inadequate margin. Spring-loaded PRVs require a 10% mar-

gin between the operating pressure and the set pressure to pre-
vent valve simmering and leakage. For tank relief valves, there
is no spring loading, so the required margin is approximately
20%. Typically, tank pressure vacuum relief valves (PVRVs)
open and vent to the atmosphere during normal tank opera-
tion, as the level changes. Therefore, in a conventional tank
design, the PVRVs have the dual function of regulating the
tank vapor space pressure and overpressure protection.
When tank vapors contain toxic materials such as hydro-
gen sulfide (H2S), the function of regulating the tank pressure
is detached from the PRV. These tanks have a blanketing gas
supply to the vapor space through a pressure controller. The
FIG. 2. View of a broken compressor’s diaphragm due to liquid carryover.
normal venting from these tanks is either to a vapor recovery
system or to a flare. A PRV and emergency vent will be open
to the atmosphere on these tanks. The purpose is overpres-
sure protection only, and the valve is expected to remain shut
during normal tank operation. The author has encountered
multiple cases on these tanks where the PRV has leaked due to
an inadequate margin between the normal operating pressure
and the set pressure of the PRV. The root cause of this issue is
non-conservative design pressure for the tank, squeezing the
available margin to set the PRV.

High-pressure drop. In a Canadian facility, a hydrocracking

unit was started up after debottlenecking was completed. In
the piping circuit, more than a dozen piston check valves were
not opening enough at normal flow. The check valve’s piston
would have the upstream pressure at the bottom side and the
downstream pressure on the top side. The differential pres-
sure acts against the weight of the piston. Since the original
piston was heavy, the valve could not fully open at the avail-
FIG. 3. The original piston (left) and the modified piston (right).
able pressure differential. This setup restricted the capacity.
68 OCTOBER 2017 | HydrocarbonProcessing.com
Maintenance and Reliability

The pistons were replaced with lighter ones (FIGS. 3 and 4). when product is pumped out of the tank after the roof lands. A
Takeaway: The check valve’s ability to fully open at available client’s standard required that the bleeder vent be located close
differential pressure must be checked at the design stage. to the center of the roof, with an additional requirement on the
projection of its sleeve above the tank roof. The seating face of
Design/fabrication errors. Reciprocating water-injection the valve was at the top of the sleeve. The tank designer’s prac-
pumps in a hydrocracking unit suffered a catastrophic failure. tice was to place the bleeder vent closer to the outer periphery
The failure began at the welding on the plunger attaching its of the roof. They attached the bleeder vent near the tank center,
cover to the barrel. It is not recommended to use a welded but failed to compensate the length of the sleeve for the roof
plunger in the first place, as the plunger sees severe cyclic sagging. When in service, the accumulation of snow/water on
stresses that could fail a weld. To make matters worse, the the roof caused the roof sagging to increase (FIG. 8). The ad-
weld was defective. ditional weight on the roof increased product displacement as
A failure investigation revealed that the vent hole was miss- per the floatation law. The resulting level difference (h) lifted
ing in the failed plunger (FIG. 5). This vent hole is required to the bleeder valve leaking product above the roof.
relieve the welding fumes, without which the welding is prone
to be defective. The plunger was replaced with a solid plunger Ligament failure. As per API 590, the convection tube sheet
to eliminate the welded joint in this severe cyclic service. of heaters requires a minimum 0.5-in thickness. The spacing
Another notable example was lamellar cracking of pump between the tubes is determined by the center-to-center spac-
boxes—tanks that hold slurry—in a mining project (FIG. 6). ing of a 180° return bend, which is twice the nominal diameter.
The pump box had a rectangular shape with a conical bot- The holes on the tube sheet should be large enough to suit the
tom, and was fabricated from a 1-in.-thick carbon steel plate outside diameter of the fin (or stud) of the convection tubes.
conforming to A 572 Gr. 50. The major contributors leading This leaves a thin ligament, which is often inadequate to with-
to the lamellar cracking were the use of high-strength steel
(yield strength of 50 Ksi), with potentially low-transverse
ductility and a poor weld joint design. Weld shrinkage stresses
perpendicular to the rolling direction promote lamellar crack-
ing. FIG. 7 shows how a joint design can offset the direction of
weld shrinkage stresses. Preheating helps reduce weld residual
stresses, as well. The joint design principle would be applicable
for fabrication of thick header boxes for fin-fan exchangers.
FIG. 5. Cross-section of the plunger.
Misinterpretation of the standard. Floating roof tanks
have bleeder vent(s), which are meant to prevent vacuum

FIG. 6. Cracking in a pump box.

FIG. 4. Cross-section of the modified check valve’s piston. FIG. 7. The improved joint design eliminates lamellar cracking.

Hydrocarbon Processing | OCTOBER 2017 69

Maintenance and Reliability

stand the operating load. The author has encountered multi- are discussed here; however, the designer failed to distinguish
ple cases of cracking of 0.5-in.-thick tube sheets at the narrow the specific limitations for their application. The first example
ligaments. FIG. 9 shows a cracked tube sheet that was repaired is the selection of a vortex flowmeter to measure the flow on
with stiffeners. Increasing the tube sheet’s thickness is required individual water-injection lines in a hydrocracker during a unit
where the ligament width is narrow. A company’s standard revamp. Orifice meters previously used in this service were suc-
must supplement industry standards, based on experience. cessful. The piping where the flowmeters were mounted ran
through the platform of a bank of fin-fan coolers. Vortex meters
Technology selection. When selecting technology, avoid be- are sensitive to vibration, and the fin-fan platform, where the
ing “guinea pigs.” Two examples regarding proven technology meters were mounted, had sufficient vibration to affect the ac-
curacy of its readings.
A large upstream oil company selected oil-flooded screw
compressors for wet gas compression in its gathering centers.
In oil-flooded screw compressors, the lube oil provides the
sealing between the casing and the rotor lobes. The lube oil
gets mixed with the process gas, is separated in an oil/gas sepa-
rator, and is then pumped back to the compressor through the
oil cooler and the lube oil filter. The compressors experienced
frequent plugging of the lube oil filter. The takeaway was that
oil-flooded compressors were not an appropriate selection for
wet gas compression due to the potential liquid entrainment
in the gas, despite having a gas scrubber upstream of the com-
pressor.3 The entrained liquid degraded the oil, which created
gooey material/solid particles that choked the oil filter.
FIG. 8. When in service, the accumulation of snow/water on the
roof caused the roof sagging to increase, which increased Dry gas seals for pumps. Multiple pumps in light hydrocar-
product displacement. bon/high-vapor-pressure fluids with a dry gas seal developed
an interesting integrity issue. The seal plan was 74 for this dual-
pressurized seal (FIG. 10). The barrier gas, nitrogen (N), was at
a pressure higher than the pump stuffing box pressure. The N
leaked past the inner seal face and into the pump casing of the
pumps that were on standby. This leakage caused vapor lock
when the standby pumps were started. This was resolved by
connecting the seal vent to the vapor space of the pump suc-
tion vessel. This solution channeled the leaking N to the suc-
tion drum, which prevented it from getting into the pump.

Asymmetrical piping. Two pumps (A/B) at the bottom of a

fractionating tower (FIG. 11) had asymmetrical piping. If kept
on standby, Pump A would accumulate corrosion products in
the suction strainer. Pump A’s strainer required cleaning each
time the pump was started. The operations team adopted a so-
lution that entailed treating Pump B as an emergency spare and

FIG. 10. The connection of a seal vent to the vapor space of the pump
FIG. 9. View of a cracker tube sheet repaired with stiffeners. suction vessel channeled the leaking nitrogen to the suction drum.

70 OCTOBER 2017 | HydrocarbonProcessing.com
Maintenance and Reliability

running Pump A almost continuously. This plan is an example that entails additional levels of protection, such as a chop valve
where limitations can be managed, but a flip side to this ex- that closes at a low low level in the separator. Process safety re-
ample does exist. The plant follows a pump swinging program, quires multiple layers of protection. Engineering control is the
which enables the detection of hidden failures and maintains top tier of the hierarchy of these layers of protection. All inci-
even run hours between the machines. These pumps needed to dent investigations require adequate probing to identify hidden
be singled out from the pump swinging program. engineering errors, if any.
Organizations can keep both engineering and administra-
Takeaway. The author has not attempted to cover all of the tive errors in check through periodic PHA, damage mechanism
design errors experienced in this article. A few other examples review (DMR), pre-startup safety review (PSSR) and a robust
are discussed in other technical articles.4,5 Aside from initial de- MOC system. Networking and competency development of
sign, errors can creep in when changes are implemented. People engineers are equally important.
easily visualize changes associated with any alteration of hard-
ware, but can fail to identify other changes that affect integrity. REFERENCES
A change in the feed specification to a unit, in the heat duty of a 1
El Ganainy, O., “Failure of dissimilar metals weld in reformer tubes,” Process Safety
furnace, or an increase in flow through a heat exchanger can im- Progress, July 1985.
Moss, D. and M. Basic, Pressure Vessel Design Manual, 4th Ed., Elsevier, 2012.
pact integrity. A rigorous management of change (MOC) sys- 3
Mirza, B. and F. Al-Kharqawi, “Key engineering highlights of facilities and equip-
tem and training are required to recognize and manage changes. ment for oil and gas production in Kuwait Oil Co.,” Journal of Energy and Power
Major engineering errors can lead to process safety events Engineering, January 2016.
(PSEs), which result in an unplanned or uncontrolled loss of
Tharakan, J., “Vibration studies offer valuable lessons for correcting problematic
operations,” Hydrocarbon Processing, March 2017.
primary containment (LOPC). Examples to illustrate how de- 5
Tharakan, J., “A deeper examination of the thermal expansion issues in process
sign norms have changed over the years include: equipment and piping,” Hydrocarbon Processing, May 2017.
1. Hydrocarbon liquid relief of a process vessel was
routed to the oily water sewer. Once, an over-pressure JOHN THARAKAN is a corporate static equipment specialist
scenario resulted in a massive release to the sewer, at Suncor Energy Inc. in Canada. He specializes in mechanical
integrity, with a focuses on troubleshooting, failure analysis
which led to a fire. and fitness for service. He holds an MS degree in mechanical
2. Due to the failure of a level controller, gas blowby engineering design and has more than 30 yr of experience
occurred from a two-phase separator to the in the oil industry.
atmospheric storage tank through the rundown line.
Both examples occurred on 50-yr-old plants.
Present design standards require the relief valve outlet to be
connected to the hydrocarbon flare. Gas blowby is a situation Idrojet s.r.l. & Idrokid s.r.l.
evaluated seriously through process hazard analysis (PHA), and proudly presents...
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fractionating tower.

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