Safe Valve Positions

Learn How to Improve the Safety Record of Fossil and Nuclear Energy Processes in Renewable Energy Process, about Amonia Storage Tanks and CAE Programs

This article was printed in CONTROL's November 2009 edition.

"Ask the Experts"is moderated by Béla Lipták, process control consultant and editor of the Instrument Engineer's Handbook (IEH). The 4th edition of Volume 3, Process Software and Networks, is in progress. If you are qualified to contribute to this volume, or if you are qualified to answer questions in this column, or want to ask a question, write to

Q: We would like to improve on the safety record of fossil and nuclear energy processes in our design of a new renewable energy process. One element of that improved performance is the selection of the safe failure position for valves. We followed the advice in your handbook on designing for mechanical, plant or instrument air and electric power supply failures. We also followed your advice on safe failure positions, such as valves being closed on heating and open on cooling. In critical cases, we are also using redundant valves with different actuators—one pneumatic and the other an electric motor—and then installing them in parallel for cooling and in series for heating applications, as you suggested.

Now, we came across a situation where the safe failure position changes with the phase of the process, and depending on the phase, it can be open, closed or the last position. Am I right that in such cases we should use double-acting and not spring-return actuators? Do you have any other advice on how to design for such situations?

George Scott

A: Your options are a function of how much you can afford to spend versus what level of safety you require. In any case, you should have backup for both your air and electric power supplies.

The less expensive solution is to use a double-acting valve with redundant solenoids to load one side or the other, or vent both as the required failure position changes.

The more expensive choice is to provide three parallel pipe runs with block valves, and select the right run for each phase of operation. If the switching needs to be fast, the block valves should be automatic.

In either case, all valves should have limit switches and the logic to make sure that valve status and operating mode requirements match.

Béla Lipták

A: It is not unusual to have valves with both fail-open and fail-close control systems in fossil power applications. This arrangement is usually achieved through the use of two solenoids, one for fail closed and one for fail open.

The reliability of these systems can be further improved by using redundant solenoids and a voting system, or by specifying the reliability of the instruments using IEC 61508 and the SIL rating system. Triple-redundant solenoids have been used for more than 30 years in Europe for boiler and condenser protection. Triple redundancy is being replaced by the SIL system.

Stephen Freitas

A: Without knowing nearly enough about the process you are using, two ways to accomplish your stated goal come to mind.

  1. Build a manifold for three automatic valves, so that each valve has manual block valves. Use an air-to-open and air-to-close spring-return valve. The third valve is double-acting. Assuming the process state changes are sufficiently spread in time, manually select the valve for each state (phase). You may have to switch the process control system as well.
  2. Many years ago, the large butterfly valve for a 7,000 hp hot-gas expansion turbine had to close quickly if the shaft to the axial compressor failed. A local power supply consisting of a cylinder of compressed nitrogen provided the pressure to operate a double-acting valve. A local pneumatic control device sensed over speed and closed the inlet valve. This solution was in operation at a large nitric acid plant owned by Hercules Powder Co. sometime in the late 1960s.

Have you done the probability analysis for everything involved in a failure, not just the air supply? Doing so would be a good idea. There is a balance between cost and risk to be considered. Intrinsic electrical safety is based on the idea that the probability of two improbable events happening at the same time is an acceptable level of risk. Is it possible in this application for one accident or fire to take out both plant air and electricity?

Bill Hawkins

Q: Below is a question about an ammonia storage tank:

  • Content of tank: Liquid ammonia (not corrosive)
  • Max liquid level: 19.55 m
  • Density at normal operating temperature (vapor/liq.): 0.776/675.7 kg/m3
  • Liquid viscosity: 0.25 cp
  • Normal operating temperature: -35.1 ˚C
  • Operating pressure: 0.05 barg.

We need a level transmitter with an accuracy of ±1 mm. The transmitter would be installed on the roof of tank on an 8-in. nozzle on the top of the tank. I don't know which to use—servo LT or guided wave radar? What are the benefits and limitations of each?

Mina Movahedinia

A: Radar will provide the best accuracy, but it will not be inexpensive. I suggest checking with either custody transfer meter folks such as Saab, which is now part of Rosemount, or others such as Magnetrol for guided wave radar solutions.

Ian verhappen

A: One-mm accuracy in custody transfer cases is not quite warranted. Vapor pressure and temperature controls in Horton spheres and similar storage tanks for ammonia will require wave dampening controls and closed loop refrigeration systems.
Manufacturers claim that kind of accuracy using servo systems. The radar transmitters have come a long way in the past three years, including open-wave and guided-wave transmitters. The problem is that tank geometry, suction piping and spurious signal/noise ratios and interference (metal bottoms) affect accuracy at low liquid levels.

Other problems include premature instrument failures due to ambient ammonia presence, which can't be helped because of leaky PSVs nearby, and the temperatures inside the instrument housing, which leave many of these installations as installed monuments for engineers.

For proper operation the dielectric constant should exceed 2, which is usually no problem, as anhydrous ammonia usually contains a few ppm of water. For non-contact, sealed-diaphragm type guided wave sensors, a stand pipe type stilling well is recommended, and it's also advisable to mount the transmitter electronics remotely to avoid lighting strikes. The accuracy is around 3 mm over 30 meters. Major manufacturers like SAAB, Ohmart-Vega, Enraf  and others will provide more application help, though they may not give details on the shortcomings of their product line for competitive commercial reasons in ammonia applications.

Ram Ramachandran

Q: I have a degree in instrumentation technology and also have acquired some software skills such as Java programming. I'm looking at additional courses and came across the Certified Automation Engineer (CAE) program. Would such a course be helpful in  finding a job later?

Satya Dev Koneru

AISA's Certified Automation Professional (CAP) is an excellent program.  The person passes an exam and becomes certified. He or she then must continue practice of that profession and take a number of courses to remain certified. ISA offers a course to help pass the CAP exam.

The certification, while admirable, carries no legal status. The CAP program is gradually becoming recognized as a status achievement by our profession, but far from universal. Some of the best experts instrumentation and controls are not CAPs, nor do they feel a need for certification.

Richard H. Caro, CAP 

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