Sealless pumps get their turn

Cost and design improvements are spurring increasing use, particularly for handling hazardous fluids.

By Nick Basta

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Process pumps take center stage at many plants when it comes to addressing regulatory requirements and safety issues about fugitive emissions. After all, leaks through seals on conventional pumps usually play a significant role in such emissions. This is pumping up interest in designs that avoid seals altogether by relying on magnetic drives or motors contained within the pump shell. These designs have been around since the late 1940s, yet new magnetic materials, better bearings and improved versions of the pumps roll out regularly. Suppliers also have been raising the horsepower, percent-solids and dry-running capabilities of their units.

Meanwhile, the cost premium over conventional pumps has been dropping. According to sealless pump makers, pricing has come down, mostly due to the greater availability of lower-cost cobalt-samarium permanent magnets (which are used on the pump rotor). At the same time, enhanced mechanical seals or other emission control measures have added to the cost of conventional pumps. “By my estimation, the difference between the pumps’; prices has shrunk by 30% over the past 15 years, depending on a great variety of design and mechanical details of both sealless and sealed pumps,” says Jack Parker, an applications specialist at Magnatek, Houston, which sells only sealless mag-drive designs.

“Business isn’;t growing by leaps and bounds, but every year we sell more sealless units than the previous year,” says Paul Biver, a product manager at ITT Goulds Pumps, Seneca Falls, N.Y. Part of the driver for this might be changing customer demand: The latest market study from Freedonia Group, Cleveland, predicts U.S. pump demand (of all types) will rise 5% per year from 2002 to 2007. Process manufacturing accounts for about a third of the market, and should show the highest growth rate, 5.7% per year, the study reports. With sealless pumps the design of choice for handling the hazardous fluids common in the process industries, these styles of pumps may be benefiting from the evolving marketplace.

Sealless pump manufacturers expected to get a boost from a recently written standard from the American Petroleum Institute, Washington, D.C. API 685 (2000) defines pump specifications for petroleum refining and hydrocarbon processing. The standard took a decade to develop; even so, U.S. response so far has been lackluster. In mid-2003, two participants in the effort presented a paperNT> at the Pump Symposium run by Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, noting that thousands of copies of other API pump standards, such as 610 and 611, have been bought, but only 125 copies of the new standard had been sold at that point. There continues to be strong interest from European concerns, while the U.S. market has lagged behind, the presenters concluded.

The Hydraulics Institute, Parsippany, N.J., which has had a sealless pump committee for many years, updated its sealless standards (which are more for testing and definition rather than specifying) in 2000. Greg Romanyshyn, technical director, says the next revisions will be completed in 2005 and will reflect new pump features.

The basic mag-drive pump employs a motor to drive the external portion of a magnetic coupling that surrounds the rotating shaft. The other part of the coupling consists of a set of permanent magnets arranged around the rotor shaft inside a thin containment shell. These magnets are synchronized to move with the exterior portion of the coupling. Process fluid passes throughout this shell, providing lubrication to bearings and cooling to the rotor. Notably absent is a seal between the motor and coupling that is in contact with the process fluid.

In contrast, canned-motor pumps place the motor fully inside the pump to avoid the need for a seal. The stator and rotor have windings like a conventional motor, but both are contained within metallic shells with process fluid surrounding both. The inner containment shell can be thinner than the corresponding shell of a mag-drive motor because the stator supports it.

The role of reliability
The big news, to hear sealless pump marketers tell it, is that the absence of seals in these units offers an inherently more reliable design — so much so that some pump buyers are specifying them for general-purpose applications. “Pure and simple, every study of pump reliability finds that seal problems cause the majority of pump failures,” says Jim Murphy, a marketing director at Viking Pump Inc., Cedar Falls, Iowa. “Companies looking at the cost of maintaining or repairing their pumps can be more comfortable with sealless units in many applications.”

While cautioning that comparative failure data are highly dependent on the application, ITT Gould’;s Biver says mag-drive pumps demonstrate a mean time between failures (MTBF) of two to three years versus one-and-a half to two years for sealed pumps.

Those claims don’;t hold much water with at least one pump specifier, Bob Rollings, pump consultant in the engineering department at DuPont, Wilmington, Del. “[If they’;re] properly operated — and I emphasize that — few pumps wear out from old age,” he says. “Any pump, sealless or sealed, is going to need routine maintenance, and if the pump is properly maintained, there’;s little or no cost difference between the two. Sealless pumps make sense for certain applications, especially with low-solids streams where fugitive emissions could be an issue.”

Mike D’;Ambrosia, pump hydraulics engineer at the King County Wastewater Treatment facility, Seattle, says, “Mechanical seals do have their problems, but they are able to reduce our maintenance costs sufficiently relative to conventional seals that we use them for most of our pumps. That’;s one of the reasons why our mag-drive pumps are used only in our laboratories, where fugitive emissions are more of a concern.”
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