Rethink your control valve maintenance

Learn how new diagnostic tools can help make predictive maintenance a reality.

By Neal Rinehart, Emerson Process Management

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Today, advanced “smart valve technology” utilizing digital valve controllers coupled with communications protocols like HART and Foundation Fieldbus enable technicians to remotely examine operating control valves and obtain field-generated diagnostics. A smart control valve not only lets maintenance personnel know if its operation is below par, but often signals what’s wrong and what’s needed for a fix. These new predictive diagnostics are on-line, in-service and do not intrude on the process.

Traditional distributed control environments often are unable to collect data concerning the health and well-being of critical process equipment. The integration of smart control valve diagnostics into today’s plant control systems changes what’s possible. With smart field instrumentation, multiple on-board sensors coupled with communications allow process control equipment to be evaluated on a real-time basis. The root cause of problems can frequently be identified much earlier.

Digital valve controllers used with control valve assemblies monitor valve health. Detection of a condition with the potential to affect control causes an early predictive warning, which can be used to avoid an unplanned shutdown or to schedule maintenance activity on that valve. An error report indicates a fault that is affecting the process and that may require immediate action.

The diagnostics are preconfigured to collect and correlate the data, establish the cause of a problem, and recommend specific corrective action. This is information rather than just data that is often critical to keeping that valve in operation.

Every critical control valve should be equipped with a digital valve controller that is capable of in-service diagnostics. It is important to select a digital instrument that has multiple sensors and analysis software. This allows plant personnel to evaluate current valve operation and get precise information for forecasting performance. This is the foundation of predictive maintenance.

Using technology effectively

Good tools are not enough. Indeed, technology without training almost always fails to deliver optimum results. Make sure to provide adequate training to employees who want to learn. You also must deal with those who are simply unwilling, because of fear of the unknown, concern about being replaced or some other reason.

Locally devised training on specific technologies is seldom effective. Without question, the best training for predictive control-valve maintenance comes from professional trainers provided by the technology vendor. They know the system, have access to the latest field experiences, and are skilled in presenting technical material so that plant personnel can understand the principles and learn how to apply them. Vendors offer training at their locations or can provide customized courses on-site.

The training program should address the fundamentals of control valve operation, calibration, and maintenance based on the latest diagnostic and analytical tools. Classroom instruction needs to be supported by a maximum amount of hands-on experience. Trainees should learn how to interact with each control valve through its digital valve controller, how to analyze the data, and what can be done to improve the performance of that valve.

Adequate training fosters more-efficient and more-consistent efforts. For example, a trained person can calibrate a digital valve in about one-fourth the time needed to calibrate a conventional one, and all technicians will perform that task in exactly the same way.

The payoff

Using predictive maintenance for control valves is a proven way to improve process reliability and reduce overall maintenance costs. Success depends upon effective efforts in three areas — leadership, technology and training. If you invest in one or two but not all three, chances are you will never be able to fully optimize your process.

You can leverage predictive valve-maintenance technology with other predictive programs, such as condition monitoring of rotational equipment, for greater overall benefits. In addition, many existing asset-management systems easily support the integration of all field-based intelligent devices into a predictive maintenance methodology.

Achieving an effective predictive maintenance program opens the door to a truly proactive maintenance system. The detailed equipment information available from today’s online, in-service control valve diagnostics provides the foundation needed for the identification and elimination of the root causes of problems before they impact process control. Coupled with the information coming from other smart field devices, a proactive asset-management system can be established that supports world class process performance and reliability by truly minimizing overall maintenance costs.

Neal Rinehart is Director of Performance Technologies for Fisher valve and instrument products at Emerson Process Management, Marshalltown, Iowa. E-mail him at


  1. “New industry solutions set to change the game,” <ital>World View<end ital>, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 1 (Jan. 1997).
  2. Birchfield, G., “Olefin plant reliability,” available on-line at (Jan. 1, 2000).
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Improved diagnostic capabilities

Smart diagnostics continue to evolve and today offer more-sophisticated and more-powerful tools for predictive maintenance than those available just a few years ago.

First-generation smart diagnostics could only be used on an out-of-service valve. They were limited to tests such as valve signature (for information on assembly friction, bench set, spring rate and seat load), dynamic error band (combined hysteresis, deadband and dynamic error) and step response (to a change in input signal). All require interpretation of data by a skilled technician.

In contrast, today’s technology enables fault detection and analysis while the valve is in normal operation — online and in service. And, thanks to the development of valve instrumentation that has multiple on-board sensors and advanced data analysis software, a new level of valve performance information is available. In addition, the diagnostics not only collect data, but also analyze the cause of a fault and suggest how best to remedy it.

Now, more than 200 different problems that impact the <ital>dynamic<end ital> performance of control valves can be detected and evaluated on the most-advanced digital valve controller. Some of the problems addressed include instrument air leakage; valve assembly friction; process dead band or resolution; packing failure; actuator diaphragm failure; piston actuator seal-ring failure; instrument air quality (cleanliness or “droop”); poor connections (air, electrical, communication); filter plugging; incorrect bench-set; supply pressure restrictions; travel deviation; process “build-up” on the valve trim; travel deviation; valve sticking at temperature and pressure: and valve assembly calibration. In addition, online, in-service safety checks, including partial stroke testing of safety valves, can be performed.

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