Energy Efficiency

Better damper control delivers big savings

Installing an electric drive on a steam boiler damper results in lower fuel consumption. The reason? The electric drive enables boiler operation with just the right amount of excess air at lower firing rates.

By Joshua I. Anderson, Adolfo B. Aparicio and Scott T. Rutkoski

About a year ago, a vintage 1980 pneumatic damper actuator on a steam boiler at Equistar Chemical’;s Corpus Christi, Texas, plant was replaced with a state-of-the-art Contrac electric drive from ABB Inc., Warminster, Pa. Electric drives, also known as actuators, must position combustion air dampers on steam boilers precisely and reliably. As boiler load varies, there is a damper position that optimizes the amount of excess air in the fuel/air mixture. Too little results in undesirable stack emissions; too much reduces boiler efficiency and wastes fuel. The new drive provides precise damper control on this boiler, resulting in fuel savings estimated between $200,000 and $350,000 annually.

Such savings are due primarily to the fact that the electric drive enables boiler operation with just the right amount of excess air at lower firing rates. We installed another electric drive on a second boiler in June 2004, after the first performed reliably. We expect this will provide additional fuel savings of the same magnitude as the first drive installation.

Scope out the problem
Constructed in 1980, the Corpus Christi plant covers 2,050 acres. There are more than 400 employees and resident contractors on site. The largest part of the plant is an olefins facility that manufactures products such as ethylene, propylene, benzene and fuel products. Another unit manufactures butadiene (BD). These intermediate products are typically used to make chemicals and plastics for consumer products ranging from food packaging and containers to rubber tires and antifreeze.

To serve the extensive energy needs of the entire site, there are four Clarke-Chapman Type 40SAB18W packaged boilers located side-by-side (Figure 1). Each is rated to produce about 224,000 lb/hr of superheated steam at 900 psig and 900°F. Each of the four boilers can feed steam into a common, high-pressure (HP) header. Steam from this header is typically used to operate steam turbines for electric power generation, process gas compression or centrifugal pump operation. Process heat exchangers represent another major use.

Figure 1.

Each boiler is rated to produce about 224,000 lb/hr of superheated
steam at 900 psig and 900°F. This photo shows the air intake
side of the four boilers. The two in the foreground were upgraded with
electric damper drives.

The four boilers have excess capacity that allows the Corpus Christi plant some flexibility for a variety of operating conditions. Boilers are started up or shut down as required by the plant load.

Identical in rating, the boilers have been altered. For example, one was modified to burn fuel oil and two have undergone a major revamp to use multiple burners with high turndown (10:1).

The two boilers with high-turndown burners were selected for the electric damper drive upgrades. Following an engineering analysis, we reasoned that more precise damper control could readily achieve the desired operation with less excess air at low firing rates, thereby increasing boiler efficiency. We had anticipated a 4% to 6% increase in boiler efficiency -- the resultant savings surpassed these expectations.

The drive is in control
All four boilers are individually monitored and controlled by a distributed control system (DCS) located in a centralized control room. The schematic diagram (Figure 2) shows how the correct amount of excess air is determined and combustion-air intake is controlled.

Figure 2.

This schematic shows the major coponents of Equistar's damper drive control system.

Intake air flow upstream of the induced-draft fan is measured by a Venturi primary element that creates a pressure drop proportional to air flow rate. This value is transmitted to the DCS as one input to determine control action.

An oxygen analyzer in the boiler stack monitors excess air, sending a second input signal to the DCS. Boiler load is a third input since the proper amount of excess air varies with the load. Based on these inputs, the DCS calculates the target amount of excess air and sends a 4-20 mA signal to the Contrac electric actuator via its Power Electronics Unit (Figure 3). The latter develops a proper control response to energize the drive’;s bidirectional electric motor. Through precision gearing, the motor turns the drive’;s lever arm to accurately position the air damper.

The DCS is programmed to initiate a boiler startup, shutdown or to change the firing rate to meet steam demand. Prior to a startup, an important purge step must be performed. This requires the actuator to position the damper at a predetermined opening that allows in enough air for the purge cycle to proceed safely. Equistar can easily configure this position in the drive electronics.

Figure 3. Contrac electric heater
Author Rutkoski examines the ABB Contrac Modulating Electric Drive. Linkage from the drive lever arm to the damper extends upward (left). The PEU is conveniently mounted on the post near the drive (right).

Actuator features precision
ABB’;s Contrac electric actuator provides intelligent, or “smart,” modulating action to position the damper precisely within its operating range in response to a 4-20 mA DC control signal.
 Different models are available for torque requirements ranging from 80 ft-lb to 12,000 ft-lb. Startup torque is 1.2 times rated with “break-away” torque being twice the rated torque. Model RHD-800, installed at Equistar, has a rated torque of 600 ft-lb.

Manually adjustable mechanical stops on the drive permit the user to set travel limits on the lever arm. Equistar uses this feature to set the minimum damper opening – essential when controlling manually. The actuator level arm is set to travel 90° in 10 sec. An integrated motor brake enables the drive to hold damper position in the event of power failure or switch-off.

The drive unit can monitor several operational functions, including damper position, frequency of motor reversals, and actuator internal temperature. Values are stored in the electronics unit for performance analysis. ABB Smart Vision Interface Software, an available option, can be loaded on a PC to help in such analyses.
A smart move
The key to “smart” operation of the Contrac actuator is the configurable, microprocessor-based Power Electronics Unit (PEU). It is a separate unit that can be field-mounted near the actuator (Figure 3) and provides digital control and acts as the interface between the actuator and the DCS. When the DCS control signal calls for continuous positioning, the PEU varies the actuator motor frequency, without stepping, until the actuator moves the damper to a new position at the right torque that satisfies the setpoint value.

To configure the PEU for a specific actuator application, such as the damper drive, the electronics unit has a local control panel (LCP), located on the front of the unit under a protective cover (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Local panel and power unit

Rutkoski presses a button on the LCP, which is under the cover on the front of the PEU. The auto-manual switch is located on the post at the far left, and is connected to the PEU by a cable. An operator can use the handwheel (visible on top left side of drive) to manually position the damper.

By means of pushbuttons and LEDs that guide the procedure, an operator can program the basic settings for actuator operation without the use of a PC. Basic settings include defining end positions for lever arm travel, adapting the actuator to the operating range, and effective direction. For special applications, a PC with Smart Vision software can be used to configure the actuator and the PEU.

Also shown in Figure 4 is an automatic-manual switch cable-connected to the PEU. In manual mode, an operator can use the handwheel on the actuator to position the damper. Alternatively, if electric power is on, he can use the LCP’;s raise/lower pushbuttons.

ABB’;s Contrac drive has given Equistar Chemical control over its dampers, saving them big bucks.

 Joshua I. Anderson is production engineer of utilities for Equistar and Adolfo B. Aparicio is reliability instrument engineer. E-mail them at and, respectively. Anderson and Aparicio work at the Corpus Christi, Texas, plant of Equistar Chemical LP. Scott T. Rutkoski is resident instrument specialist at CCO. He is employed by the maintenance contractor, consulting firm Zachry Inc. in San Antonio. E-mail him at




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