Energy Efficiency

February Process Puzzler: Isolate Electrical Incidents

Readers unravel a wiring riddle.

A contractor installing a new motor starter for a crude pump in a motor control center (MCC) received permission to trip the breaker controlling the old bucket. With the trip, we lost the crude pump, the gas oil pump and several recirculation pumps in an atmospheric crude distillation unit. This breaker was supposed to go only to the pump being replaced. The operator responded quickly, bringing the unit back up although there were severe swings in column temperature and pressure. An investigation later found no loop sheets or inspection records. The wiring diagram for the MCC didn’t show any common wiring for the starters, but then no as-built drawing was produced and no commissioning documentation exists. What can be done to avoid this problem in the future and address what may be a refinery-wide problem?

Drawings often fail to detail the looping of power supplies and this is not the only area where drawings have omitted information or have errors. This incident was due to deficient documentation.

The usual solution is to perform a site survey of the wiring compared with the drawings and then to revise the drawings. However, this is usually impractical as it is: 1) a high cost exercise; 2) hard to check the results without testing the circuits which is risky for both personnel and plant.

Our company specializes in replacing control systems on live plants and platforms. We’ve been in business for 17 years. In that time, we have transferred more than 100,000 I/O successfully without incident.

Our solution is to use connections data modeling rather than drawings to represent the components and circuits. Utilizing a model is nearly 100% accurate even with very poorly documented systems and the cost relative to drawings is a savings of 50 to 80%. Also, modeling is much faster.
Carole Williams, business development manager
I&E Systems, Perth, Australia

The distributed control system (DCS) may have been programmed to shut off the other equipment when the breaker tripped. The easiest way to find if the DCS caused the other pumps to shut down is to ask one of the control room operators to look at the programming. You may also want to read the control narrative or review the cause and effect diagrams, if this documentation is available. Both of these methods can be done safely, offline, without affecting operations. It could have been that the first pump going offline caused a low or high level, tripping the rest of the pumps.

If none of these options are available, or if it is determined that the DCS did not cause the shutdown, the cause requires more work. You will have to physically trace the wiring from the MCC out to the pumps. The power wires may have been connected in parallel or series (“daisy chained”). This would be a good time to make “as built” drawings. In any case, a critical piece of the puzzle that was not present are loop drawings. Both electrical and control systems loop drawings must be present in order to see what power and signals are going to the pumps. Since these were not available for this scenario, it’s a good bet that the rest of the plant also suffers from poor documentation.

Many plants just ignore this problem until something is upgraded and the contractor is forced to clean up the plant’s mess. Documentation is provided from the contractor when the plant is built.

Having an electronic document management system and keeping it updated is the key to preventing these situations. The key to keeping the system updated is having proper plant procedures any time work is done on equipment. Checklists and requiring employees to sign off work documents puts “ownership” back in the picture.
Syed Imran Akhter, control systems engineer
Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., Houston

Update the drawings, especially the single line diagram. Section 205.2 of the National Fire Prevention Association’s “Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace,” NFPA 70E, is a general maintenance requirement that “a single line diagram, where provided for the electrical system, shall be maintained.” If you can’t justify producing the drawings based on plant uptime, your emergency health and safety (EHS) people might require, and help pay for, producing the drawings to satisfy the refinery’s electrical safety program.

In the future, specify a control circuit transformer in each of the MCC buckets for a motor starter or contactor. Consider also specifying an interposing relay for remote control. The event could have been caused by disruption of common control circuit power for several motors. While the transformers and relays cost a little more, they isolate the control circuit for each bucket.
Jeff M. Goldsmith, engineer
GE Water & Process Technologies, Watertown, Mass.

Even though an MCC bucket may be limited to energizing one motor, auxiliary
contacts wired through the disconnect or starter circuit may be used in an
interlock scheme with other motors or control logic. MCC wiring diagrams usually show only 480-VAC wiring schemes, not 120-VAC or 24-VDC control circuits, which are typically shown on loop diagrams.
To avoid this problem in the future, before de-energizing a motor circuit: 1) visually inspect the motor control circuits to identify any 120-VAC or 24-VDC control wiring that exits the bucket which may be used in an interlock circuit; 2) scan the process control system (DCS or programmable logic controller) inputs and outputs to identify any motor I/O; identify any logic schemes where the motor I/O may be used, especially where it may be used in the run logic for other motors; and 3) whenever maintenance or other shutdown activities are executed, take a little extra time to verify the MCC wiring diagrams and to sketch motor control loop diagrams.
Scott Sommer, automation technology manager
Jacobs Engineering Group, Conshohocken, Pa.


This is the kind of incident OSHA gets curious about. It definitely counts as a near miss. I suppose no loop sheets are better than faulty ones! There’s no magical solution here, just tedium. During the next refinery turnaround, plan for at least two to three days of tracing 120-VAC wiring and DCS cables. One thing for sure, any turnaround work involving the crude unit pumps, and perhaps the whole unit, has probably been put on hold.

This may not be a problem that can be taken care of all at once. The best you can do is to trace the wiring and prepare a contingency plan for each solution. You may have to install new boxes and relays, which in today’s world means getting approvals for emergency management of change (MOC) orders. You’ll need to find a contractor that understands your DCS and can call in extra help if needed. This probably means a union shop.

Once you’ve solved the problem for the crude unit, it may be a solution required for other units in the refinery. Then, you have more tedium ahead as you inspect MCC throughout the refinery. Before a repeat incident, send out a notice to all units to watch for the same situation — this solution you can apply immediately.

I think, though I am uncertain, that you must notify OSHA that you have a potential safety issue. Obviously, the corporate lawyers and public relations people will want to talk about it first. Your headaches have just begun!
Dirk Willard, process engineer
CITGO Petroleum Corp., Lemont, Ill.

Our unit superintendent is concerned about a multistage centrifugal gas compressor. It’s fed by a separator and discharges to an absorber; there’s a pressure control valve at the compressor suction and a flow control valve in a recycle line from the compressor discharge. Ever since the first startup after the last turnaround, the motor current unexpectedly surges during startups and other upset conditions before settling into generally steady service. The packing in the absorber was replaced during that turnaround. What could be causing the problem? Should the superintendent be concerned? Can we do anything so we can safely limp through until next year’s turnaround?

Send us your comments, suggestions or solutions by March 13, 2009. We’ll include as many of them as possible in the April 2009 issue and all on Send visuals — a sketch is fine. E-mail us at or mail to Process Puzzler, Chemical Processing, 555 W. Pierce Road, Suite 301, Itasca, IL 60143. Fax: (630) 467-1120. Please include your name, title, location and company affiliation in the response.

And, of course, if you have a process problem you’d like to pose to our readers, send it along and we’ll be pleased to consider it for publication.