Pumping LPG: Take A Load Off Loading

Feb. 28, 2013
Readers suggest how to avoid problems in pumping liquefied petroleum gas.

Pumping LPG: Take A Load Off Loading Readers suggest how to avoid problems in pumping LPG

Our refinery, which is located in the upper Midwest, runs into problems pumping liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) from storage bullets to tanker trucks during the summer. Except for low tank level, we can pump 600 gpm in the winter without any issues but have trouble pumping at all by late morning in the summer. That's when we divert propane, with some difficulty, to underground pipelines.

The bullet pressure reliefs are set at about 500 psig. The operating pressure starts at about 140 psig when the bullets are full but is only about 105 psig at about 45% full, which is as low as we can go. We feed four bullets at a time to the pump. During filling, pressure can spike at above 200 psig on a hot day.

Suction piping: the bullets have a single 4-in. discharge through a ball valve; flow is through about 150 ft of aboveground 8-in./10-in pipe. Discharge piping: two dryer tanks separate liquids from the LPG; there also are two filters and a strainer. (We haven't kept maintenance records for the dryers or filters.) A 600-ft aboveground run of 6-in. pipe goes from the 8-in. pump discharge to the flow control valve; a 2-in. hose connects the skid to the truck.

Typical loading of the rack, with 600 gpm, is at about 225 psig, immediately upstream of a 4-in. equal-percentage globe valve (CV = 220) with a final pressure of about 150 psig at the tanker truck. A turbine meter immediately upstream of the valve measures flow erratically. During startup, the flow is 100 gpm at 30 psig, with a pressure of 270 psig into the valve.

We need to address vapor lock of the valve during startup and pump cavitation during low level. We're seeing a one-year life on the seals in these multistage inline vertical LPG pumps. During the summer we always have trouble starting a pump once it has stopped. A manual vent line at the pump bowl connected to a flare is used to bleed off the gas. We always see a surge when we start the pump, hot or cold. There are secondary 2-in. lines at the top of each bullet for manually venting them to flare.

What is the cause of our pump problems? Would using a smaller valve help? What can we do to improve this operation?

The tank pressure varies with the ambient temperature, 140 psig in winter when ambient temperature is lower and up to 200 psig in summer. It also appears that the tank vapors are not vented back to either the process or the trucks. Therefore, when filling with liquid, the rising level has to compress the vapors until they can condense and this takes time. Keep in mind that the liquid propane is always at bubble point in the tanks. Any heating or pressure drop will cause flashing. Also, many of these tanks make-up and pump-out from the same end, resulting in stagnant product. Putting the make-up into the tanks at the opposite end and in the vapor space is better.

Then, there are the pump issues. The pump does not have enough net positive suction head available (NPSHA) to run properly. When the winter tank level gets down to low level, there isn't enough head to feed the pump and the suction vaporizes and cavitates in the pump. The pump is probably always cavitating as evidenced by the erratic flow in the turbine meter. Suction strainers are notorious for causing cavitation. You should have a 2-in. line from the pump discharge (before the check valve) back to the tank vapor space. When starting the pump, or when it's vapor-locked, open the line and recycle the LPG back to the tank — this can be automated or manual. Each pump will require a startup line.

The pump suction line is also important. Typically, the suction line should be at least 12-in. — one size larger than the suction flange — right up to a reducer on the pump suction flange. The 4-in. discharge valves on the tanks must be full port and should increase to at least 6-in. immediately after the valve. Everything you can do to reduce pressure drop will help. Also, the piping must not have any pockets that would trap vapors. Furthermore, the suction pipe is long; move the pump closer to the bullets.

Consider the pump discharge. The 6-in. discharge line looks okay, 0.5 psi/100 ft and 7 ft/sec velocity. The rack control valve maintains pressure so that the turbine meter can operate properly. Size is not critical. If the valve is open less than 30%, consider installing a reduced trim in the valve. When the pump stops, the LPG trapped in the discharge line should be vented back to the bullets. A small valve and tubing back to the vapor return line will ensure that some of the LPG is always returned to the bullets and will keep the line cool when flow is low.

So, what's missing? A vapor return line. A truck is required to have a vapor equalization line that connects back to a common header on top of the bullets. The header also allows the tanks to maintain an even level.

Climate is also important. In winter, the tanks are about 83°F at 140 psig, and in summer about 108°F at 200 psig. In winter, the ambient temperature is usually colder than 83°F and so Mother Nature is helping cool the LPG in the suction line and thereby adding NPSH. However, in summer, the sunlight on the tanks and piping can heat the LPG enough to cause vaporization. It is best to keep the suction piping in the shade provided by the tanks. Also try painting the lines white or consider insulating the lines, but be careful about corrosion under insulation. Do not assume this will solve all of the problems. You need vents on all high points and any length of horizontal piping with the vent valve piped or tubed back to the bullet vapor space.
Larry Tarkington, project engineer
Company undisclosed, San Antonio, Texas

Let's summarize the symptoms. First, the flow from the bullets is difficult below 45% level. The pressure drops in the bullets from about 140 psig to 105 psig at the lowest level. A surge is affecting the pump seal life. It's very difficult to start the pump once it has stopped. The pressure spikes in the bullets when they are filled on a hot day. The pumps have little trouble delivering propane to an underground line, except when the bullets are below 45% level. And, the suction line for each bullet is restricted by a 4-in. valve. Clearly, the problem is pumping from a bullet where neither the level nor pressure is maintained, causing the propane to flash.

A quick calculation with a simulator shows that at 140 psig propane remains a liquid up to about 82°F. At 105 psig the maximum temperature is only 63°F. Add to that the radiation effects and the true temperature of the pipe surface won't be ambient. The heat transfer is more complicated. Flowing propane auto-refrigerates. If it's moving, flow through several hundred feet of 8-in. pipe shows little increase in temperature. So, if it's liquid in the bullets, it will flow. If it's a gas, it won't. This describes why there's a surge in flow and also why weather affects the pump. Perhaps operating with a higher pressure drop would increase the auto-refrigeration?

Another problem is what happens to the pump when vapor forms. When it goes through a pump a 5–10% mixture of gas with liquid will start at 70°F and be 110°F when it exits the pump. Gas typically has one-tenth the heat capacity of liquid on a per-pound basis. Although it's now a liquid, when it goes into the control valve it will become gas again because of the higher temperature.

Leaving 45% in the tank bothers me. Noncondensables may be building up in the bullets. This will only get worse.

The biggest problem with the pumps is the pressure control of the bullets. Some of this could be relieved by moving the vent line from the pump suction to the discharge. Since the mid-1930s, manufacturers have indicated that as the correct placement of the vent. The main problem with this action is that the only good vent is the manual vents on top of the bullets; bottom delivery would be more suitable, at the other end of the bullets, away from the suction. A new pump may be required.

Another option is to increase flow to the bullets to maintain pressure during pump-out. If quality control is a problem the refinery could go to continuous monitoring or a set of isolation tanks to prevent contaminated product from being shipped.

Replacing the valves, either the 4-in. suction or the flow control valve, may reduce the surge but it won't make it easier to load a tanker truck. The flow in the 4-in. suction valve is fine; using the 25N2 rule [where N is nominal pipe size] for maximum design flow, 25×42 = 400 gpm; this is greater than the 150 gpm flowing if we assume equal splits between the bullets — but splits may not be equal. The velocity in a schedule-80 4-in. pipe is 4.2 ft/s assuming equal splits; the velocity in 8-in. is 4.2 ft/s; API RP 14E recommends 3ft/s for suction lines and 9 ft/s for discharge piping (for light hydrocarbons). This means that the suction velocity may be high if API is to be believed.

Avoid changing the rack control valve to a smaller one. Studies have shown that a larger body allows gas to expand more and reduces valve damage. Going with a linear valve will likely require a bigger opening compared to an equal-% valve thus reducing the velocity through the valve and lessening the damage from gas bubbles. There also may be two-phase problems in the flow measurement. Perhaps a vortex shedding or an annubar-type flow meter would be a better choice than the turbine. For more on this sort of problem, check: www.corken.com/media/training/cp226.pdf and www.eng-tips.com/viewthread.cfm?qid=259967.
Dirk Willard, consultant
Wooster, Ohio

We're suffering wild yeast problems in our ethanol fermenters. Our clean-in-place system had run flawlessly for 15 years with little attention. The cycle is a rinse with steam/water at 160°F, followed by a weak caustic wash at 210°F, a hot water rinse, a rinse with an organic iodine solution with phosphoric acid, and finally another rinse with hot water. A few months back during the winter we increased the number of times we reused the caustic from three to six before sending the stream to waste treatment. Now, it's spring and we're seeing wild yeast in our cream tanks. We went back to using the caustic three times and then to just once — but that only modestly affected the wild yeast we're seeing in the product. Is the change in the number of times the caustic is used to blame? Or is it something else? How can we solve this problem?

Send us your comments, suggestions or solutions for this question by April 12, 2013. We'll include as many of them as possible in the May 2013 issue and all on ChemicalProcessing.com. Send visuals — a sketch is fine. E-mail us at [email protected] 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.

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