Mechanical steam traps rely on the difference in density between steam and condensate in order to operate. They can continuously pass large volumes of condensate and are suitable for a wide range of process applications. Types include ball float and inverted bucket steam traps. This tutorial considers the operation and benefits of both types.
The ball float type trap operates by sensing the difference in density between steam and condensate. In the case of the trap shown in Figure 11.3.1, condensate reaching the trap will cause the ball float to rise, lifting the valve off its seat and releasing condensate. As can be seen, the valve is always flooded and neither steam nor air will pass through it, so early traps of this kind were vented using a manually operated cock at the top of the body. Modern traps use a thermostatic air vent, as shown in Figure 11.3.2. This allows the initial air to pass whilst the trap is also handling condensate.
The automatic air vent uses the same balanced pressure capsule element as a thermostatic steam trap, and is located in the steam space above the condensate level. After releasing the initial air, it remains closed until air or other non-condensable gases accumulate during normal running and cause it to open by reducing the temperature of the air/steam mixture. The thermostatic air vent offers the added benefit of significantly increasing condensate capacity on cold start-up.
In the past, the thermostatic air vent was a point of weakness if waterhammer was present in the system. Even the ball could be damaged if the waterhammer was severe. However, in modern float traps the air vent is a compact, very robust, all stainless steel capsule, and the modern welding techniques used on the ball makes the complete float-thermostatic steam trap very robust and reliable in waterhammer situations.
In many ways the F&T Trap is the closest to an ideal steam trap. It will discharge condensate as soon as it is formed, regardless of changes in steam pressure.
The inverted bucket steam trap is shown in Figure 11.3.3. As its name implies, the mechanism consists of an inverted bucket which is attached by a lever to a valve. An essential part of the trap is the small air vent hole in the top of the bucket. Figure 11.3.3 shows the method of operation. In (i) the bucket hangs down, pulling the valve off its seat. Condensate flows under the bottom of the bucket filling the body and flowing away through the outlet. In (ii) the arrival of steam causes the bucket to become buoyant, it then rises and shuts the outlet. In (iii) the trap remains shut until the steam in the bucket has condensed or bubbled through the vent hole to the top of the trap body. It will then sink, pulling the main valve off its seat. Accumulated condensate is released and the cycle is repeated.
In (ii), air reaching the trap at start-up will also give the bucket buoyancy and close the valve. The bucket vent hole is essential to allow air to escape into the top of the trap for eventual discharge through the main valve seat. The hole, and the pressure differential, are small so the trap is relatively slow at venting air. At the same time it must pass (and therefore waste) a certain amount of steam for the trap to operate once the air has cleared. A parallel air vent fitted outside the trap will reduce start-up times.
Thermodynamic steam traps have a unique operating principle which relies on the dynamics of water and flash steam. They are simple, robust and reliable and can operate up to very high temperatures and pressures. Their construction, use and benefits are detailed here.
The thermodynamic trap is an extremely robust steam trap with a simple mode of operation. The trap operates by means of the dynamic effect of flash steam as it passes through the trap, as depicted in Figure 11.4.1. The only moving part is the disc above the flat face inside the control chamber or cap.
On start-up, incoming pressure raises the disc, and cool condensate plus air is immediately discharged from the inner ring, under the disc, and out through three peripheral outlets (only 2 shown, Figure 11.4.1, i).
Hot condensate flowing through the inlet passage into the chamber under the disc drops in pressure and releases flash steam moving at high velocity. This high velocity creates a low pressure area under the disc, drawing it towards its seat (Figure 11.4.1, ii).
At the same time, the flash steam pressure builds up inside the chamber above the disc, forcing it down against the incoming condensate until it seats on the inner and outer rings. At this point, the flash steam is trapped in the upper chamber, and the pressure above the disc equals the pressure being applied to the underside of the disc from the inner ring. However, the top of the disc is subject to a greater force than the underside, as it has a greater surface area.
Eventually the trapped pressure in the upper chamber falls as the flash steam condenses. The disc is raised by the now higher condensate pressure and the cycle repeats (Figure 11.4.1, iv).
The rate of operation depends on steam temperature and ambient conditions. Most traps will stay closed for between 20 and 40 seconds. If the trap opens too frequently, perhaps due to a cold, wet, and windy location, the rate of opening can be slowed by simply fitting an insulating cover onto the top of the trap.
The impulse trap (as shown in Figure 11.4.4) consists of a hollow piston (A) with a piston disc (B) working inside a tapered piston (C) which acts as a guide. At 'start-up' the main valve (D) rests on the seat (E) leaving a passage of flow through the clearance between piston and cylinder and hole (F) at the top of the piston. Increasing flow of air and condensate will act on the piston disc and lift the main valve off its seat to give increased flow. Some condensate will also flow through the gap between the piston and disc, through E and away to the trap outlet.
As the condensate approaches steam temperature some of it flashes to steam as it passes through the gap. Although this is bled away through hole F, it does create an intermediate pressure over the piston, which effectively positions the main valve to meet the load. The trap can be adjusted by moving the position of piston (B) relative to the seat, but the trap is affected by significant backpressure. It has a substantial capacity, bearing in mind its small size. Conversely, the trap is unable to give complete shut-off and will pass steam on very light loads. The main problem however is the fine clearance between the piston and cylinder. This is readily affected by the dirt normally found in a steam system. The use of impulse traps is relatively limited so they are not considered in some subsequent sections of this Module.
A simple form of the labyrinth trap is shown in Figure 11.4.5. It consists of a series of baffles which can be adjusted by means of a handwheel. Hot condensate passing between the first baffle and the trap body is subject to a drop in pressure and some of it 'flashes' to steam. The space around the next baffle has to cope with an increased volume of hot condensate and prevents the escape of live steam. The baffle plates can be moved either in or out using the handwheel, which alters their position relative to the body, effectively altering the overall size of the orifice.
These are devices containing a hole of predetermined diameter to allow a calculated amount of condensate to flow under specific pressure conditions. In practice, condensate loads and steam pressures can vary considerably. For instance, start-up and running loads can differ considerably along with steam pressure which will change due to the actions of temperature controls. These varying conditions can result in the fixed orifice either holding back condensate in the process or passing live steam, which can affect plant performance and compromise safety.
Fixed orifices are often sized on running conditions, so that they hold back enough condensate and do not pass steam. If this is so, at start-up, they are undersized to a greater degree and the steam space stands a good chance of waterlogging.
The alternative is to size them so as not to waterlog during start-up. The hole is then effectively oversized for running conditions, and the device will pass steam. The size of hole is usually a compromise between the two conditions, such that, at some points in between, the hole is correctly sized.
Continual waterlogging significantly increases the risk of corrosion in the steam space. It is not unusual to find that after fitting fixed orifice traps, plant service life is reduced below that which may be expected with proper steam traps.
A proper steam trap should be able to achieve just sufficient capacity at all pressures and flowrates present in the application. It can then pass hot condensate without leaking steam under any condition. To achieve this, the size of the hole must vary in the trap. It must be large enough to meet the worst condition, and then have some means of reducing the effective orifice flow area when the capacity becomes too great. This exactly describes the operation of a steam trap.
Note: Fixed orifice traps are not recommended for draining condensate from any application susceptible to varying load conditions.
Thermostatic traps operate in response to the surrounding steam temperature. The operation and benefits of 3 different types are considered here - liquid expansion traps, bimetallic and balanced pressure thermostatic traps. Each operates in a different way and is suited to specific types of application.
A large improvement on the liquid expansion trap is the balanced pressure trap. Its operating temperature is affected by the surrounding steam pressure. The operating element is a capsule containing a special liquid and water mixture with a boiling point below that of water. In the cold conditions that exist at start-up, the capsule is relaxed. The valve is off its seat and is wide open, allowing unrestricted removal of air. This is a feature of all balanced pressure traps and explains why they are well suited to air venting.
As condensate passes through the balanced pressure steam trap, heat is transferred to the liquid in the capsule. The liquid vaporizes before steam reaches the trap. The vapor pressure within the capsule causes it to expand and the valve shuts. Heat loss from the trap then cools the water surrounding the capsule, the vapor condenses and the capsule contracts, opening the valve and releasing condensate until steam approaches again and the cycle repeats (Figure 11.2.5).
The differential below steam temperature at which the trap operates is governed by the concentration of the liquid mixture in the capsule. The 'thin-walled' element gives a rapid response to changes in pressure and temperature.
Early bellows type elements of non-ferrous construction were susceptible to damage by waterhammer. The introduction of stainless steel elements improved reliability considerably.
As the name implies, bimetallic steam traps are constructed using two strips of dissimilar metals welded together into one element. The element deflects when heated.
There are two important points to consider regarding this simple element:
The performance of any steam trap can be measured by its response to the steam saturation curve. The ideal response would closely follow the curve and be just below it. A simple bimetal element tends to react to temperature changes in a linear fashion.
Figure 11.2.9 shows the straight line characteristic of a simple bimetal element relative to the steam saturation curve. As steam pressure increases above P1, the difference between steam saturation temperature and trap operating temperature would increase. Waterlogging increases with system pressure, highlighting the trap's inability to respond to changing pressure conditions.
It needs to be noted that at pressures below P1, the steam trap operating temperature is actually above the saturation temperature. This would cause the steam trap to pass steam at these lower pressures. It may be possible to ensure the steam trap is adjusted during manufacture to ensure that this portion of the saturation curve is always above the operating line. However, due to the linear action of the element, the difference between the two would increase even more with system pressure, increasing the waterlogging effect.
Clearly, this is not a satisfactory operation for any steam trap, and various attempts have been made by manufacturers to improve upon the situation. Some use combinations of two different sets of bimetal leaves in a single stack, which operate at different temperatures.
The typical result is the split response line. This is an improvement on Figure 11.2.9, but still does not exactly follow the saturation curve. One set of bimetal leaves deflect to give the response P1 to P2. At a higher temperature a second set of bimetal leaves contributes to give response P2 to P3. Clearly, although an improvement from the former design, this is still unsatisfactory in terms of following the saturation curve.
A more innovative design is the disc spring thermostatic element. The thermostatic element is made up of a set of bimetal discs. These discs, if acting directly between the valve stem and the seat (as with some thermostatic steam traps), cause the discharge temperature of the condensate to change linearly with changing pressure (curve 'A', Figure 11.2.13). By incorporating a spring washer between the discs and a recess in the seat, this absorbs some of the bimetal expansion at low pressure so that a greater temperature change must occur with changing pressure. The spring washer shape is preferred over a coil spring because it develops force in an exponentially increasing rate, rather than in a linear rate. This effect takes place up to 15 bar g until the spring is deflected to the bottom of the recess, and means that the discharge temperature of the condensate will follow the steam saturation curve more accurately (curve 'B', Figure 11.2.13). Discharge rates are also improved by the dynamic clack which tends to produce a blast discharge.
This is one of the simplest thermostatic traps and is shown in Figure 11.2.1. An oil filled element expands when heated to close the valve against the seat. The adjustment allows the temperature of the trap discharge to be altered between 60°C and 100°C, which makes it ideally suited as a device to get rid of large quantities of air and cold condensate at start-up.
Because of its fixed temperature discharge characteristic, the liquid expansion trap may be usefully employed as a 'shutdown drain trap'. Here, its outlet must always point upwards, to enable continuous immersion of the oil filled element. As the trap can only discharge between 60° C - 100°C it will only normally open during start-up. It can be installed alongside a mains drain trap which would normally be piped to a condensate return line.
Steam Trap resources courtesy of Spirax Sarco