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A very common control problem, and one used in many examples elsewhere, is that of controlling the level in a boiler

drum. Many industrial plants have boilers for generating process steam, and of course boilers are central to thermal power generation. The boiler drum is where water and steam are separated. Controlling its level is critical if the level becomes too low, the boiler can run dry resulting in mechanical damage of the drum and boiler piping. If the level becomes too high, water can be carried over into the steam pipework, possibly damaging downstream equipment. The design of the boiler drum level control strategy is normally described as single-element, two-element, or three-element control. This article explains the three designs. Single-element Control (Feedback Control) One or more boiler feedwater pumps push water through one or more feedwater control valves into the boiler drum. The water level in the drum is measured with a pressure and temperaturecompensated level transmitter. The drum level controller compares the drum level measurement to the set point and modulates the feedwater control valves to keep the water level in the drum as close to set point as possible. Variable-speed boiler feed pumps are sometimes used to control the level instead of valves. The simple feedback control design described above is called single-element control, because it uses only a single feedback element for control the drum level measurement.

Single-Element Drum Level Control Drum Level Controller Tuning 1. Integrating Process From a controls point-of-view, the boiler drum is an integrating process. This means that any mismatch between inflow (water) and outflow (steam) will cause a continuous change in the drum level. Integrating loops are difficult to tune, and can easily become unstable if the controllers integral time is set too short (i.e. high integral gain). The process-imposed requirement for a long integral time makes the loop slow to recover from disturbances to the drum level. 2. Inverse Response

To further complicate matters, the boiler drum level is notorious for its inverse response. If the drum level is low, and more feedwater is added to increase it, the drum level tends to decrease first before increasing. This is because the cooler feedwater causes some of the steam in the evaporator to condense, causing the volume of water/steam to decrease, and hence the drop in drum level. Conventional feedback control has difficulty in coping with this inverse response. A control loop using high controller gain and derivative action may work well in other level applications, but it will quickly go unstable on a boiler drum level. Stability is best achieved by using a low controller gain, long integral time, and no derivative. However, these settings make the controllers response very sluggish and not suitable for controlling a process as critical as boiler drum level. Major Disturbances Drum level is affected by changes in feedwater and steam flow rate. But because of the very slow response of the feedback control loop, changes in feed flow or steam flow can cause very large deviations in boiler drum level. Single-element drum level control can work well only if the residence time of the drum is very large to accommodate the large deviations, but this is seldom the case especially in the power industry. For this reason, the control strategy is normally expanded to also include feedwater and steam flow. Two-element Control (Cascade Control) Many boilers have two or three feed pumps that will be switched on or off depending on boiler load. If a feed pump is started up or shut down, the total feedwater flow rate changes. This causes a deviation in drum level, upon which the drum level controller will act and change the feedwater control valve position to compensate. As explained above, the level controllers response is likely very slow, so switching feed pumps on and off can result in large deviations in drum level. A faster control action is needed for dealing with changes in feedwater flow rate. This faster action is obtained by controlling the feedwater flow rate itself, in addition to the drum level. To control both drum level and feedwater flow rate, cascade control is used. The drum level controller becomes the primary controller and its output drives the set point of the feedwater flow controller, the secondary control loop. This arrangement is also called two-element control, because both drum level and feedwater flow rate are measured and used for control.

Two-Element Drum Level Control Three-element Control (Cascade + Feedforward Control) Similar to feed flow, changes in steam flow can also cause large deviations in drum level, and could possibly trip the boiler. Changes in steam flow rate are measurable and this measurement can be used to improve level control very successfully by using a feedforward control strategy. For the feedforward control strategy, steam flow rate is measured and used as the set point of the feedwater flow controller. In this way the feedwater flow rate is adjusted to match the steam flow. Changes in steam flow rate will almost immediately be counteracted by similar changes in feedwater flow rate. To ensure that deviations in drum level are also used for control, the output of the drum level controller is added to the feedforward from steam flow. The combination of drum level measurement, steam flow measurement, and feed flow measurement to control boiler drum level is called three-element control.

Three-Element Drum Level Control Low-load Conditions Although three-element drum level control is superior to single- or two-element control, it is normally not used at low boiler loads. The reason is that steam flow measurement can be very inaccurate at low rates of steam flow. Once the boiler load is high enough for steam flow to be measured accurately, the feedforward must be activated bumplessly.
One common application of cascade control combined with feed forward control is in level control systems for boiler steam drums. The control strategies now used in modern industrial boiler systems had their beginnings on shipboard steam propulsion boilers. When boilers operated at low pressure, it was reasonably inexpensive to make the steam drum large. In a large drum, liquid level moves relatively slowly in response to disturbances (it has a long time constant). Therefore, manual or automatic adjustment of the feedwater valve in response to liquid level variations was an effective control strategy. But as boiler operating pressures have increased over the years, the cost of building and installing large steam drums forced the reduction of the drum size for a given steam production capacity.

The consequence of smaller drum size is an attendant reduction in process time constants, or the speed with which important process variables can change. Smaller time constants mean upsets must be addressed more quickly, and this has led to the development of increasingly sophisticated control strategies. 3 Element Strategy As shown below (click for large view), most boilers of medium to high pressure today use a 3-element boiler control strategy. The term 3-element control refers to the number of process variables (PVs) that are measured to effect control of the boiler feedwater control valve. These measured PVs are: liquid level in the boiler drum, flow of feedwater to the boiler drum, and flow of steam leaving the boiler drum.

Maintaining liquid level in the boiler steam drum is the highest priority. It is critical that the liquid level remain low enough to guarantee that there is adequate disengaging volume above the liquid, and high enough to assure that there is water present in every steam generating tube in the boiler. These requirements typically result in a narrow range in which the liquid level must be maintained. The feedwater used to maintain liquid level in industrial boilers often comes from multiple sources and is brought up to steam drum pressure by pumps operating in parallel. With multiple sources and multiple pumps, the supply pressure of the feedwater will change over time. Every time supply pressure changes, the flow rate through the valve, even if it remains fixed in position, is immediately affected. So, for example, if the boiler drum liquid level is low, the level controller will call for an increase in feedwater flow. But consider that if at this moment, the feedwater supply pressure were to drop. The level controller could be opening the valve, yet the falling supply pressure could actually cause a decreased flow through the valve and into the drum. Thus, it is not enough for the level controller to directly open or close the valve. Rather, it must decide whether it needs more or less feed flow to the boiler drum. The level controller transmits its target flow as a set point to a flow controller. The flow controller then decides how much to open or close the valve as supply pressure swings to meet the set point target.

This is a 2-element (boiler liquid level to feedwater flow rate) cascade control strategy. By placing this feedwater flow rate in a fast flow control loop, the flow controller will immediately sense any variations in the supply conditions which produce a change in feedwater flow. The flow controller will adjust the boiler feedwater valve position to restore the flow to its set point before the boiler drum liquid level is even affected. The level controller is the primary controller (sometimes referred to as the master controller) in this cascade, adjusting the set point of the flow controller, which is the secondary controller (sometimes identified as the slave controller). The third element in a 3-element control system is the flow of steam leaving the steam drum. The variation in demand from the steam header is the most common disturbance to the boiler level control system in an industrial steam system. By measuring the steam flow, the magnitude of demand changes can be used as a feed forward signal to the level control system. The feed forward signal can be added into the output of the level controller to adjust the flow control loop set point, or can be added into the output of the flow control loop to directly manipulate the boiler feedwater control valve. The majority of boiler level control systems add the feed forward signal into the level controller output to the secondary (feedwater flow) controller set point. This approach eliminates the need for characterizing the feed forward signal to match the control valve characteristic. Actual boiler level control schemes do not feed the steam flow signal forward directly. Instead, the difference between the outlet steam flow and the inlet water flow is calculated. The difference value is directly added to the set point signal to the feedwater flow controller. Therefore, if the steam flow out of the boiler is suddenly increased by the start up of a turbine, for example, the set point to the feedwater flow controller is increased by exactly the amount of the measured steam flow increase. Simple material balance considerations suggest that if the two flow meters are exactly accurate, the flow change produced by the flow control loop will make up exactly enough water to maintain the level without producing a significant upset to the level control loop. Similarly, a sudden drop in steam demand caused by the trip of a significant turbine load will produce an exactly matching drop in feedwater flow to the steam drum without producing any significant disturbance to the boiler steam drum level control. Of course, there are losses from the boiler that are not measured by the steam production meter. The most common of these are boiler blow down and steam vents (including relief valves) ahead of the steam production meter. In addition, boiler operating conditions that alter the total volume of water in the boiler cannot be corrected by the feed forward control strategy. For example, forced circulation boilers may have steam generating sections that are placed out of service or in service intermittently. The level controller itself must correct for these unmeasured disturbances using the normal feedback control algorithm. Notes on Firing Control Systems In general, firing control is accomplished with a Plant Master that monitors the pressure of the main steam header and modulates the firing rate (and hence, the steam production rate) of one or more boilers delivering steam to the steam header. The firing demand signal is sent to all boilers in parallel, but each boiler is provided with a Boiler Master to allow the Plant Master demand signal to be overridden or biased. When the signal is overridden, the steam production rate of the boiler is set manually by the operator, and the boiler is said to be base-loaded. Most boilers on a given header must be allowed to be driven by the Plant

Master to maintain pressure control. Boilers that have the Boiler Master set in automatic mode (passing the steam demand from the Plant Master to the boiler firing control system) are said to be swing boilers as opposed to base-loaded boilers. The presence of heat recovery steam boilers on a steam header raises new control issues because the steam production rate is primarily controlled by the horsepower demand placed on the gas turbine providing the heat to the boiler. If the heat recovery boiler operates at a pressure above the header pressure, a separate pressure control system can be used to blow off excess steam from the heat recovery boiler when production is above the steam header demand. Note that for maximum efficiency, most heat recovery boilers are fitted with duct burners to provide additional heat to the boiler. The duct burner is controlled with a Boiler Master like any other swing boiler. As long as there are other large swing boilers connected to the steam header, the other fired boilers can reduce firing as required when output increases from the heat recovery boiler.

The drum level must be controlled to the limits specified by the boiler manufacturer. If the drum level does not stay within these limits, there may be water carryover. If the level exceeds the limits, boiler water carryover into the superheater or the turbine may cause damage resulting in extensive maintenance costs or outages of either the turbine or the boiler. If the level is low, overheating of the water wall tubes may cause tube ruptures and serious accidents, resulting in expensive repairs, downtime, and injury or death to personnel. A rupture or crack most

commonly occurs where the tubes connect to the drum. Damage may be a result of numerous or repeated low drum level conditions where the water level is below the tube entry into the drum. Some companies have had cracked or damaged water tubes as a result of time delayed trips or operators having a trip bypass button. When the drum level gets too low, the boiler must have a boiler trip interlock to prevent damage to the tubes and cracks in the tubes where they connect to the boiler drum. The water tubes may crack or break where they connect to the drum, or the tubes may rupture resulting in an explosion. The water tube damage may also result in water leakage and create problems with the drum level control. The water leakage will affect the drum level because not all the water going into the drum is producing steam. Poor level control also has an effect on drum pressure control. The feedwater going into the drum is not as hot as the water in the drum. Adding feedwater too fast will result in a cooling effect in the boiler drum reducing drum pressure and causing boiler level shrinkage. This can be demonstrated by pouring tap water into a pan of boiling water.

Shrink and swell Shrink and swell must be considered in determining the control strategy of a boiler. During a rapid increase in load, a severe increase in level may occur. Shrink and swell is a result of pressure changes in the drum changing water density. The water in the drum contains steam bubbles similar to when water is boiled in our homes. During a rapid increase in load, a severe rise in level may occur because of an increase in volume of the bubbles. This increased volume is the result of a drop in steam pressure from the load increase and the increase in steam generation from the greater firing rate to match the load increase (i.e., bubbles expand). If the level in the drum is too high at this time, it may result in water carryover into the superheater or the turbine. The firing rate cycle can result in drum pressure cycles. The drum pressure cycles will cause a change in drum level.

The firing rate change has an effect on drum level, but the most significant cause of shrink and swell is rapid changes in drum pressure expanding or shrinking the steam bubbles due to load changes. When there is a decrease in demand, the drum pressure increases and the firing rate changes, thus reducing the volume of the bubbles (i.e., bubbles get smaller). A sudden loss in load could result in high drum pressure causing shrinkage severe enough to trip the boiler on low level. A boiler trip at high firing rates creates a furnace implosion. If the implosion is severe enough, the boiler walls will be damaged due to high vacuum in the furnace. Typically, for redundancy, there are three different methods used to measure drum level. In the Boiler drums/level measurement example, the bulls eye technology is a direct reading level measurement. The differential pressure transmitter represents the level control measurement, and the probe type sensor is a common method for level alarms and low and high level shutdown. Note the connections in the second illustration are not realistic. The chamber with the probes is for drum level alarms and boiler trips. The longest probe is the common one. The one above it is low water trip. The one above that is the low water alarm. The short probe can be a high level alarm or a boiler trip. The length of the probes is determined by the boiler manufacturer. My experience is the low water shutdown probe is 1 to 2 inches above the water tube boiler connections. The basic indication of the drum water level is commonly shown in a sight gage glass (bulls eye) connected to the boiler drum. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers requires a direct reading of the drum level. Due to the configuration of the boiler, and the distance the boiler drum is from the operator, a line-of-sight indication may not be practical. The gage glass image can be projected with a periscope arrangement of mirrors. There are a number of methods for drum level measurement. Other methods are a closed circuit television and the use of fiber optics. The sight glass reading is affected by the temperature/density of the water in the sight glass. The water in the sight glass is cooler than the water in the boiler drum.

Drum level measurement The Drum level connections image is an example of the arrangement of a differential drum level measuring transmitter. The differential transmitter output signal increases as the differential pressure decreases. (Note the differential pressure connections. The connections may need to be reversed or calibrated so increasing level will go from 0 to 100%.) The differential pressure range will vary between 10 and 30 inches, depending on the size of the boiler drum, with a zero suppression of several inches. On the high pressure side of the measuring device, the effective pressure equals boiler drum pressure plus the weight of a water column at ambient temperature having a length equal to the distance between the two drum pressure connections. On the low pressure side, the effective pressure equals boiler drum pressure, plus the weight of a column of saturated steam having a length from the upper drum pressure connection to the water level, and the weight of a column of water at saturation temperature having a length from the water level to the lower drum pressure connection. On high pressure boilers, a condensate pot is connected on the top water leg to keep the leg full of condensate. If the condensate level varies in the top connected leg, the drum level measurement will not be accurate. On low pressure boilers, a condensate pot may not be required. The Drum level connections image is an example of the correct method of installing a differential pressure transmitter. The correct installation allows the sediment to remain in the blowdown line without getting into the transmitter. Problems with drum level measurement can be a result of improper installation of the sensing legs from the boiler drum to the transmitter. It is critical that lines be sloped at least a half inch per foot from the boiler drum to the transmitter. If not properly sloped, air pockets may form in the lines creating improper drum level measurement. When a differential pressure transmitter is used to measure drum level and the instruments used are sensitive to density variation, density compensation techniques must be employed. A mass steam flow and water flow signal is required for two and three element control systems. (For more information, refer to ANSI/ISA-77.42.01-1999 (R2006) Fossil Fuel Power Plant Feedwater Control System Drum Type.) Observe the error due to density in the Uncompensated drum level measurement error chart. The top boiler connection to the transmitter will be filled with condensate. As the drum level increases, the two signals become equal, thus reading zero level when the drum level is at 100% (Sight glass drum level indication image). By reversing the connections at the transmitter, the drum level signal is reversed. The reading may also be corrected with transmitter calibration. The drum level control indicator scale for a 30-inch span, the distance between the upper and lower drum connections, would be -15 to +15 inches with zero as the controller set point. On higher pressure boilers, typically above 1000 psi, a considerable error in level measurement at other than the operating pressures exist when a differential pressure is used to measure level due to water density changes in the drum.

Optimizing Strategy for Boiler Drum Level Control


Avoid trips and maximize steam output by reviewing your control equipment, strategy, and tuning.
Inadequate control of drum level in a natural-circulation boiler can cause trips on a frequency ranging from a few times a year to once a day. Each boiler trip generates expenses that can cost from tens-of-thousands to hundreds-of-thousands of dollars depending on the circumstances. Control engineers can substantially improve level control performance by following a structured approach to troubleshooting the boiler drum level control system including reviewing the control equipment, the strategy, and the controller tuning. This approach can substantially reduce the number of boiler trips, providing a substantial financial benefit.

Drum level control basics Natural-circulation boilers are widely used in various chemical processing and related industries. The design principle uses the difference in density between cooler water in the downcomer and the steam/water mixture in the riser to drive the steam/water mixture through the tubes. The boiler drum separates steam from water and contains inventory to accommodate operational changes. Water enters the riser tube, is heated, and undergoes a transition from a single-phase liquid to a mixture of saturated liquid and steam. As heat input increases, the proportion of steam vapor in the riser tube increases.

A high-priority challenge to the control engineer is the ability to control the water level in the drum very precisely. When the water level gets too high it can result in water carryover into the superheater or turbine, potentially causing damage or outages in the turbine or boiler. A level that is too low can expose the water tubes where they connect to the drum, causing them to crack or break. A boiler trip interlock is supposed to prevent these types of damage, but boiler trips can take considerable time to clear, during which the expensive production equipment is often forced to sit idle. Shrink and swell

The void fraction is the percentage of steam by volume in the riser tube. The quality is the percentage of steam by weight in the riser tube. As the quality increases, so does the void fraction. Faster changes in the void fraction are seen at lower steam quality and lower steam pressure. Increasing the boiler firing rate increases the void fraction, which in turn pushes water out of the riser tube into the drum, increasing the level of the drum. This effect is known as swell. Likewise, reducing the boiler firing rate reduces the void fraction and water flows downward from the drum into the riser tube, reducing the level of the drum. This effect is known as shrink.

If the steam flow out of the boiler increases, the drum pressure will drop and the boiling rate will increase, increasing the void fraction in the tubes and drum. The increase in the void fraction will push water into the drum, causing swell. The inventory of the boiler must be reduced to accommodate the increased void fraction. The opposite effect is seen when the steam flow out of the boiler decreases or when cold feedwater is added to the drum. The resulting reduction in drum pressure causes the boiler level to shrink. While the control engineer must pay careful attention to shrink and swell in determining the boiler drum level control strategy, he or she may be surprised to find that changes in these factors sometimes have the opposite effect as was expected. For example, an increase in cold feedwater flow would be expected to increase the inventory in the boiler and increase the drum level. But in the short term, increasing feedwater flow tends to quench the boiling in the drum and also potentially in the tubes. As shown in Figure 3, this may result in a temporary drop in the boiler drum level. Eventually the drum level increases due to increasing inventory. On the other hand, a decrease in feedwater flow tends to increase boiling in the drum and tubes. The result is a temporary rise in the boiler drum level. If the feedwater temperature is higher, close to the drum temperature, these effects will be less noticeable and may disappear completely. Drum level measurement

Naturally, the control engineers first step in maintaining drum level control is to ensure accurate boiler drum level measurement. However, this may be complicated by the fact that the steam drum itself may not be perfectly level. Even at steady state conditions, turbulence in the drum can cause the level to fluctuate. A changing rate of water inflow and steam outflow adds to the potential for measurement error. Measurement of boiler steam drum level using a differential pressure transmitter must take into account the physical properties of the fluid. The drum contains a two-phase mixture of water and steam at saturation conditions. The densities of water and steam vary with saturation temperature or pressure. The density of saturated steam above water must be considered, as well as the density of saturated water in the drum. Suppliers of boiler drum level transmitters will provide instructions for calibrating transmitters that take these factors in account. Understanding response dynamics

Tuning the control loops requires an understanding of the response dynamics. Open-loop step testing as shown in Figure 5 can help provide this understanding. The feedwater valve is stepped while monitoring the response of the feedwater flow, boiler drum level, and steam flow. In the example shown in Figure 6, the feedwater flow does not respond well to changes in the feedwater valve at the points indicated by the red marks. The problem is a sticky valve. The controller cannot be tuned to fix this problem.

Instead, the control valve needs to be fixed. Of course, its not possible to make a control valve that responds perfectly, but it should respond to 0.5% steps or smaller in the controller output. Figure 7 shows a flow control valve that responds well to control signals.

After the feedwater loop is operating correctly, its time for the control engineer to focus on the drum level. The goal is to achieve sharp transitions in the level slope in response to a change in feedwater flow rate because dead time or delay is destabilizing. Figure 8 shows a good example of a response without any delays. The dynamics of the boiler may include dead time that cannot be eliminated, so to maintain stability in this case, the tuning of the controller must be slowed down. Types of level control systems

Single-level element control as shown in Figure 9 uses only the level measurement and the feedwater valve. The controller responds to a proportional signal from the drum level transmitters by generating a proportional output to the boiler feedwater valve when needed. This approach is often used when starting up a boiler and

there is no steam flow or when a flowmeter has failed. The drawback of this strategy is that the level is subject to uncontrolled disturbances from the steam header and the feedwater. For example, if the feedwater header pressure rises, the feedwater flow to the boiler also increases. Without a feedwater control loop, this situation would be uncorrected until the level changes. In addition, the installed characteristics of the feedwater valve may compromise level control performance over a large operating range.

Two-element level control as shown in Figure 10 adds the steam flow as a feedforward element to the level controller output. A steam mass flow rate signal is used to control the feedwater flow so that feedwater demand can be adjusted immediately in response to load changes. The level controller is used to correct any imbalance between the steam mass flow out of and the feedwater mass flow into the drum. This approach delivers more effective drum level control than a single element. It is well suited for use on a single boiler with a single feedwater pump using a constant feedwater pressure. A potential weakness is that the installed characteristics of the feedwater valve may compromise level control performance over a large operating range. In addition, steam feedforward may need to be characterized when using this approach.

Three-element level control as shown in Figure 11 is the most common boiler drum level control strategy. A feedwater flow loop slave is added to the two-element strategy. Three-element level control linearizes the feedwater flow with respect to the steam flow and the level controller output. The control loop now requests volumetric flow change, not just a change in the valve position. This strategy attempts to compensate for changes or disturbances in steam flow and feedwater flow based on the principle that flow in equals flow out. The installed characteristics of the feedwater valve are no longer an issue because the flow controller can compensate. Using this approach, the steam feedforward element can be a simple gain without requiring characterization. Tuning the control loop

The recommended procedure for level control tuning is to tune the feedwater flow loop first to ensure that its fast, stable, and does not overshoot. Then the control engineer should perform open-loop tests on the drum level loop, being careful to start small. Evaluate the response for a number of step tests. Figure 12 shows a well-behaved drum level process without any dead time.

The lambda tuning method for controllers usually provides stable control loops. The blue line in Figure 13 shows the response provided by lambda tuning to correct for a disturbance. The

lambda value () is the arrest time where the level deviation is maximum and represents 1/6 of the total recovery time. The lambda tuning equation is where TARR is the arrest time, which is equal to lambda. The greater the process dead time, the greater the lambda value that is required. Feedforward is generally set up to maintain a 1:1 mass relationship between steam flow and feedwater. If both flow meters are set up for the same span in engineering units, e.g., pounds per hour, then the feedforward gain is normally set to 1.0. Also, consider accounting for other input and output flows that consume steam, such as soot blowing and blow down. A dynamic feedforward approach may be more beneficial than a straight gain. Handling disturbances Various types of disturbances can create level control challenges for the control engineer. For example, Figure 14 shows a disturbance caused by variations in process steam demand. In this particular application, the steam flow disturbance is an inherent part of the process so it cannot be corrected. The three-element drum level control is kept busy reacting to the variations in steam flow to maintain the drum level at a relatively constant value. Substantial variations in the level are seen when the drum level control goes into manual.

If a steam flow increase causes the drum to swell, the level will increase but the feedforward signal will cause the feedwater to increase, potentially compounding the problem. Most boilers do not show appreciable shrink or swell from feedwater because the feedwater is heated and drum baffling is used. The level controller will attempt to counteract the effect of the

feedforward. The solution in many cases is to filter or delay the feedforward steam signal. This accommodates the change in boiler inventory that is occurring. Conclusion Drum level control problems can cause production inefficiencies, product quality issues, and production limits, and in some cases can even create safety risks. In extreme cases, level control problems have resulted in costs of millions of dollars per year. Proven methods are available to substantially improve drum level control. The control engineer can perform a simple but systematic analysis of the control system to establish the root cause of the control problem and reestablish effective drum level control.