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Stress Corrosion Cracking: What You Need To Know

In the sixty years that Gartner Refrigeration has been in business, we have witnessed one instance of stress corrosion cracking (SCC). In our opinion, that is one too many due to the potentially disastrous consequences. This article explains what SCC is and how to prevent it.

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The combined effects of mechanical stress and corrosion on vessels can result in a special type of failure known as Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC). It is not possible to repair vessels once they have suffered SCC. SCC has the potential to cause a catastrophic failure.

What is SCC?
Stress corrosion cracking is a phenomenon which can occur in carbon steel and other metals exposed to a combination of mechanical stress and corrosion. In a pressure vessel, SCC appears as numerous fine cracks on the interior surfaces of the vessel, usually where the head and shell are welded together. This can also occur in any area where pitting of the material is present. During normal operation in ammonia refrigeration systems the applied stress levels alone are not high enough to initiate stress corrosion cracking. However, welding stress levels in high strength materials or welds which are harder than the base material, together with the applied stresses of the refrigeration system, can be enough to initiate SCC if oxygen is present. With as little as a few ppm oxygen in liquid ammonia or a few thousand ppm in gaseous ammonia, SCC can occur. In the ammonia refrigeration industry, the upper portion of the highpressure receiver is one of the most likely vessels to develop SCC. This is because it is the area of the system that sees the highest pressure and is the most likely to have high concentrations of noncondensable gases such as oxygen. Cracking is less likely to occur in low temperature vessels because oxygen must be present to act as a catalyst.

How to prevent SCC? 1. Post weld heat treating (PWHT) will substantially reduce the probability of SCC in vessels exposed to air contaminated ammonia. It relaxes residual and thermal stresses that occur during welding and tempers the heat affected areas. For most pressure vessels in the refrigeration industry the material used to fabricate the shell is ASTM/ASME SA-516-70 rolled carbon steel. To PWHT this material per ASME code requires heating the vessel to 1200 F and holding it at that temperature one hour per inch of thickness. It is then cooled in the furnace at the slowest possible rate. 2. Purging the refrigeration system can also reduce the possibility of SCC because it eliminates the noncondensables, such as oxygen, which accelerate the process. These impurities may enter the system while charging, from leaky valve stems, during piping repairs, or inadequate evacuation of the air prior to charging. In addition to reducing the possibility of SCC, a good purging system will have the benefit of lowering the condensing pressure and improving system efficiency. 3. Water concentrations of 0.2% can inhibit cracking. Unfortunately, even such small amounts of water are generally not tolerated in refrigeration applications. 4. Catastrophic failures can be avoided by carefully inspecting the vessels on a regular basis. For ammonia systems that are in excess of 10,000 pounds and require Process Safety Management (PSM), these inspections are part of the mechanical integrity program. Methods to detect SCC include radiographic and ultrasonic testing, wet magnetic particle method (ASME SE-138), and an acoustic emission test. These tests can be performed without internal access to the vessel, but do require the removal of insulation.

As a standard, Gartner Refrigeration will specify PWHT on recirculators, accumulators, high-pressure receivers, surge drums, pumper drums, intercoolers, and thermosyphon receivers.