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By Mynor Celis, P.Eng, Russell NDE Systems

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Forced outages of steam boilers due to tube leakages remain the leading cause of lost production in
plants. Due to hundreds, if not thousands of linear feet of pipe, there is a high potential for failure without
notice. One of the biggest challenges for maintenance and operations personnel is the prevention of tube
failures in boilers and heat exchangers without causing significant loss to the company. When excursions
from normal operating conditions occur, the question must be raised, if our boiler tubes were damaged
by the excursion (for example, overheating, or a condenser tube leak), how do we find out if we have a
problem that could lead to failure?
Boiler operation always involves harsh working conditions. On the fuel side of tubes, high operating
temperatures and corrosive by-products from burning fossil fuels or solid waste can seriously degrade
the life-expectancy of the boiler tubes. On the water/steam side, there is a high potential for oxidization of
boiler tubes due to high temperature steam and the corrosive action of chemicals in the water supply.
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These conditions may cause metal to overheat, corrosive wall thinning, and localized pitting, any or all of
which can lead to premature failure of the tubes, possible injuries to personnel, damage to adjacent tubes
and a forced outage.
In spite of these adverse operating conditions, boilers have a life expectancy upwards of 30 years and
most premature failures are due to conditions that make operational variables deviate from expected
parameters.
Industrial best practice is to inspect all tubes periodically, checking to ensure that mechanical properties
of the materials are intact and that material thickness is within normal expectations. A proper and
rigorous inspection regimen will go a long way to reduce the probability of premature boiler failures.
Thomas R. Schmidt of Shell Oil headed the initial development of the remote field testing (RFT)
technique for measuring oil well casings. After that, several tools have entered the market using RFT for
multiple specialized applications.
The primary benefit of this technique is that it does not require contact with the object under test to
measure material thickness and condition. Additionally, a high-quality inspection can be assured without
requiring couplant and with minimal surface preparation. RFT also shows high sensitivity to detection of
defects on the ID or OD of the tube in question and can measure through non-ferromagnetic coatings,
linings and scale.
There are two approaches to doing maintenance of any kind: a preventative approach or a corrective
approach (pro-active or reactive). This holds true with boiler inspections. A preventative approach seeks
to look at the long-term wear-and-tear tendencies on the equipment, with an eye towards improving
operations through improvements to the fuel-air mixture, flow balancing and the creation of a
maintenance specification for tube repair or replacement. Undertaking a corrective approach looks to
inspect the boiler after a failure to look for collateral damage and to ensure that the failure mechanism
has not affected other areas in the boiler.
Of the two, the former is more advantageous from the perspective of being performed before failure,
within the context of the firms long-range operational plan, resulting in a reduced effect to the operations
budget and significantly reduced time lost due to unexpected outages.
Long-term overheating (creep): This type of failure occurs when the operating temperature of the boiler
tubes exceeds the operational limits for an extended period of time. These limits are variable based on
the tube size and thickness, operating pressures, as well as the tube locations in the boiler and
construction materials. Overheating leading to creep damage can be caused by internal deposits, which
reduce flow through the tubes or, more commonly, sudden spikes in operating temperature due to
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increasing load or issues with the temperature control. These reduce the resistance of the tubes.

Figure 1 Long-term overheating (creep)

How to detect creep damage: During the period of long-term overheating, the surface of the tube will
develop blisters at the locations subject to the highest temperature and will develop elongated axial
cracks. Both of these failures will reduce overall tube thickness and material properties of the tube.
Additionally, thick, dark, brittle oxides will appear on the internal and external surfaces of the tube. All of
these conditions can be detected through RFT as the changes in the tubes electrical permeability can be
easily measured.
How to prevent creep damage: Often, when boilers are operating outside of standard operational
parameters, it goes unrecorded or unnoticed by the operator. Either of these issues can lead to premature
failure, as the degradation of the tubes material properties is not being accurately recorded. As such, it is
necessary to run periodic performance evaluations on the boiler. Ensuring frequent calibration of the
thermostats is the best way to prevent unexpected temperature spikes and to help ensure that the unit is
warmed up in accordance with the manufacturers recommended specifications. Frequent sampling of
the units feed water supplyideally once per shiftwill help to ensure that the feed water quality is within
the manufacturers recommended parameters. Regular internal flushing of the boiler tubes will ensure
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removal of any material deposits clogging the tubes. Any deposits must be measured frequently, and
chemical cleaning is recommended when the deposit density exceeds 15 g/sq.ft. Cleaning becomes
mandatory as the density reaches 30 g/sq/ft. Frequent drum inspections are mandatory according to the
maintenance manual of the manufacturer. Depending on the hours of service, it is necessary to determine
how well the equipment is working, the effectiveness of the water treatment and that there are no failure
mechanisms affecting the internal surface, mainly in the area of water-steam interface line.
Lastly, it is necessary that all spare parts used in maintenance or repairs are correct to the
manufacturers specifications. It should be noted that when any tube fails as a result of creep damage,
there will be a rupture with slightly rounded edges and jagged edges with cracks or breaks in the vicinity
of the rupture. A thick, fragile layer of magnetite will appear near the failure, indicative of long-term
overheating.
Short Term Overheating: Most often, these failures occur when the tubes are left without sufficient
cooling and occur in short order. Failures caused by short-term overheating frequently occur at the top of
the tubes or close to the steam collector. If the failure occurs in a single tube and if surrounding tubes
have no appearance of alteration, it suggests that the failed tube was at least partially obstructed,
causing the temperature to rapidly exceed material limits, causing an explosion or leak in the tube.

Figure 2 Short-term overheating

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How to detect short-term overheating: As these failures occur rapidly, it is recommended that the tubes
be inspected visually through the inspection ports during start-up. If red spots suddenly appear on a
tube, it is a signal that the tube may be plugged. This type of inspection is necessary after chemical
cleaning, tube replacement or re-commissioning after a long period of dormancy.
How to prevent short-term overheating: As a result of the rapid occurrence of this type of failure, it is not
readily detectable through non-destructive testing methods. The best way to prevent it is to flush the
tubes with water to ensure all obstructions are removed prior to startup and by ensuring that the purge
and bottom headers are open as the pressure is increased. This type of failure can be recognized by the
longitudinal rupture, smooth edges and no loss of wall thickness as the rupture.
Oxygen Corrosion: Oxygen corrosion occurs in a boiler due to small corroded regions which acts as an
anode to the rest of the boiler, causing further corrosion. This process is exacerbated by the presence of
dissolved oxygen in the boiler system. Ideally, the boiler surface would be covered with a protective layer
of iron oxide, preventing the attack of free oxygen in the water supply. The small pits that result from
oxygen corrosion can cause significant stress, and will result in the formation of cracks in the region

Figure 3 Oxygen corrosion


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How to detect oxygen corrosion: RFT is one of the most effective methods used to detect oxygen corrosion
if it is located at the fire side. High tool sensitivity and accuracy (>1/8 diam.) allows for the early
detection of initial defects, providing data necessary to determine a repair or replacement protocol before
the tube fails. Ultrasonic testing (UT) can also be used, but is limited by significantly slower inspection
time and the fact that 100 percent coverage is impossible. The latter increases the risk that serious
damage to tubes could go unnoticed.
How to prevent oxygen corrosion: The most effective way to prevent oxygen corrosion in boiler tubes is to
prevent oxygen from entering the system in the first place.
Oxygen enters a boiler system primarily through three means: air can be trapped during normal operation
when internal pressure is less than the ambient atmospheric pressure; when the system is left open for
maintenance; and as a result of molecular dissociation of water in the system. Other critical factors are
the presence of ambient moisture in the system and, the loss of a passivation layer after chemical
cleaning. Eliminating these factors can successfully prevent oxygen corrosion. It is recommended that all
metal surfaces be kept dry using positive-pressure inert gas, moisture-absorbing materials, or a
continuous flow of dry, dehumidified (<30 percent) air.
Caustic Corrosion: Caustic corrosion refers to the corrosive action of sodium hydroxide with a metal and
is restricted to: water-cooled tubes in regions of high heat fluctuation; regions with heat transfer in
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welding rings or other devices that disrupt flow; horizontal or inclined tubes; places with thick internal
deposits reducing flow rates. This penetration may be filled with dense corrosion products which
sometimes contain magnetite crystals. Most often, the metal surface has a smooth contour and
laminations. Sodium hydroxide is added to boiler water in non-corrosive concentrations; however other
physical factors tend to concentrate it further, leading to the production of corrosive alkaline in the boiler.

Figure 4 Caustic corrosion

How to detect caustic corrosion: Caustic corrosion is easily detected using non-destructive testing
methods, because the affected area is found with reduced wall thickness. If this is in its early stage there
may not be any blister, but if the thickness is reduced there is likely to be a blister or deformation in the
tube. Remote field testing is the most suitable method. These tools have high sensitivity and inspection
speed, allowing for rapid detection of corrosive damage. UT can also be used, once the affected region has
been located.
How to prevent caustic corrosion: When sodium hydroxide is presenteither by itself, or as a saltproducing alkalinewith a concentration mechanism, there exists the possibility of caustic corrosion. To
reduce the likelihood of caustic corrosion damage in a boiler, the amount of free sodium hydroxide
available to produce alkaline salts in the condenser water must be controlled at the purification stage.
This will prevent nucleate boiling, and the formations of water-level lines. Proper purging will prevent the
formation of sludge deposits.
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Acidic Corrosion: There are two necessary conditions for this type of failure to occur: the boiler must be
operated with a pH below normal parameters, and there must be a means to concentrate the acidproducing salts that are responsible for the low-pH environment. If both of these conditions are met, then
the protective layer of iron oxide is dissolved, and the bare metal is left unprotected.

Figure 5 Acidic corrosion

How to detect acidic corrosion: Corrosion of this type primarily results in metal loss on the interior
surface of the tube. Similar to caustic corrosion, areas affected by a low pH environment tend to have
smooth edges and lamination. The difference between the two is that the region affected by acidic
corrosion is often covered with iron oxide.
Remote field testing has high sensitivity, and can detect minimal corrosion accurately from 1/8
diameter, making it one of the most effective ways to detect acidic corrosion. The Ultrasonic testing to
determine the extent of wall loss however this can only be effectively utilized once the affected region is
known.
How to prevent acidic corrosion: Two ways exist to reduce the probability of acidic corrosion in the boiler.
The first involves reducing the availability of free acid, or acid producing salts in the boiler, avoiding
make up water with Low Ph. The second involves eliminating the means to concentrate the acid in the
boiler, such as bubble formations, water-side deposits, and water-level lines. This can be achieved
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through regular, proper purging of the boiler.


Stress Corrosion: Stress corrosion is caused by a combination of two separate factors: tensile stresses
on the pipe caused by internal pressure, or residual stresses induced by improperly-applied heat
treatment, or tube bending; and a corrosive material such as sodium hydroxide or chlorine. This
combination results in cracking near the stressed region. Stress corrosion usually occurs near welds, or
tube bends.

Figure 6 Stress corrosion

How to detect stress corrosion: Stress corrosion displays as cracking near welds subject to tensile
stresses. While stress corrosion cracking can be difficult to see, it can be detected visually. Liquid
penetrant inspection provides a surer means of detection. Additionally, ultrasonic testing or radiographic
testing can detect stress corrosion cracking.
How to prevent stress corrosion: Annealing will relieve residual stresses from welding or bending. Adding
phosphates to the operating environment will help prevent the formation of free sodium, reducing the
concentration of corrosion products.
Hydrogen Damage: When chemicals are added to boiler water to balance pH, an electrochemical reaction
can occur, releasing free hydrogen atoms into the environment. This can cause decarburization,
embrittlement and the formation of molecular hydrogen and methane in the steel. Hydrogen damage is
restricted to evaporator tubes with pre-existing corrosion problems. Hydrogen atoms diffuse into the
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steel of the boiler tubes. Some of these atoms bond with either each other, or the carbon in the steel,
forming molecular hydrogen or methane. These gasses accumulate until the pressure causes the
separation of the metal along the granular borders, producing inter-granular micro-cracks. This in turn
reduces the mechanical strength of the tube, which causes it to burst. Any tubes suspected of failing due
to hydrogen damage should have samples taken and sent for metallographic analysis in a lab.

Figure 7 Hydrogen damage

How to detect hydrogen damage: Hydrogen damage is hard to detect visually, except in the advanced
stages when the pipe has visible cracks. Remote field testing is highly effective in detecting hydrogen
damage because the changes in the electrical properties of the material due to hydrogen damage are
readily detected.
How to prevent hydrogen damage: The two critical factors in reducing a boilers susceptibility to hydrogen
damage are the amount of hydrogen available, and the means to increase its concentration. Proper
chemical treatment of feed water, combined with a stringent pH control system is the best way to prevent
hydrogen damage.
Graphitization: Graphitization is caused by small structural changes of low-carbon steels at moderate
temperatures over extended periods of time. Graphitization causes the decomposition of pearlite in
ferrite, weakening the steel. The extent of the decomposition is dependent on the temperature. This
phenomenon generally occurs due to long-term overheating, during which, the graphite nodules are linked
to each other, reducing the resistance to internal pressure, causing the metal to tear.
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Figure 8 Graphitization

How to detect graphitization: Graphitization occurs internally, with the graphite detaching from the steel
reducing the total wall thickness. As with hydrogen damage, the electrical properties of the material
changes when graphitization is present. For this reason, remote field testing is the most effective means
of detection.
How to prevent graphitization: The primary concern with respect to the susceptibility to embrittlement
due to graphitization is tube quality. Low carbon content steel is more susceptible to graphitization and
long-term overheating is liable to exacerbate the problem. A good metal passivation program and treating
the boiler feed water with phosphate will reduce the probability of graphitization.
Fire Side Corrosion: Most fuel components can cause corrosion on boiler tubes. Due to incomplete
combustion, deposits of combustion residue can change the heat transfer characteristics with
potentially severe effects on system efficiency. Most solid fuels contain 10 to 20 percent ash that
remains in the boiler after combustion, leading to lost heat transfer and corrosion. While liquid fuels do
not exceed 2 percent ash, they do contain elements such as vanadium and sodium.

Figure 9 Fire-side corrosion

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How to detect fire side corrosion: When the surface of the boiler tubes are exposed to combustion gases,
the damaged area of the surface will change color. Long-term corrosion of this type affects the
permeability and conductivity of boiler tubes, as well as causing pitting.
How to prevent fire side corrosion: Fuel selection is of primary concern in addressing the issue of fire-side
corrosion. Fuels should be selected containing minimal corrosive agents such as sulfur, sodium and
calcium. Second, optimizing the combustion quality through control of temperature, fuel-air mixture, and
air balancing will reduce the ash deposits in tubes. Thermocouples should be installed throughout the
boiler to indicate when heat transfer is outside optimal operating range, which could be indicative of ash
deposits on the tubes. Third, continuous cleaning programs should be implemented in the boiler.
The probability of steam boiler failure is dependent on numerous operational and maintenance factors.
The implementation of preventative inspection and tube profile measurements will help to ensure that
boilers are active for their expected 30-year average operational lives. An active regime of preventative
maintenance will be effective at reducing the financial impact of unexpected shut-downs due to boiler
tube failures.
Operations staff need to be trained in preventative maintenance procedures and processes. Often, when
boiler tubes undergo catastrophic failure, adjacent tubes are often damaged as well, increasing the
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outage time. Periodic inspections and follow-up preventative maintenance is necessary to ensure the
boiler system remains in good repair, and potentially extend its life-expectancy. With this in mind, we can
conclude that periodic boiler inspection is a vital part of any maintenance regime, and that remote field
testing is the optimal means for early detection of most causes of boiler tube failure.
Author: Mynor Celis, currently is Marketing Manager for Latin America for Russell NDE Systems,
Edmonton, AB. Canada, He has previous experience as operation manager in a coal-fired power plant,
having responsibility for the operation of the boiler, water and wastewater systems, high and low boiler
steam pressure. He is a mechanical and electrical engineer with MBA specialization.
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