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Why Vacuum Unit Fired

Heaters Coke
Case studies show how to avoid localized hot spots
in order to maintain yield targets and increase run-lengths

Tony Barletta
Process Consulting Services, Inc., Houston, Texas

ome refinery vacuum heaters have the coke. Rapid coke for-
chronic problems with coking and mation is caused by a
short run-lengths (Photo 1). Several combination of high oil
of these heaters operate at coil outlet tem- film temperature, long oil
peratures of only 750-760F and average residence time, and inher-
radiant section heat flux of 8,000 btu/hr- ent oil stability.
ft2-F or less. Why do these seemingly mild Heater design affects the
operations have run-lengths less than 2 localized coke formation
years between decokings? But others oper- rates through its influence
ate for 4 years at coil outlet temperatures of on oil residence time and
790F and average flux of 11,000 btu/hr- film temperature. The
ft2-F. Common heater monitoring param- lower velocity oil film flow-
eters such as coil outlet temperature, aver- ing along the tube wall will
age heat flux, and fired duty are generally be 25F to over 200F
of little value in determining why a heater higher than the oil temper-
develops hot spots. Hot spots are typically ature. For instance, the oil
localized phenomena. Often, hot spots are film temperature in the
a consequence of decisions made to outlet tube may be over
reduce the heater initial investment. 950F even though the
When revamping, the designer should bulk oil temperature is
apply fundamental design principles to only 790F. Coke forma-
meet short term product yield targets and tion begins in the oil film
long term run-length objectives. Common flowing on the inside tube
heater design considerations that impact wall because its tempera-
the rate of coke lay-down are radiant sec- ture is higher.
tion tube layout, process coil design, and Oil film temperature is
burner performance. This paper reviews highest at the front of the
how heater design influences localized tube facing the burner and
conditions that promote rapid coke forma- lowest on the back side of
tion. Two case studies will show how fun- the tube facing the refrac-
damental principles can be applied to elim- tory. This peak oil film
inate hot spots and increase run-length. temperature is where cok-
Photo 1. Refinery Heater
ing starts. The temperature
Why coke forms rise through the oil film depends on a num- will move this line up or down. Heater tube
Coke forms because conditions in the ber of design factors. Heater tube layout, layout, process coil design, and burner per-
shock or radiant tubes cause the oil to ther- process coil design, and burner perfor- formance control localized peak film tem-
mally decompose to coke and gas. Coke mance all have an effect on the oil film peratures and oil residence time. Peak film
lay-down on the inside of the tube increas- temperature. temperature can vary significantly on a sin-
es the tube metal temperatures (TMTs). As Figure 1 represents the relationship gle tube due to fire box flue gas tempera-
tube metal temperatures increase, the between peak oil film temperature, oil resi- ture gradients.
heater firing must be reduced or TMTs will dence time, and the rate of coke formation.
progressively increase until the tube metal- Operating above the cracking line will Heater design
lurgical temperature limit is reached. Then cause rapid coke and gas formation that Vacuum heaters are typically cabin, box,
the heater must be shutdown to remove eventually leads to hot spots. Oil stability or vertical cylindrical type design with fir-

Reprinted from Petroleum Technology Quarterly Autumn 2001 Issue


down-flow or up-flow, tube

size, location of coil out-
lets, etc.) that influence the
Oil residence time

Cracking rate of coking.

There are many different
heater designs. Pass lay-
out, process coil design,
and burner performance
vary from one heater to the
next. While computer
Peak film temperature models are necessary tools
to design and troubleshoot
Figure 1. Oil Cracking, Time and vacuum heaters, these
Temperature models need to correctly Photo 2. Cabin Heater Side-wall
represent actual heater
ing on one side of the heater tube. operation. Often, heater models assume each wall. Each pass consists of a number
Occasionally double-fired designs are used ideals that dont exist in the real world. of tubes with the oil flowing downward in
in tar sand, high bitumen crude, or hydro- Calibrated heater model results and the each pass from the convection section out-
cracking vacuum residue services where application of basic fired heater design let. Most cabin and box heaters have the
oil stability is poor. Although vertical cylin- principles should be used when revamping passes stacked because this reduces initial
drical designs are common, they should be a vacuum heater. heater cost. However, stacking the tubes
avoided because the vertical tubes cause always results in heat absorption differ-
the oil to flow repeatedly through the high Fired heater basics ences between the individual passes.
heat flux zone. In addition, the sizing of Fired heaters consist of a convection and Today, most refiners vary pass flow rates to
the last two to three tubes in each pass is radiant section (Figure 3). The convection achieve equal coil outlet temperature.
complicated by pressure variations in the section recovers heat from the flue gas Hence, high pass flow rate variation indi-
up-flow and down-flow tubes. Box and leaving the radiant section (bridgewall) cates large heat absorption differences.
cabin type heaters are the most common in and transfers it to the cold process fluid in Stacked tubes and other factors contribute
refinery vacuum units. the tubes. Convection duty depends on the to localized coking conditions.
Most cabin or box type heaters have four equipment design, bridgewall temperature
or six passes in a single radiant cell. The (Photo 3), and the flue gas rate. Minimize coking
height-to-width ratio (L/D) varies from 2.2 Maximizing convection section duty Radiant section localized film temperature
to 3.5. The number of burners, flame decreases the radiant section duty, which and oil residence times depend on the heat
length, and the distance from the burners always reduces the rate of coke formation. flux, bulk oil temperature, and tube mass
to the tubes are all design variables. Figure Once the convection section design is set, flux rates. All are design variables which
2 shows a six-pass box heater with the the radiant section must provide the can be manipulated. Understanding the
coils stacked along each wall (Photo 2). Oil remaining heat needed to meet the relationship between the oil film tempera-
flows downward in each pass. This six- required coil outlet temperature. ture, heat flux, bulk oil temperature, mass
pass design will be used to review what The box heater shown in Figure 2 has flux, and oil residence time allows the
happens inside a heater and some of the horizontal tubes on the radiant section designer to choose cost-effective solutions
design considerations (stacked tubes, oil side walls. Three passes are located on to minimize the rate of coking.

Oil Stack Oil

in temperature in
Pass #4 inlet Pass #1 inlet Oil Oil
Convection in temperature in
Pass #5 inlet Pass #2 inlet section
Pass #6 inlet Pass #3 inlet section
Transfer line Transfer line temperature Oil
Bridgewall out
temperature Oil
Pass #6 outlet Pass #3 outlet Radiant out
Pass #5 outlet Pass #2 outlet Oil out Air/fuel
Oil out
Down flow Air/fuel
Up flow
Pass #4 outlet Pass #1 outlet Down flow Up flow

Figure 2. Six Pass Box Type, Stacked Passes Figure 3. Simplified Heater Model

Reprinted from Petroleum Technology Quarterly Autumn 2001 Issue


is so much higher than the how the temperature drop across the oil
process fluid, localized flue film is calculated. The Do and Di are the
gas temperature largely deter- outside and inside tube diameters, respec-
mines how much heat is trans- tively. Flue gas temperature largely deter-
ferred at any location within mines the amount of heat transferred at
the fire box. Thus, increasing any given point (Qlocal).
the flue gas temperature in the
fire box (Tg) will increase the Equation 3
rate of heat transfer.
The Lobo-Evans method tf = Temperature drop across the oil film
assumes the fire box is well = Qlocal Do/Di hi
mixed and that flue gas tem- = F
perature is uniform through-
Photo 3. Shock Tubes (Bridgewall Temp.)
out. Every heater will have For a given heat flux (Qlocal), temperature
both longitudinal and transverse tempera- drop through the oil film temperature is set
Heat transfer ture gradients that depend on the design. by the process fluid convection coefficient
The radiant section typically provides Burner design, number of burners, burner (hi) inside the tube.
more than 60% of the heat added to the operation, and flue gas flow patterns all
reduced crude. Heat transfer from the hot influence the flue gas temperature and the Oil mass flux
flue gas to the oil occurs primarily by radi- localized heat flux. Equation #3 shows that increasing the con-
ation. Equation #1 is the Lobo-Evans vection coefficient decreases the tempera-
method for estimating the overall amount Localized heat flux ture drop through the oil film. Cost-effec-
of heat transferred in the radiant section as Average radiant section heat flux is the tive design changes that reduce the oil film
a function of flue gas temperature leaving total radiant section absorbed heat duty will reduce the rate of coke formation.
the radiant section (Tg), tube metal tem- divided by the total outside surface area Since the majority of the tubes have little
perature (Tt), and the radiant section sur- (Equation #2) of the radiant section tubes. or no oil vaporization and the Reynolds
face area (Acp). Localized heat flux varies depending on number is greater than 10,000, the heat
the specific heater design. transfer coefficient (hi) can be calculated
Equation 1 using the Seider and Tate equation shown
Equation 2 in Equation #4.
Heat Flux = Quantity of heat absorbed (Btu/hr)/
Outside tube area (ft2) Equation 4
Radiant Section Qr=0.173 ( Acp) (F) [(Tg/100)4-
= Btu/hr-ft2

Inside Tube Heat = (0.023) k/D (DG/)0.8

Although this equation makes several Flue gas temperature is not uniform (cp/k)0.33 (/w)0.14
assumptions to simplify what happens in throughout the fire box. Hot flue gas flows Transfer Coefficient = Btu/hr-ft2-F
an actual heater, it highlights that the heat upward between the tubes in the heater
transfer rate is controlled by flue gas and while cold flue gas flows downward The only term the heater designer can
process fluid temperature differences. between the tubes and refractory. This control is tube diameter (D) and it deter-
Because the flue gas absolute temperature recirculating flue gas may be only 1000F mines the oil mass velocity (G).
at the heater floor while the flue gas enter- Decreasing the tube diameter increases
ing the convection section will be 1450F- mass velocity. Oil transport properties and
Pass #4 inlet
1750F. The air/fuel mixture does not burn oil mass velocity are the also terms in the
Pass #5 inlet instantly. Burner heat release is a function equation. Transport properties viscosity
of the flame height and volume. Therefore, () and thermal conductivity (k) are con-
Pass #6 inlet
at some elevation above the heater
floor there is a maximum flue gas
Transfer line
temperature (Photo 4). This is where
heat flux is the highest. Figure 4 rep-
Pass #6 outlet
resents the heat flux distribution in a
high height to width ratio (L/D) box
Pass #5 outlet heater.

Localized oil film

Pass #4 outlet temperature
Heat flux Figure 5 represents the temperature
difference between the bulk oil and
Figure 4. Heat Flux Gradient with the oil film. (Equation #3) shows
Elevation Change Photo 4. Localized Flue Gas Temperature

Reprinted from Petroleum Technology Quarterly Autumn 2001 Issue


the rate of coke formation, yet

many designers ignore it.
Dry heater oil residence time
Inside tube
wall=806F Tube wall depends only on feed rate and
TMT=824F tube size. The smaller the tube
Bulk oil=760F No coke
sizes for a fixed radiant section
outside tube surface area, the
lower the oil residence time.
Tube metal temperature
Oil film Radiant sections use between
Inside tube
two to five tube sizes from the
wall=1,092F Tube wall inlet to the outlet due to oil
TMT=1,100F Outside coke
Coke vaporization. Steam can be
used to lower oil residence
Bulk oil=760F
time. Steam should be injected
upstream of the tube where
Coke Coke (insulator)
high coking rates are expected.
For instance, if the shock tubes
Figure 5. Oil Film Temperature
are coking, injecting all the
steam downstream at the Photo 5. Burner Performance
trolled by crude type and atmospheric crossover will not stop the coking. Some
column operation. The (/w)0.14 term is heaters are designed with 5 shock tubes design to review fundamental principles
1 because the ratio of viscosity of the and 4 radiant section tubes. The 5 tube helps highlight the difference between
bulk oil and oil film is near 1. oil residence time and peak film tempera- good and bad design practices.
Mass flux is the mass flow rate in the tures are high; therefore coking will occur The majority of vacuum heaters have
tube divided by the tube inside cross-sec- at this location. the tube passes stacked on the wall.
tional area (Equation 5). Reducing the Some have one or two rows of roof tubes
tube diameter increases the oil mass flux. Oil thermal stability and the tube passes stacked. Each pass
Increasing mass velocity not only Oil thermal stability varies depending on has been designed with identical outside
decreases oil film temperature, but it crude type. Some crude oils are simply tube surface areas. Therefore, the stacked
reduces the oil residence time. less stable than others. For instance, passes will absorb different amounts of
Conversely, as the tube diameter increas- some Canadian and Venezuelan crude heat. Figure 4 shows the heat flux varia-
es, the mass flux rate decreases, inside oils have poor thermal stability and begin tion. Tube passes #5 and #2 absorb the
heat transfer coefficient decreases, and to generate gas and coke at relatively low most heat. The pass #5 and #2 outlet
the film temperature increases. temperatures. During laboratory testing tubes are located in the high heat flux
in the ASTM D5236 potstill, the thermal zone. The 10 outlet tubes in each pass
Equation 5 stability can be inferred from the maxi- receive high heat flux and have low mass
mum still temperature before cracking flux; hence the temperature drop through
G (mass flux) = Mass rate of oil/ Inside Cross- starts. the film is very high. These tube passes
sectional area of heater tube Another factor that reduces oil stabili- will have chronic problems with coking.
= lb/sec-ft2 ty is the upstream heater and column
severity. Several refiners operate crude
Outlet tube sizing is a trade-off between column heaters at 750-780F outlet tem- #1 #3
maintaining mass velocity and the influ- peratures. High outlet temperature crude #2 #4
ence of tube pressure drop on the bulk oil heaters combined with high residence
temperature. High mass flux reduces time in the crude column bottom
temperature drop through the oil film, decrease oil stability. Field test have
but, it increases tube pressure drop, proven that rapid coke and gas formation
which raises the peak bulk oil tempera- in the vacuum heater can be caused by
ture inside the heater. Higher bulk oil the upstream equipment.
temperature raises film temperature. #1 #3
#2 #4
Heater design considerations
Oil residence time Heater pass layout, process coil design, Burners
Oil residence time depends on heater and burner performance (Photo 5) all
charge rate, tube size, steam injection play a key role in the rate of coke forma-
rate, and coil steam injection location. tion. Figure 2 shows the design of a six-
Residence time can vary from less than pass box heater with stacked tubes. Three
10 seconds for a heater with velocity passes are stacked on each wall. It is
steam to over 90 seconds in dry heater. floor fired and it is a narrow heater with Figure 6. Stacked Passes and Poor
Residence time is a significant factor in an L/D ratio of 3.2. Using this heater Burner Layout

Reprinted from Petroleum Technology Quarterly Autumn 2001 Issue


High L/D heaters have high heat flux

gradient from the floor to the roof (bridge-
wall). The elevation with the highest heat
flux will be directly related to flame
length and stability. High L/D heaters
with short flame length burners also have
higher heat flux variation. Low NOX
burners tend to have longer flame
lengths, hence the bottom of these
heaters will be cold with the maximum
heat flux moving further from the floor
than a heater using conventional burn-
ers. Another consequence of many low
NOX burners is poor flame stability.
Hence, the flames tend to move around
and lick the tubes.
Ideally, the oil leaving the convection
section should first be routed to the ele-
vation in the radiant section having the
highest heat flux. This minimizes film
temperature because of a lower bulk oil Photo 6. Tube Transition 8 to 10
temperature. The heater shown in Figure
2 should be revamped by using external only 8,500 Btu/hr-ft2, the heater had run- the heater. Heat flux is always high at
jump overs to route the oil leaving the lengths of less than 18 months. this location.
convection section to the middle of the Burner location, number of burners, Improving run-length required com-
heater. Heat absorption per pass can be and flame length, in addition to the plete retubing of the radiant section and
balanced by using external jump overs. stacked pass layout, all caused extremely replacing both burner end walls (Figure
Balancing the average heat flux to each high localized heat flux. The end-fired 7). Burner location, number of burners,
pass is critical to improving run-length in heater had three burners on each end burner size, and flame length were all
any vacuum heater. wall (Figure 6). The burner flame length changed. Tube layout changes balanced
was very long resulting in extremely high the heat absorption in each pass. Oil
Case 1: Burner modifications heat flux where the flames met in the from the convection section was first
and pass layout changes middle of the heater. All six burners were routed to the middle of the heater. Oil
A high L/D 4-pass heater was designed located below the outlet tubes for the flows downward through wrapped tubes
with stacked passes. The upper and lower pass. to the floor of the heater where external
lower passes had very large differences in Outlet tube location is important jump overs routed the oil to the top of the
heat flux. All four heater pass outlet because the oil mass flux is low. radiant section. The four outlet tubes
tubes exited the middle of the heater Therefore, the temperature drop through exited the top of the radiant section. All
where the flue gas temperature and heat the oil film is high. All four outlet tubes the existing burners were replaced and
flux were very high. Coke was forming in (10) were located in the middle of the two additional burners were added. This
the high heat flux lower passes. While radiant section wall. The outlet tubes reduced the flame length and spread the
the average radiant section flux rate was should never be located in the middle of heat release over a larger portion of the

#1 #3
#1 #3
Steam in #2 #4
#2 #4 Steam out
#1 #3

#2 #4 #2 #4
Steam Steam
#1 #3

#2 #4
outlet #1 #3
#1 #3 Coil Coil
Burners #2 #4
outlet outlet

Burners Burners Burners

Figure 7. Balanced Pass Flux, Lower Figure 8. Stacked Passes and High Oil Figure 9. Balanced Flux, Residence
Film Temperatures Residence Time Time Reduction

Reprinted from Petroleum Technology Quarterly Autumn 2001 Issue


was above 850F. After the revamp it

decreased to less than 3 seconds.

Minimizing oil film temperature and oil
residence time decreases the rate of coke
formation and improves run-length.
Minimizing oil film temperature starts by
ensuring the radiant section tube layout
results in equal heat flux per pass (each
pass absorbs the same amount of heat).
The individual tube-pass layout should
consider routing the convection section
outlet to tubes with the highest heat flux.
Low bulk oil temperature and high oil
mass flux rate will minimize film tempera-
ture in the high heat flux section of the
heater. The radiant section coil outlets
from each pass should be located at the
top of the radiant section unless heat flux
is very high. Low L/D heaters using low
Photo 7. Heater Outlet Tubes NOx burners will sometimes have very
high heat flux in the top of the radiant sec-
radiant section. Localized heat fluxes were flux imbalances between the passes. The tion. Oil residence time should be mini-
dramatically reduced because the flue gas heater was essentially rebuilt. A new con- mized by selecting the smallest tube size
temperature gradients were reduced. vection section using only process coils possible and coil steam injection should be
was installed. The radiant section tube lay- used whenever the ejector system sizing
Case 2: Balancing pass heat flux out was changed to ensure equal heat flux permits.
and reducing oil residence time in each pass. External jump overs were
Figure 8 shows a 4-pass side fired cabin used to route the oil from hip tubes to the THE AUTHOR
heater with stacked passes. The convec- bottom of the radiant section. Oil flow is
tion section was designed with both pro- upward through wrapped passes. The out- Tony Barletta is a chemical engineer with
Process Consulting Services, Inc., Houston,
cess and steam coils. The side burner fired let tubes were relocated to the top of the Texas. The company provides revamps, opti-
onto the brick fire wall between the two cabin wall (Figure 9, Photo 7). mization, and troubleshooting services to the
refining industry worldwide. Barlettas pri-
sides of the heater. Again with the stacked The revamp objectives were to increase mary responsibilities are conceptual process
pass design, the individual heater passes process absorbed duty without increasing design (CPD) and process design packages (PDP) for
large capital revamps. He previously worked as a pro-
had significantly different heat flux rates. the heater firing rate and to increase run- duction planner and process specialist fpr BP Oils
The lower passes absorbed considerably length. The convection section steam coils Alliance Refinery and a process engineer for Hess Oil
Virgin Islands Corporation. He holds a BS degree in
more heat than the upper passes. Heater were removed and new process coils chemical engineering from Lehigh University and has
run-length was less than 1 year. added. Radiant section tube sizes were authored numerous articles on revamping.
Heat flux was highest half-way up the decreased to raise the oil mass flux rate to
radiant section. Yet, all four passes outlet 400 lb/sec-ft2. Coil injection steam was
tubes exited this section. The oil mass flux increased from 800 lb/hr to 1600 lb/hr. Coil
was only 150 lb/sec-ft2 in the smallest steam rate was limited by vacuum column
diameter tubes and less than 50 lb/sec-ft2 overhead system. Steam was injected into
in the outlet tube. Therefore, the tempera- the first radiant section tube and traveled
ture drop through the oil film was very high through all the tubes. Higher mass veloci-
throughout the heater and extremely high ties, higher coil steam rate, and steam
in the outlet tube due to high heat flux and injection location reduced oil residence
low oil mass flux. Coil steam was injected time from 60 seconds to less than 15 sec-
3 tubes back from the coil outlet. Thus, the onds.
majority of the radiant section tubes had Tube sizes, diameter transitions, and
only oil and low velocity (low mass flux). transition locations were modified based
Radiant section oil residence time was on evaluation of residence time and peak
very high. film temperature from rigorous modeling.
Prior to the revamp, this heater as with Comparing oil residence time when the
most cabin and box heaters, used a peak oil film temperature exceeds 850F is
stacked tube layout. It is always cheaper to important. Prior to the revamp the heater
stack the tubes. Yet it always causes heat had residence time of 15 seconds when oil

Reprinted from Petroleum Technology Quarterly Autumn 2001 Issue