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The PSV That Did Not FailMisconceptions

About PSVs
Emmanuelle Hagey
Loss Prevention Engineer, NOVA Chemicals Corporation, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; (for correspondence)
Published online 8 February 2013 in Wiley Online Library ( DOI 10.1002/prs.11557

Pressure relief devices generally represent the last line of ings from the survey [1] showed that nearly 40% of the equip-
defense for a pressure vessel in a chemical plant during ment had a deficient pressure relieving system. The analysis
abnormal situations. The article title comes from the numer- showed that about 25% of the PRDs installed were either under-
ous times the author heard that a pressure safety device sized, improperly installed or a combination of both. The other
had failed when the person making this statement was in 15% represents the equipment having no relief device at all.
essence thinking that the pressure safety device had open- The present article brings forward common misconcep-
ed. The use of the term failure conveys the impression tions about pressure safety valves (PSVs) and provides guide-
that something was wrong about this safety device, when in lines for addressing these misconceptions. PRD-related issues
fact it had done exactly what it was supposed to do. And can be classified in one of three areas: design flaws, opera-
although the consequences of the device activation may tional issues, and testing/reliability/preventative maintenance.
cause an undesirable event such as plant shutdown, it is not Examples of common pitfalls will be presented, providing a
a relief system failure. Some misconceptions are so widely starting point for what every plant engineer should know
spread among plant engineers that it is very hard (especially about process safety.
for young engineers) to challenge and deviate from that
common knowledge. It is not the goal of this article to CHALLENGES ENCOUNTERED IN THE DESIGN OF NEW PSVs
provide in-depth design considerations for pressure safety
devices. The objective of this article is to present some key Misconception #1: No Need to Evaluate the Fail Open
points that every plant engineer should know about the Scenario Because the Valve is Set to Fail Closed
pressure safety valve lifecycle, from design to installation and API STD 521 [2] lists control valve failure as one of many
maintenance. V C 2013 American Institute of Chemical Engineers causes of overpressure. Both scenarios, valve failing open and
Process Saf Prog 32: 8489, 2013 valve failing close, must be assessed to determine if an over-
Keywords: pressure relief device; pressure safety valve pressure would result from the failure regardless of the valve
setting for loss of instrument air. Some people may be tempted
INTRODUCTION to assess only one scenario because the valve is set to fail a cer-
Pressure relief devices (PRDs) perform a major role in a tain mode on loss of instrument air. Experience has shown that
chemical plant. They protect the equipment from undesirable a letdown valve between two headers with significant pressure
events that bring the operating pressure beyond the difference can fail open even if it set to fail closed and a vessel
maximum allowable working pressure (MAWP) of the equip- outlet valve can fail closed, even if it is set to fail open. Any
ment. If the over-pressure is allowed to continue without plant incident database most likely contains incidents where a
these devices, the equipment can mechanically fail and fail closed valve failed open or vice-versa. Only one example is
release material that creates a hazard. The hazard can be required to prove misconception #1 wrong.
local such as steam or condensate release which can burn
workers in the nearby area, or it can have severe consequen- Probability of Occurrence of the Design Case:
ces such as a large release of a toxic substance, a flammable An Unresolved Dilemma
gas, or combustible liquid followed by a fire and/or an Misconception #2 is the thought sometimes developed in
explosion, with potentially multiple fatalities. the industry that an oversized PSV is not a problem because
In the mid-90s, Occupational Safety and Health Administra- it still provides protection. This is not necessarily the case,
tion PSM Standard 29 CFR 1910.119 Process Safety Manage- depending on the degree of oversizing (as a rule of thumb,
ment of Highly Hazardous Chemicals mandated US chattering is likely to occur if the actual flow through the
companies to document all process safety information, includ- PSV is less than 25% of the PSV capacity). Oversizing is not
ing relief systems, before performing a process hazard analysis. always easy to identify and resolve. A PSV must be designed
Based on those recommendations, audits were performed in to handle the worst credible scenario, which usually is the
the oil, gas, and chemical industry on more than 250 plants in scenario that would rarely occur (such as a fire case, or tube
the United States of America. In 2000, a study based on the find- rupture in a heat exchanger), making the most probable sce-
nario to be that with a (sometimes) much smaller relieving
This article was originally presented at the 8th Global Congress on rate. If a PSV is designed for a wide range of relieving rates
Process Safety, Houston, TX, April 14, 2012 and if it is activated for the small relieving load, it can lead
to short cycling or potentially to chattering, which can lead
C 2013 American Institute of Chemical Engineers
V to significant damage to the PSV.

84 March 2013 Process Safety Progress (Vol.32, No.1)

Below are a few recommendations on how to avoid Multiple PSVs
installing unnecessarily oversized PSVs: One of the solutions offered when sizing a PSV device
where multiple scenarios have very different relieving rates
Evaluating a Scenario is to install two or more PSVs with staggered set pressures.
Be realistic in the evaluation of a scenario, that is, under- The smaller PSV is set at the lower set pressure and opens to
stand the system before computing the required relieving relieve scenarios with small relieving rates. The larger PSV
rate. In the case of loss of condensing in a distillation tower, will open only when required by the scenario having a
it should be evaluated if the reboiler can actually generate much larger relieving rate (there are usually several scenarios
any vapor at the relieving pressure (by comparing the heat- with small relieving rates and one scenario with a large
ing medium temperature with the fluid bubble point at the relieving rate). This is a good idea if it is applied appropri-
relieving pressure). When it has been checked that vapor ately, that is, if the set pressure staggering is wide enough. A
will be generated, using the reboiler design duty under common pitfall would be to think that any gap in the pres-
relieving conditions can lead to relieving rates much larger sure staggering will work.
than actual. This is especially true when the distillation col- The allowable tolerance on PSV set pressure, as per the
umn operating pressure is much lower than the MAWP (e.g., ASME code [3], is 62 psi (15 kPa) for set pressure less than
vacuum operating pressure vs. 50 psig MAWP). In this case, or equal to 70 psi (500 kPa), and 63% for set pressure above
a detailed simulation of the heat exchange in the reboiler is 70 psi. Assuming a MAWP of 500 psig, the tolerance is 615
required. If a tower operates at high pressure (e.g., operat- psig. Having two PSVs with set pressure of 500 and 505 psig,
ing pressure at 350 psig and MAWP at 400 psig), the error respectively, will not prevent both PSVs from opening more
due to keeping the reboiler duty constant is much lower, or less at the same time and potentially causing chattering of
possibly negligible. In both cases, the tower bottom compo- one or both PSVs. In this case, the set pressures should be at
sition must be reviewed because the feed will end up least 30 psig apart to avoid any overlap due to set pressure
entirely in the bottom of the tower, and the change in tolerance. As per the ASME code [3], the set pressure of the
composition may impact the relieving rate. Table 1 shows second PSV can be as high as 105% of the MAWP. In the
examples of the difference in relieving rates for loss of example, the set pressure for the larger PSV can be as high
condensing depending on the assumption used for calcula- as 525 psig. To maintain the set pressure margin, the first
tion. Table 1 demonstrates that the relief device size could PSV should be set below the MAWP and not greater than 495
be dramatically different depending on the chosen calcula- psig. This can only be done if the operating pressure is low
tion approach, which could lead to extreme oversizing, enough. This addresses the set pressure tolerance.
chattering, and PSV damage. Ideally, it would be even better if the PSV set at the lower
pressure could fully lift without causing the second PSV to
Table 1. Examples of calculated relieving rates in a distilla- open. This means an even wider gap between the set pres-
tion tower due to loss of condensing when using sures since a PSV fully lift at 110% of set pressure. In the
different approaches example above, this would mean that the PSV opening at the
lower set pressure need to be set at the most at 477 psig so
that the PSV set at 525 psig only open if necessary. In the
Relieving Rate Relieving Rate example, the operating pressure should then be below 430
Using a Constant Using a Detailed psig. When dealing with an existing system, this may or may
MAWP and Reboiler Duty Simulation of not be possible due to the requirements for operating pres-
Operating PSV Set Based on the Reboiler sure. Certainly, this should be accounted for when designing
Pressure Pressure Design (lb/hr) (lb/hr) a new unit.
22 psig 65 psig 200,000 123,000
Vacuum 30 psig 100,000 4,000 Is a PSV Really Required?
5 psig 50 psig 212,000 75,000 In the past, a PRD was required for all credible scenarios,
60 psig 73 psig 100,000 73,000 including fire as per the ASME code (See Table 2 for 2004
version of the ASME Code). In 2008, API Standard 521 [2]
Note: The detailed simulation does account for composition introduced the concept of jet fire versus pool fire, a concept
change in the column bottoms. that was not discussed before in the standard. In case of jet
fire, the vessel may fail because of high local metal

Table 2. Extract from the ASME code section VIII (2004 and 2008 editions)

UG-125 GENERAL (a) All pressure vessels within the Scope of this Division, irrespective of size or pressure, shall be
(2004) provided with PRDs in accordance with the requirements of UG-125 through UG-137.
(1) It is the responsibility of the user to ensure that the required PRDs are properly installed prior
to initial operation.
(2) It is the responsibility of the user or his/her designated agent to size and select the PRDs
based on its intended service.
UG-125 GENERAL (a) Other than unfired steam boilers [see UG-125(b)], all pressure vessels within the scope of this
(2008) Division, irrespective of size or pressure, shall be provided with overpressure protection in
accordance with the requirements of UG-125 through UG-137 and/or overpressure protection
by system design per UG-140.In addition, the following shall apply:
(1) It is the users or his/her designated agents responsibility to identify all potential overpressure
scenarios and the method of overpressure protection used to mitigate each scenario.
(2) It is the responsibility of the user to ensure that the required overpressure protection system
is properly installed prior to initial operation.
(3) If a PRDs is to be installed, it is the responsibility of the user or his/her designated agent to
size and select the PRDs based on its intended service.

Process Safety Progress (Vol.32, No.1) Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs March 2013 85
temperature, not high pressure. A PSV is not the best suited are also an important parameter to discuss, especially, if one
safety element and API has accepted this situation [2]. In scenario has a relieving temperature much different from the
2008, the ASME Code [3] changed the term pressure relief other scenarios as higher temperature can cause the PSV to
device with overpressure protection, giving credit to pro- open at a pressure lower than the set point. With all the
tection by system design. This change gives engineers more information, the vendor is in a better position to provide you
and better tools to protect a vessel from all credible scenar- with an adequate proposal for PSV design. Note that
ios, including jet fire. This is extremely important in a plant although vendors will have generic guidelines on material
such as an ethylene production facility because most of the usage based on composition and temperature, the choice of
fire cases are jet fires rather than pool fires. materials is left to the customer. It is extremely important in
this situation to review materials options with the metallurgist
and mechanical engineer.
PSV Installation
Incorrect PSV installation can be another cause of chatter-
ing. High inlet pressure drop in PSV inlet lines may create
chattering. Nonmandatory ASME Appendix M [4] and API RP In a plant debottleneck, there may be hundreds of PSVs
to be reviewed. Generally, criteria are applied to determine
520 Part II [5] make a strong recommendation that the
nonrecoverable inlet pressure losses to a PSV should be less which PSV design should be reviewed in details. These crite-
than 3% of the PSV set pressure. However, API STD 520 part ria are usually chosen in order to minimize the amount of
II [5] does also state that an engineering analysis of the valve detail reviews. I find this approach to be misconception #4
performance may be used to allow a higher inlet pressure as many parameters may impact PSV design and need to be
reviewed. To keep the PSV design information up-to-date
drop. Many companies have used the API allowance by stat-
ing that the valve will perform as required as long as the and relevant, it may be necessary to perform a detailed
inlet losses are lower than the PSV blowdown. Blowdown is study. Here are some of the pitfalls that plant debottlenecks
the difference between the closing and the set pressure, need to avoid.
expressed in percentage of the set pressure. Spring-loaded
PSVs blowdown can vary between 5 and 10% of set pres- Reviewing or Not Reviewing Existing Design
sure. A blowdown of 7% is a typical design value for spring- During debottlenecks, it is common to add a parallel sys-
operated valves. For example, a PSV with a 7% blowdown tem to one already in place. While it is a legitimate process
and set pressure of 100 psig will theoretically reclose at to not reinvent the wheel, duplication should be done with
93 psig. If the inlet pressure drop is 3% of set pressure, caution. It is recommended to:
when the pressure reaches 100 psig in the vessel and the  Review the appropriate codes so that the new system is
PSV opens, the pressure at the PSV will drop due to friction built according to the latest version, not the one in place
pressure losses, in this case, to 97 psig. If the pressure losses 20 or 30 years ago.
are allowed to be higher, there can be a case where the  Perform a review of the process (feed rates, operating
pressure at the PSV approaches 93 psig and the PSV recloses conditions, and control strategy), design, (acceptable
(the pressure in the vessel is still 100 psig). With no flow, mechanical stress loadings) and relieving conditions of
the pressure losses become zero, the pressure at the PSV the existing system to ensure that the new conditions are
reaches 100 psig again and the PSV reopens. This sequence within the original design parameters.
continues multiple times and can lead to severe damage or  Potentially, take advantage of new technology and/or
PSV destruction. If the PSV cannot be isolated or an alterna- requirements to build a more robust new system.
tive is not present to provide relief to the system, the plant
has to be shut down to repair the PSV. Relieving systems and PSV sizing documentation should
Based on the above explanation of blowdown, an engi- be reviewed during debottleneck projects even if it appears
neering analysis could determine that a PSV with a 10% that no significant change is being made. A simple example
blowdown could tolerate 4 to 5% inlet pressure losses [5]. In is a vessel for which the worst case scenario is fire. If the
2009, OSHA started to fine companies for not following the vessel inventory remains identical in an existing vessel, the
3% rule [6]. OSHA has stated that inlet losses larger than 3% following statement can be found in justifying the PSV sizing:
may be considered only if an engineering analysis can assure since the vessel dimensions and liquid level have not
of the valve stability (will not chatter) [6]. This is a significant changed, the relieving requirements do not change either.
change and it is recommended to contact the local author- This may or may not be true.
ities to determine the regulatory requirements in each loca-
tion where plants operate. Based on new OSHA rules, it is  The original design may have been erroneous.
now misconception #3 that is using blowdown as a sole  This may be the nth debottleneck that will overload the
justification for inlet pressure losses greater than 3%. PSV itself or the effluent handling system.
 A previous project may have not implemented the reliev-
ing device required changes at the time.
Communicating with PSV Vendors  Even if flowrates or liquid levels do not change, stream
Some of the equipment is subject to scenarios that could composition changes can significantly affect relieving
lead to a combination of liquid, vapor, and two-phase relief. rates.
When communicating a specification sheet to a vendor for  What if the sizing scenario changes? For example, fire
sizing and cost estimate, only one very small piece of infor- case used to be the sizing case and truly does not change
mation is available, that is, information on the sizing case. (same composition and liquid level in the drum). How-
The vendor will make his recommendation based on this ever, a scenario such as a control valve failure could
specification sheet. It is very valuable to establish a good become the governing case because the control valve size
communication with PSV vendors and to communicate as has increased to accommodate a larger flow.
much information as possible on the system and the different
scenarios. For example, the PSV choice might be different if
you explain that the design case is the only liquid relief sce- Adding a Control Valve can Jeopardize a System
nario and all other relieving cases are vapor (liquid overfill A simple addition of a control valve can put a system in
in an otherwise not liquid full drum). Relieving temperatures danger of overpressure. When adding a control valve in a

86 March 2013 Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs Process Safety Progress (Vol.32, No.1)
Figure 1. Addition of a pressure control valve on a reboiler outlet line, creating a barrier in the relief path.

unit, a review should be performed to ensure that every ves- valve has been found in API STD 521 [2]. For the hydraulic
sel is still adequately protected against overpressure. Control expansion scenario, the use of a small hole (1/4 in) in block
valves are not allowed between a vessel and the PSV that valves is allowed for systems consisting of piping only. The
protects that vessel as per the ASME Code [3]. Figure 1 repre- hole is not a path to a relief valve; it is a way of preventing
sents an example where adding a pressure control valve on the pipeline to be completely blocked in and then be sub-
an exchanger outlet line effectively isolated the exchanger jected to overpressure due to thermal expansion.
from the PSV that was protecting it previously. As per Figure
1, the exchanger is not protected against overpressure. CHALLENGES IN PLANT OPERATION

Shaved Disks? Operating Too Close to the PSV Set Pressure

In the example shown in Figure 1, it was suggested to Misconception #5 among people not familiar with PSV
shave the disk of the control valve to provide a path to the operation is to believe that PSVs will open at exactly the set
existing PSV, now located downstream of the control valve. pressure, and that, as a consequence, operation can be sus-
This contravenes at least ASME Section VIII Code UG-135 tained at pressures very close to the set pressure.
(b) and (d) [3]: A PSV will start leaking before the pressure reaches the
UG-135 (b)(1) The opening through all pipe, fittings, and PSV set pressure. For conventional valves, it typically hap-
nonreclosing PRDs (if installed) between a pressure vessel pens around 90% of set pressure; for pilot-operated valves, it
and its pressure relief valve shall have at least the area of the can be 9598% of set pressure. Therefore, for conventional
pressure relief valve inlet. The characteristics of this upstream valves, it is recommended to operate below 90% of set pres-
system shall be such that the pressure drop will not reduce sure, and 80% for steam systems. Consistent operation at a
the relieving capacity below that required or adversely affect pressure close to the PSV set pressure can cause PSV mal-
the proper operation of the pressure relief valve. function such as premature lifting and seizing.
UG-135 (d) There shall be no intervening stop valves
between the vessel and its PRD or devices, except: Knowing the Shortcomings of the PSVs
1. when these stop valves are so constructed or posi- Balanced bellows PSVs are recommended when there is a
tively controlled that the closing of the maximum potential for high back pressure. Therefore, people tend to
number of block valves possible at one time will not think that they can work in any case of high back pressure
reduce the pressure relieving capacity provided by the (misconception #6). This is not true. If the backpressure
unaffected PRDs below the required relieving capacity; reaches 60% of the set pressure, the closing force on the PSV
or is so strong that the flow will be greatly reduced. This is par-
2. under conditions set forth in Appendix M. ticularly important with low set pressures (50 psig or less)
PSVs relieving into a header that could be subject to high
Note: Appendix M does not allow remotely operated back pressures (25 to 30 psig) due to multiple devices reliev-
valves (including control valves) under any circumstances. ing simultaneously into the header.
M-5.8 stop valve(s) provided in the pressure relief path The bonnet of bellows PSVs must be unplugged. When
where there is normally process flow. most of the PSVs in a plant are of the conventional type with
Stop valve(s), excluding remotely operated valves, may be plugged bonnet, it is possible to be confused and purposely
provided in the relief path where there is normally a pro- plug a bonnet thinking it is the right thing to do. Figure 2
cess flow, provided () shows what happens to bellows when the PSV operates with
the bonnet plugged. Some of the solutions are to identify
The use of holes in valves as a path to a relieving system bellows PSVs in the plant with a sign reinforcing that the
is NOT allowed. The only acceptable purpose of a hole in a bonnet must not be plugged. A simple information sheet like

Process Safety Progress (Vol.32, No.1) Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs March 2013 87
ment remains protected against overpressure. The most
straightforward means of alternate relief is a twin or spare
PSV that is put online when the main PSV is taken off-line.
Other means can be used but any alternate relief must com-
ply with the ASME code as much as any PSV. Other than
making sure that the alternate relief is at least of the same
size and has the proper set pressure, the following points
should be reviewed in order to comply with the ASME Code
 The opening through all pipes and fittings shall be at least
the same as the alternate PSV inlet nominal size.
 There shall be no control valve, remotely operated valve,
or check valve in the path.
 The pressure losses between the equipment being pro-
tected and the PSV should be less than 3% of the PSV set
 Block valves can be present if their position is controlled
as defined in Appendix M of the ASME Code [4].
This list is not exhaustive but reflects some of the mini-
Figure 2. A damaged bellows after the PSV lifted with a
mum requirements.
plugged bonnet. [Color figure can be viewed in the online
issue, which is available at]
Inspection and reliability groups are usually called upon
Table 3. Major spring-operated safety valve vendors and when a PSV has been found deficient. However, those
how the model number reflects the type of PSV groups possess a lot of information that is useful for design
and operation. Information usually retained by inspection
groups may include:
Conventional Balanced bellows
 Mechanical data for existing PSVs, tests reports, when a
Farris A or C following the B or D following the set point has been changed, damage found during main-
orifice designation orifice designation tenance, etc.
letter e.g., 26JA11- letter e.g., 26JB11-  Reports on potential causes of failure when PSVs have
121 121 been found damaged or have malfunctioned (premature
Consolidated Any series, including 1900 series only, and lift, failure to reclose).
1900 followed by 00 30 or 35 present in  Maintenance and inspection reports that can lead to met-
e.g., 1905-00LC-1-S4 model number e.g., allurgy recommendation.
Crosby JOS series e.g., 1D2- JBS series e.g., 1D2- Risk-based evaluation of PSVs inspection interval should
JOS-E-12 JLT-JBS-E-22 be done before determining if the testing/maintenance fre-
quency of a PSV can be diminished. Increasing the time
between preventative maintenance/inspection can lead to
significant step up in the risk of loss of process containment
Table 3 could be posted in operators shelters and in control
due to overpressure at the plant level [7]. Logically, the
planned inspection interval should never exceed the deter-
mined life expectancy of the device. Design and operation
Not Recognizing When a PSV Opens engineers, as well as reliability and process safety experts,
It is important to know when a PSV opens. It provides should contribute to the assessment.
operational and reliability data and can be a leading indica- Inspection and reliability may be a small part but it is a
tor of process safety. If the PSV is piped to a flare line and strong link in the PSV lifecycle chain and it should be used
the relief is small and does not affect operating conditions as much as possible by design and plant engineers.
much, it may be hard to detect when a PSV opens. Engineers
and operators cannot check every pressure data for every
minute of the day to provide this information. However, in
certain instances, it can be important. Startup can be a time A PSV is a relatively small, static piece of equipment that
when engineers need to monitor plant data to check if PSVs does not always get the attention it deserves. In day-to-day
are lifting. steady state life of a plant, PSVs are not needed and therefore
For example, if a pilot-operated relief valve is installed on are ignored. PSVs operate only during abnormal situations
a stream known for not being clean, a filter can be added on and have to respond to large sudden changes in pressure.
the pilot line to ensure that debris do not plug the pilot. In Therefore, they are subject to more aggressive conditions than
this case, pressure spikes should be reported so that the filter other type of instrumentation. Their failure may lead to cata-
can be cleaned each time the PSV opens. If the filter plugs, strophic consequences, and therefore, PSVs should be made a
the PSV will fail safe and it will open, even if there is no priority in design, operation, and reliability efforts.
overpressure. This is more an operating issue than a safety

Alternate Relief 1. P.C. Berwanger, R.A. Kreder, and W.-S. Lee, Analysis
When a PSV must be serviced and isolation is possible, it identifies deficiencies in existing pressure relief systems,
can be removed while the unit is online provided the equip- Process Saf Prog 19 (2000), 166172.

88 March 2013 Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs Process Safety Progress (Vol.32, No.1)
2. API STD 521/ISO 23251. Pressure-Relieving and Depres- 5. API RP 520 Part IISizing, Selection, and Installation of Pres-
suring Systems. 5th Ed, 2007. sure-Relieving Devices in Refineries. Part IIInstallation, 2011.
6. D. Smith, J. Burgess, and C. Powers, Relief device inlet
3. ASME/BPVC Section VIII Division 1. Rules for construc-
piping: beyond the 3 percent rule, Hydrocarbon Process-
tion of Pressure Vessels, UG-125 to UG-140 Overpressure
ing 90 (2011), 5966.
Protection, 2010.
7. S. Urbanik, Evaluating relief valve reliability when
4. ASME/BPVC Section VIII Division 1. Non-mandatory extending the test and maintenance interval, Process Saf
Appendix M, Installation and operation, 2010. Prog 23 (2004), 191196.

Process Safety Progress (Vol.32, No.1) Published on behalf of the AIChE DOI 10.1002/prs March 2013 89