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Feature Report

Engineering Practice

Vapor Depressurization:
Concept and Implementation
When carrying out RO
(***) Slope
To flare or
depressurization >=2-in. (*) cold vent
(**) (**) Minimum
calculations, special Low temperature
if required

attention is needed for Specification break

if required for
Specification break
HP/LP or if required,
critical equipment and low temperature HP and low temperature/LP

systems such as rotating LEGEND

RO Restriction orifice (*) Fail open, full bore, tight shut-off valve
HP High pressure (**) 600 mm minimum or speedy BDV in piping class
equipment, columns LP Low pressure
for high pressure and low pressure, if required
Lock open or car seal open
and reactors FIGURE 1. Shown here is a typical arrangement for a blowdown system. It consists
of an on/off valve, a restriction oriice (RO) and a block valve

Hitesh Pandya Figure 1 shows a typical arrange- The trapped system inventory of
Saipem India Projects Ltd. ment for blowdown system. It consists hydrocarbons is above a minimum
of an on/off valve, a restriction orifice value (for instance, 2 tons of butane

uring process operations, elevated (RO) and a block valve. to 15 tons of butane and so on)
pressure inside of isolated zones In this case, a depressurizing sys- The system contains toxic gases
within a process or system can be tem can help to reduce internal stress, (such as H2S)
rapidly reduced by the release of thereby extending the life of the vessel The system contains any flam-
gas and vapor to a dedicated blowdown at a given temperature and reducing mable liquid above its autoignition
network. Analysis can be carried out to the risk of failure. To be effective, such temperature
determine whether a given pressure- a system must depressurize the vessel The units represent high-pressure
relief device will provide sufficient pro- such that the reduced internal pres- sections of hydroprocessing units,
tection from potential vessel rupture sure is maintained below the critical such as the catalytic reformer, hy-
for an unwetted-wall vessel or a vessel value that will lead to vessel rupture. drotreater or others (these typically
containing a high-boiling-point liquid. The ability to depressurize the leak have depressurization systems)
When a pressure-relief valve alone source can also help reduce the dura- The potential for runaway reactions
is not adequate, additional protective tion and severity of the incident, be- exists
measures must also be considered. cause a vessel rupture can literally The compressor circuit can be iso-
These include, among others, the use add fuel to the fire. In general, the lated by shutdown valves
of water sprays, depressurizing sys- depressurization rates should be max- For the hydrocarbon section, the fol-
tems, fireproofing, earth-covered stor- imized within the total flare system lowing correlation between pressure
age and diversion walls. capacity that is, the sum of all re- and volume is satisfied:
More often, depressurizing systems quired simultaneous depressurization
PV>100, with P > 6.9 barg
are used to reduce the failure potential and relief rates should be close to, or
for scenarios that may involve poten- equal to, the flare system capacity. where P is the maximum operating
tial overheating (that is, a risk of fire). pressure in barg and V is the volume
For instance, when the temperature Requirements inventory in cubic meters. Depressur-
of a metal is increased due to expo- To identify systems that need de- ization facilities may not be required
sure to fire or exothermic or runaway pressurization, the criteria described when the system design pressure is
process reactions, a stress rupture below can be used. However, most of lower than 6.9 barg.
can develop. This can occur even the time it is either the companys past Depressurization to reduce the po-
though the system pressure has not experience, or the project- or client- tential risk of fire scenarios should
necessarily exceeded the maximum specific requirements, that dictate the be considered for large equipment
allowable level. system design. operating at a gage pressure of
Engineering Practice When depressurization of many units is required, it should be done sequentially based
on criticality and safety considerations. Such an approach can prevent the oversizing
of the flare system
Depressurization is normally done manually, either from the field or from a remote
1,700 kPa (approximately 250 psi) location. However, in unattended operation, such systems can be actuated automati-
or higher cally by a signal from the emergency shutdown system, or initiated by a fire- or gas-
detection system
Time, special considerations If there are many different compositions and conditions, the worst conditions are the
As per API 521 [1], equipment pres- ones which, in the case of depressurization, will generate the maximum volumetric
flare load
sure shall be reduced from its initial
For the wetted fire case, generally the lowest liquid-density condition provides the
conditions to a level equivalent to 50% highest peak-capacity load. Meanwhile, in the case of gas expansion, all operating
of the vessels design pressure within cases shall be considered in order to evaluate both the maximum volume (for hydrau-
approximately 15 min. lic calculations) and the mass (designing for flare loads)
This criterion is based on the ves- It should be ensured that common mode failure (such as loss of instrument air or
sel-wall temperature versus the stress electrical failure) cannot cause all the depressurizing valves to open simultaneously;
that is required to rupture, and applies otherwise the flare system must be able to accommodate this possibility. To avoid
generally to carbon-steel vessels with simultaneous opening of depressurization valves and ensure safety, separate air and
a wall thickness of 25.4 mm (1 in.) or power supply systems are usually warranted for each section
Within a fire zone, all depressurizing valves can open simultaneously
more. Vessels with thinner walls gen-
It should be noted that depressuring facilities are not typically provided for bulk stor-
erally require a somewhat faster de-
age of volatile liquids (such as liquefied petroleum gas, LPG), as the large inventories
pressurizing rate. The required rate would lead to excessively large relief systems. Instead, protection is normally provided
depends on the metallurgy of the ves- by water-deluge systems, which cool the metal wall to maintain a temperature below
sel, the thickness and initial tempera- that at which a stress rupture may occur
ture of the vessel wall and the rate of When depressurizing results in temperatures lower than the minimum design tempera-
heat input. ture for full pressure, depressurization shall not be done until the system warms up to
Other criteria for defining depres- the minimum design temperature for full pressure
surizing time (often based on the proj-
ect or company philosophy) are:
2 min per 3 mm of vessel thickness the calculation of flowrate and mini- Where a preliminary determination
with a minimum of 6 min and a mum-design metal temperature, up- of the depressurizing rate is required,
maximum of 15 min stream line sizing and downstream the following equation can be used:
For some equipment, such as molec- line sizing. The calculation of flow-
ular sieves, reactors and more, the rate and minimum-design metal tem-
vendors specify a rate (for instance, perature can be carried out using the (1)
50100 psi/min) to protect equip- method described in API 521 and using where:
ment integrity simulation software (such as HYSYS W1 = the initial depressuring rate,
The depressurization of a system or PRO II). It is quite possible that the kg/min
containing rotating equipment may governing case for the flowrate is the N = the initial moles of vapor in the
also require special consideration. fire case, whereas the governing case system
Depressurizing may be required in for the minimum design metal tem- M = the molecular weight of vapor,
much less than 15 min in the event perature is another operating case. In kg/kmol
of a loss of seal-oil pressure. In such such circumstances, separate calcula- t = time, min
cases, the rotating equipment ven- tions shall be performed to calculate P1 = initial upstream pressure, bara
dor may state the maximum time the flowrate and the minimum-design P2 = final upstream pressure, bara
for depressurizing metal temperature. Note: Any consistent set of units can
Columns may initially have very If both calculations are to be per- be used.
high vapor flowrates when depres- formed, then the governing flowrate This equation provides good results
surization starts. The columns (hence, the restriction orifice size) for vapor-only systems that is, sys-
vapor rate may be limiting based is first calculated with a given time tems where the vapor generated from
on the maximum vapor flowrate al- constraint (for instance, 15 minutes liquid flash or fire accounts for a small
lowed by the vendor. In such cases, with final pressure of 6.9 barg, or 50% proportion of the total vapor; for ex-
controlled depressurization shall be of operating pressure; see the Box on ample, the depressurization of a com-
carried out p. 45 for the initial condition). The pressor system for process reasons.
Note: Vapor depressurizing may be minimum-design metal temperature For other systems, a contingency of
impractical when the vessel operating is then calculated by using the calcu- between 20100% should be applied to
pressure is less than 8 bara, because lated restriction-orifice size, and by the calculated rate, to allow for uncer-
for these circumstances, the associ- reducing the pressure to a minimum tainties (for instance, vapor molecular
ated valves and piping can become un- flare back pressure (without any time weight changes that may result from
reasonably large and costly. constraint). For instance, it can take liquid flash).
more than 15 minutes (even 1 to 2 It should be noted that Equation
Sizing hours), with a given restriction orifice (1) is valid only for systems where the
The sizing of the vapor-depressuriza- size to reach the final pressure as the flowrate from the depressurization
tion equipment for a system requires minimum flare back pressure. calculations is critical for the duration
The initial conditions for the problem
discussed here can be summarized as:
Operating pressure equal to the de-
sign pressure is assumed to be the
starting point, unless the design pres-
sure is much higher (for instance,
greater than 10% above the operating
EXAMPLE Reference
pressure). In this case, the maximum Consider the example of a compressor 1. ANSI/API Standard 521, Pressure-Relieving
system that has the following conditions: and Depressurizing System, 5th ed., Janu-
operating pressure or PSHH (pressure ary 2007.
switch high high) must be selected to
Settleout pressure (P1) = 63.2 bara
avoid unnecessary oversizing of the
Initial temperature = 20C
blowdown valve. For a compressor
Total system volume = 487 m3
system, the initial pressure is the set-
Initial total moles (N) = 1,520
tleout pressure.
Molecular weight (M) = 19.15
Temperature is equal to the maximum
Final pressure (P2) = 7.51 bara
operating temperature (it is assumed
Depressurization time (t) = 15 min
that heat exchangers are stopped). If
Depressurization rate
the intention is to determine the min-
from Equation (1)
imum-design metal temperature, the
W1 = 1,52019.15/15ln(63.2/7.5)
initial temperature is the minimum op-
= 4136 kg/min = 248,163 kg/h
erating temperature or the minimum
Result from HYSYS simulation = 229,114
ambient temperature, whichever is
It can be seen that the results obtained
Liquid level is equal to normal liquid
from both calculations are very close.
level for vessels with auto-level control,
and high liquid level for vessels with
on/off control.
For piping systems only, the liquid level Another option is controlled de-
corresponds to the piping hold up for pressurization. This can be used if
piping. the vapor flowrate from calculation is
very high. In this arrangement, more
of depressurization. It also assumes than one set of blowdown valves and
that temperature, molecular weight restriction orifices is used. Initially,
and compressibility are constant only one set is opened and once the
throughout this period. pressure has been reduced (after 510
Generally, the upstream line (ahead minutes), other valves are opened.
of the restriction orifice) has a mini- This way, the vapor flowrate is re-
mum diameter of 2 in. and is sized for duced initially by opening only one
momentum (density multiplied by the valve when the differential pressure is
square of velocity ) less than 30,000 to high and it is increased by opening all
50,000 kg/m/s2 based on the pressure other valves.
of the system. Where the local laws permit it, it can
The line downstream of the restric- be appropriate to utilize depressuriza-
tion orifice should have a minimum tion as an alternative to relief devices
diameter of 2 in. and be sized for sized for the fire case. This scenario
momentum (density multiplied by typically works best under the follow-
square of velocity) less than 150,000 ing circumstances:
to 200,000 kg/m/s2 and Mach number a) The vessel contains only vapor, or
less than 0.7. has a high-boiling-point liquid;
b) An engineering analysis indicates
Other approaches that the additional protection pro-
Apart from the general arrangement vided by the relief device would serve
discussed here, other arrangements to little value in reducing the likelihood
reduce pressure or inventory to a more of a vessel rupture. n
acceptable level can also be used. For Edited by Suzanne Shelley
instance, in a high-pressure system, Author
there might be two types of depressur- Hitesh Pandya is a princi-
pal engineer at Saipem India
ization: High-rate depressurization Projects Limited (Email:
and low-rate depressurization. High- hitesh_pandya@rediffmail.
com). He has more than nine
rate depressurizing of plant facilities years of experience in the
is typically used to immediately and oil-and-gas industries in the
fields of engineering design
quickly evacuate equipment inven- and operation. Hitesh has
tory in an emergency situation. Low- worked with many engineer-
ing and operating companies
rate depressurizing of plant facilities on petrochemicals, LNG, and
oil-and-gas projects. Hitesh holds a B.Tech. de-
is typically used for process control or gree in chemical engineering from Banaras
other operational reasons. Hindu University.
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