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Common Operating Problems for Air-coolers

Air-cooled heat exchangers (ACHE) are commonly used in industry. They offer definite
About Us advantages in certain types of applications. However, due to their use of atmospheric air,
air-cooled heat exchangers experience operating problems not encountered in other types
Expertise of heat exchangers. We present here some of the more common operating problems with
Reduced Air Flow Rate
Design Tips Air flow is the single most important variable in the operation of air-cooled heat
exchangers. In continuous processes, the heat load on an ACHE generally remains fairly
Design Tools constant while the air flow is increased or decreased based on the ambient air
temperature. There are a variety of reasons why air-coolers may experience reduced air
flow (see below). When an air-cooler experiences reduced air flow, its cooling capacity is
reduced and it is during warm summer days when the impact on production is most often
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seen. Below is a list of several causes of reduced air flow and possible solutions.
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Dirty Tube Bundles
Air flow is directly related to pressure drop. When the pressure drop through the tube
bundle of an air-cooler increases, the air flow decreases. The most likely cause of
increased pressure drop is a dirty tube bundle. As the tube bundle gets fouled over time,
the pressure drop gradually increases leading to reduced air flow around the tubes. Tube
bundles can become plugged with leaves, paper or poplar fluff pollen.

The most efficient way to determine if an air-cooler is dirty and experiencing reduced air
flow is to develop an air flow profile using an anemometer. The anemometer is used to
measure the air velocity at multiple locations and the data can be analyzed to display air
volumetric profiles and overall air flow. Figure 1 below shows data generated using an
anemometer. The most useful way to use the data measured from the anemometer is to
compare the current air profile to an existing baseline profile taken for the same fan when
first installed or after cleaning. The two profiles are then compared to determine if the
overall air flow has dropped significantly over time. Reverse air flow at the tip of the fan
blades (shown by negative air flow values on Figure 1) would be an indication of a fouled
air-cooled heat exchanger. Reverse air flow is caused by excessive pressure drop through
the tube bundles which leads the air to flow back around to the suction side of the blade.
Figure 1
Once the cleaning is complete, a second set of air flow measurements should be taken for
two reasons: 1) the new air flow profile can serve as the clean baseline to evaluate future
performance; 2) if the air profile still shows reverse air flow at the fan tips or fan hub, it
could be an indication that other problems still exist (see Reverse Flow below).

The required cleaning frequency for an air-cooler will depend greatly on its location. Some
ACHE will require frequent tube bundle cleaning while others may never need to be
cleaned. Air flow measurements are a non-intrusive way to determine when the tube
bundle of an air-cooler needs to be cleaned. Figure 2 shows air flow profiles before and
after cleaning. As can be seen, cleaning can significantly increase the air flow through and
air-cooler and lead to improved performance.

Figure 2

Reverse Flow
Reverse flow is a common problem in older air-coolers. This misdirected flow causes two
problems for the heat exchanger: 1) the obvious one is a net loss in the amount of air
that travels through the tube bundle to provide cooling; 2) the secondary effect is that
when the air flow returns to the suction side of the fan, it is again sucked up and creates
artificially high inlet air temperatures which ultimately lead to less heat transfer capacity.

There are two areas where reverse flow is most prevalent. The most common one is at
the tip of the fan blade where it meets the plenum housing. Over time or with incorrect
installation, a gap can be found which will increase the amount of air flow that loops
around the blade and travels back to the fan suction side. This gap should be
approximately 3/8” but not greater than 3/4” as per API-660. Reverse flow can be
detected by measuring the fan tip gap but the recommended way to determine if reverse
flow is present is to conduct an air velocity profile (shown above in Figure 2) and look for a
negative air flow number. Again, it is better to look at the air profile from an exchanger
immediately after it was cleaned. If the exchanger is not clean, the high pressure drop
caused by the dirt could lead to reverse flow which could be eliminated with a simple
cleaning. If reverse flow exists after cleaning, the fix is to install tip a seal on the plenum
which will eliminate the gap.

A less common form of reverse flow in ACHE occurs if there is a gap in the area above the
motor or hub. Air will loop back through the center of the fan blade and be caught in a
recycle. This problem will again be obvious if an air flow profile is taken. The fix to this
problem is more complicated and costly but in most cases installing a hub seal will
eliminate this problem.

Blade Pitch
ACHE fans can have fixed or adjustable pitch blades. Adjustable pitch blades are most
often used and the adjustment can be either manual or automatic. The blade angle on
manually adjusted pitch fans can only be changed when the air cooler shutdown.
Automatically adjusted fan blades can be rotated to various angles while the air cooler is in
operation. Newer air-cooled heat exchangers are usually provided with manually adjusted
fan blades and use variable speed motors to provide the required air flow variability.
Blades require an initial angle setting to achieve optimum performance. Quite often,
automatically adjusted fan blades get stuck after some time and the air flow variability
from the variable blade pitch angle is not longer available for process control.

A common problem with air-coolers is improper blade pitch angle. This problem may
result from efforts to decrease energy usage by reducing the fan motor load. If the blade
pitch is set low to reduce the motor load, the air flow may be too low to provide the
desired cooling. On the other hand, if the blade pitch is set too high the load on the motor
may be too high and the motor may stall or burn out. Typically, the optimum blade pitch
angle is in the range of 12 and 17 degrees. It is always best to refer to the manufactures
specifications to set the optimum blade pitch angle. Generating air flow profiles can help
narrow in on the optimum blade pitch angle.

Motor Amps
A related problem that is often encountered is motor not running near their full load amps
(FLA). To optimize peak air flow and heat transfer, fan motors should operate near their
full load amp (FLA) set point. If a motor is running below 70% of FLA, adjusting either the
motor or the blade pitch angle to increase the air flow will lead to better performance. It
is preferred to have the %FLA at or above 85.

Mechanical Integrity

The overall condition of an ACHE can greatly reduce its ability to transfer heat. The
following list contains common areas where air-coolers can experience minor problems
that are relatively easy to fix.

Air-coolers sometimes use louvers to control the outlet temperature by throttling the air
flow. Missing or inoperable louvers are a common problem. Louvers should be inspected
periodically to validate that the actuators are working properly. At full open, the louvers
should be at least 50% to 60% open to allow unimpeded air to travel through the tube

Another structural component of every air cooled heat exchangers is the plenum housing.
The plenum should be inspected periodically to confirm that no panels are missing or that
no large holes exist. If there are gaps in the plenum, the air will have a path through
which to escape without going through the tube bundle. This reduces the overall heat
transfer capability of the heat exchanger.

Tube Bundles
Although a fairly common practice, it is not recommended to spray water on tube bundles
to provide temporary additional heat transfer capacity during hot summer days. Operating
plants which adopt this practice see a deterioration of the aluminum tube fins overtime
from corrosion and fouling due to chloride formation in the heat transfer surface. This
practice leads to a reduction in performance over time and in time the tube bundle needs
to be replaced. Replacing tube bundles is expensive and time consuming and should be
used as a last resort. If the fins are corroded or have become detached, there may not be
any other option than replacing the tube bundle.

A common problem is bent or crushed tube fins. In this case, a comb type device can be
used to rake through and lift the fins back into a position perpendicular to the tubes. This
will help increase the heat transfer performance of the air-cooler.

Control Philosophy

This section covers a few of the potential control problems with air-coolers.

Inlet Process Conditions

Over time or periodically, the inlet process conditions can change. The process flow rate,
composition and inlet temperature may vary from design conditions. Often air-coolers are
thought of as under-performing when actually the total required heat duty has changed
over time or suddenly increased.

Control Set Point

Another less common cause for air-cooler problems is improper control set points. Often
the use of heat exchangers changes over time but the set points tend to be “fixed and
forgotten”. A quick check of the current heat exchanger design documentation can
provide insight into the expected process conditions and set points. The plant data should
be compared to the design data and any discrepancies investigated.

Non-Condensable Purges
Many air-coolers are used as overhead condensers on distillation columns. Similar to all
other heat exchangers, air-coolers performance can suffer if non-condensable vapor gets
trapped in the tubes reducing the effective heat transfer area. The usual design technique
to eliminate this effect is to provide a non-condensable purge line that will provide a way
out of the system. If an air-cooler is not performing well in an overhead condensing
service, one cause could be that the non-condensable purge line has been closed or
plugged. This line should be checked periodically to assure a clear path and prevent gas

Process Side Issues

The easiest and most cost effective fixes to air-cooler problems usually occur on the air
side of the exchanger. Unfortunately this does not fix all problems and we also find that
heat transfer limitations can occur because of poor conditions on the process side.

If the process side of the tubes gets fouled or scale builds up, the performance of the air-
cooler will be reduced. Many exchangers that do foul on the process side are well known
and should be put on a routine maintenance schedule to keep them clean. If a heat
exchanger is suspected to be fouled, pressure drop readings and tracking can be used to
confirm fouling. As the tube inside diameter gets smaller when fouling is present, the
velocity increases and the overall pressure drop starts to increase. If this is encountered,
the exchanger should be taken off line and cleaned.

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