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Ultrasonic Inspection

A Helpful Maintenance Technology for the

Hydrocarbon Processing Industry

Maintaining banks of heat exchangers, pumps, motors,
compressors, and thousands of valves and steam traps to ensure
the integrity of a final product is a daunting task. Luckily,
ultrasonic technology is available to make the job manageable.
The challenge for plant operators is to facilitate equipment-
condition analysis, detect leaks and make repairs as quickly as
possible. In this article, we will focus on airborne/structure borne
ultrasound and leak detection methods using state-of-the-art
ultrasonic instruments.

Alan Bandes
UE Systems, Inc
8 pages
November 2003

SKF Reliability Systems

5271 Viewridge Court
San Diego, CA 92123
United States
tel. +1 858 496 3554
fax +1 858 496 3555

Use of this document is governed by the terms

and conditions contained in @ptitudeXchange.
Ultrasonic Inspection

Introduction instruments also include on-board sound

recording for spectral analysis.
Every day leaks of all shapes and sizes, as
well as mechanical problems, take their toll on The instruments allow inspectors to confirm a
the operation of a facility. Such problems diagnosis on the spot because they clearly
squander costly energy, damage product runs discriminate among various equipment
and waste thousands of dollars each year. The sounds. An electronic process called
challenge for plant operators is to facilitate "heterodyning" accurately converts
equipment-condition analysis, detect leaks and ultrasounds sensed by the instrument into the
make repairs as quickly as possible. In this audible range where users can hear and
article, we will focus on airborne/ structure- recognize them through headphones. This
borne ultrasound and leak detection methods process enables users to record sound events
using state-of-the-art ultrasonic instruments. through conventional recording devices.

What is Ultrasound? Most of the sounds sensed by humans range

Ultrasound is defined as high-frequency sound between 20 Hertz and 20 kilohertz (20 cycles
waves, which are above the range of human per second to 20,000 cycles per second). The
perception. Usually they start at 20 kilohertz average high-end human threshold is16.5 kHz.
(kHz) and go up into the megahertz range. The wavelength sizes of these frequencies
Airborne/ structure borne ultrasound covers tend to be relatively gross when compared
frequencies from 20 kHz up to 100 kHz. with the sizes of sound waves sensed by
ultrasonic translators. The wavelength of low-
All operating equipment and most leakage frequency sounds in the audible range are
problems produce a broad range of sounds. approximately 1.9 cm (3/4") up to 17 m (56')
The high-frequency ultrasonic components of in length (when using the high-frequency
these sounds tend to be fairly directional. average of 16.5 kHz), whereas ultrasounds
Using ultrasound instruments, it is easy to sensed by ultrasonic translators are only 0.3
separate such signals from background plant cm (1/8") up to 1.6 cm (5/8") long. Since
noises and to detect their exact location. In ultrasound wavelengths are magnitudes
addition, as subtle changes occur in smaller than those in the audible range, they
mechanical equipment, ultrasound inspections have characteristics that are conducive to
enable early detection of potential warning condition analysis. One advantage is that the
signals before actual failure. amplitude of a generated ultrasound falls off
exponentially from the source, making the
How Does the Instrumentation emission localized and easily isolated for
Work? detection and analysis.

Airborne/structure-borne ultrasound Most manufacturers will provide on-the-job

instruments, often referred to as “ultrasonic training in the use of the ultrasonic
translators,” provide information through instruments, and the equipment is
multiple paths: qualitatively through their maintenance free.
ability to hear ultrasounds through a noise-
isolating headphone, and quantitatively via Leak Detection
incremental readings on a meter/display panel.
Leakage can occur in any fluid system. Thus,
Digital instruments provide on-board data
the greatest advantage of ultrasonic detection
storage for data logging and for viewing
is that it can be used in a variety of leak
baseline data. Some newer versions of the
situations and environments since it is sound
© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 2
Ultrasonic Inspection

sensitive and not "gas" specific. When a leak Inspecting for Leaks in Heat
occurs, the fluid (liquid or gas) moves from Exchangers
the high-pressure side of a leak through the
leak site to the low-pressure side where it In hydrocarbon processing facilities,
expands rapidly and produces a turbulent ultrasound inspections often are made on two
flow. This turbulence has strong ultrasonic major types of heat exchangers: straight shell-
components that ultrasonic instruments detect. in-tubes and U-tubes. Whether they are under
The intensity of the ultrasonic signal falls off pressure or in a vacuum, tubes can be easily
rapidly from the source localizing the leak inspected with ultrasonic translators. Headers
signal and enabling an inspector to isolate the are removed so inspectors have access to the
exact leak site. tube sheets. In both vacuum and pressure
conditions, inspectors listen to the tubes that
Leaks may be located while a system is under are carrying a loud rushing sound produced as
pressure in a vacuum or offline, since pressure fluid flows from the high- pressure to the low-
and vacuum leaks produce a turbulent flow, pressure side of the tube.
which has strong ultrasonic components. For
offline systems, a special tone test uses an
ultrasonic transmitter to produce an ultrasonic
sound source.

The tone test is conducted by placing an

ultrasonic transmitter inside (or on one side)
of a test item. A warble pulse signal floods the
test item and penetrates any existing leak site.
Even thin spots in certain metals will be
vibrated by the signal. A scan for sonic
penetration will pinpoint a leak. This standard
tone generator is versatile enough to perform
any leak inspection procedure, e.g. seals,
Figure 1. Heat exchanger.
gaskets, welds, tanks, heat exchangers, and
pipes. Should multiple heat exchangers of the same
type need to be inspected while online, a
The method of generalized leak detection is
contact method may be employed. Contact
simple. An inspector equipped with an
zones along the length of the external shell are
ultrasonic instrument scans an area listening
created. An operator touches each zone and
for a distinct rushing sound. With continued
compares them to similar zones on other heat
adjustments of a sensitivity/volume control,
exchangers at the same test point. Should a
the leak sound is followed until the loudest
leak be present, there will be a change in the
point is heard. Since ultrasound is a short
acoustic properties of one zone when
wave signal, the inspector is able to
compared to the acoustic properties in another
discriminate between irrelevant background
similar zone. This is often heard as a loud,
noises and the leak signal. Some instruments
popping or crackling sound.
include a rubber focusing probe that narrows
the area of reception to shield against Inspectors also can conduct tests when a heat
competing ultrasounds and to help pinpoint exchanger is off-line. In such cases, an
the location of small leaks. inspector uses ultrasonic transmitters (tone
generators), and places them so they produce a
© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 3
Ultrasonic Inspection

uniform ultrasound around the tube bundle. upstream points A and B are equal and the
Operators scan both ends of the tube listening first downstream test point C is louder than A
for an increase in sound level, which will and B, one can assume there is a leak. There
indicate a leak or a tube that is thinning. The may be situations in which structure-borne
preferred inspection method is pressure or ultrasounds emitted from a source just
vacuum, but the tone generator technique is a downstream of the test valve could negatively
good backup for unique situations. influence the test and produce a false positive
or incorrect diagnosis. To guard against this,
In one company where leaks in heat exchanger the D and E test points are used. If one
tubes could short circuit the gas around touches the second downstream test point D
absorption towers and pollute the and it is louder than C, this might indicate that
environment, management now relies on the valve is not leaking and the sound source
ultrasonic technology to comply with is originating further downstream. Testing the
mandatory state emissions limitations. fourth test point E further downstream will
confirm this. If E is louder, one can assume
Some of the facility’s heat exchangers have as that the sound is irrelevant to the valve and is
many as 1100 tubes. Before ultrasonics, they caused by a competing structure-borne
used to pressure-test each tube: put a plug in ultrasound.
each end and then pump air into each unit
holding the pressure to see if it bled off. Locating the Source of Pressure
Testing a series of tubes in this manner was
and Vacuum Leaks
labor intensive. Now the company uses
ultrasonics. With an ultrasonic generator, Ultrasound detection is also used to deal with
technicians surround the tube bundle with both pressure and vacuum leaks. The only
ultrasound and scan the tube sheets for the difference in detecting leaks in the systems is
tubes that carry the sound, indicating a leak. that the greatest amount of turbulence will
occur externally in a pressure leak while in a
Using ultrasonic technology translates into vacuum leak it will be produced internally.
savings, the product supervisor reports. In its Since leak scans are typically performed
largest plant, they have six heat exchangers. externally, the intensity of the sound in a
When they shut it down to pressure test 300- vacuum leak under the same flow conditions
400 tubes, it used to take 24-30 hours. Using will be less than that of a pressurized leak.
the ultrasonic instrument cuts downtime to
only four or five hours. That is a tremendous Most often, an inspector uses a standard
savings in man-hours and operating time, and scanning probe to locate a leak. The probe
in addition, the facility is complying with contains a piezoelectric transducer that when
environmental regulations. exposed to ultrasound pressure flexes and
produces an electrical charge. The airborne
Inspecting Internal Leaking leak sounds are converted from mechanical
Valves energy to electrical energy and amplified and
translated into the audible range.
To determine the condition of a valve,
inspectors employ an “A, B, C, D, and In some leak conditions, the signal may either
sometimes E” method. They touch the be difficult to reach or too subtle to detect
instrument's contact probe at two equidistant with standard scanning probes. Specialized
points upstream of the valve to create a probes have been developed to help locate
baseline reading and compare them to two leaks at a distance and to detect low-energy
equidistant points downstream. If the
© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 4
Ultrasonic Inspection

leaks. For those leaks that are out of range, To pinpoint the source of a leak, inspectors
(high up or far away), parabolic dishes are begin by scanning an area listening for a leak
used. These probes are designed to collect far sound. By adjusting the sensitivity/volume
off sounds in the "parabola" and focus them control, they follow the sound to the loudest
into an array of transducers where the sound point until they are right on top of the leak. In
source is amplified. Depending on the size and certain cases, when employing the scanning
shape of the parabola, the focal range can be probe, inspectors may use a rubber focusing
as tight as five degrees, allowing a user to probe with a narrow opening that allows them
pinpoint the location of a leak at distances to pinpoint an exact location.
greater than hundred feet.
Chemical sniffers may be affected by any
Low-level leaks, such as a vacuum leak in a number of gasses present. But a key advantage
distillation column or leaks in pipe/flange of ultrasound is that it is not gas specific and
fittings, may be difficult to locate with may be used to locate a number of different
conventional scanning modules. A scanning types of leaks in any kind of environment
probe with an internal “horn” shape (referred even if there is a saturation of gasses.
to as a close-focus module) may be used to
scan the leak site closely. The leak sound is Testing for Faulty Steam Traps
amplified and carried via the funnel-shaped
To perform an accurate test, it is important to
collecting cone to the sensing transducer
understand the way different traps function.
enabling users to identify the leak site.
Acoustically, there are two types of traps:
For low-level pressure or vacuum leaks where continuous flow and intermittent flow. Poorly
turbulent flow is low or non-existent, a unique operating trap conditions can range from a
method that combines a liquid "bubble test" complete blow-through to leaking to plugged.
with ultrasound can be used. A bubble Plugged traps will be cool and quiet while
solution that has a low-surface tension is operating traps and leaking traps will be hot
applied to the suspect leak site. In the presence and produce sound. To be sure a trap is hot or
of a leak, bubbles form quickly and burst cold, before testing, it is recommended that
producing a detectable ultrasound. For the temperature of the trap be taken with a
pressure leaks, an inspector uses the scanning non-contact infrared thermometer.
probe. Vacuum leaks can be located similarly.

Occasionally, there will be instances where

scanning a vacuum system will not work due
to poor sound conductivity from the vacuum
side to the scan side. For those situations,
using a contact probe with a liquid can be
extremely effective in locating the leak. This
contact probe has a metal rod that acts as a
wave-guide. By touching the test surface with
this probe and applying the liquid to the
surface, a leak sound will be heard when the
liquid is “sucked in” and sputters against the
internal walls. For vacuum systems, any liquid Figure 2. Steam trap manifold.
that is compatible with the vacuum side can be

© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 5

Ultrasonic Inspection

Before beginning a survey, take a trap map For example, one facility reported that their
along with you to plan your route and make ultrasonic-based steam and maintenance
sure the traps are tagged/ identified accurately. program in one location of its plant saved
If an inspector does not have an accurate map $250,799 in the first year of the program
of the traps either he should make one or take alone. This translates into 37 million pounds
photos (with a digital camera) of the trap of steam saved when compared to the previous
locations and label them. Then he should year. Another area saved $141,670, or 25
create a method of identifying all traps with million pounds of steam a year.
tags so that any problem found can be easily
referenced and located for follow up action. Monitoring Bearing Wear and
Always note the type of trap you are testing. Lubrication Issues
Using the ultrasonic instrument, touch the trap Ultrasound inspection can provide an early
on the downstream side with the instrument’s warning of bearing failure, lack of lubrication,
contact probe and adjust the sensitivity to over-lubrication, for high-speed as well as
better hear flow conditions. Listen to the trap low-speed bearings. There are two methods -
operation and observe the meter. The "overall amplitude level" and "spectrum
downstream side is used to determine leakage. analysis" - that are commonly used to monitor
First touch directly upstream of the trap and bearings.
adjust the sensitivity to a midpoint level where
flow conditions can be observed without
overloading the display. Then touch
downstream listening for the trap operation.
An intermittent trap should have an
intermittent sound; a continuous flow trap will
have a modulating “continuous” flow. If one
is not sure of the type of trap being tested,
refer to the manufacturer’s guide or check
with your local trap supplier. Some ultrasound
equipment manufacturers and steam trap
manufacturers have sound samples available.

Inspectors should note the tag number of all

faulty traps and produce a non-compliance
report or a work order for repair. Test the traps
after they have been repaired or replaced Figure 3. Diagnosing bearing.
because sometimes a new problem can be
created inadvertently. In most cases, the inspection approach is
simple and straightforward. The first step is to
Few maintenance departments these days have establish a baseline reading by comparing
the time or staff to conduct daily inspections similar bearings for potential differences in
of traps. However, if process components of amplitude and sound quality. To do this, mark
equipment as well as main steam traps are a reference point on a bearing housing and
checked routinely (for example, quarterly), the touch this reference point with the contact
savings can be substantial. (stethoscope) probe of an ultrasonic
instrument. Next, adjust the sensitivity to hear
the bearing sounds more clearly and to bring
the intensity levels on the meter/display panel
© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 6
Ultrasonic Inspection

into range if the received sound amplitudes are This approach can be used to test and analyze
either too high or too low. If frequency tuning low as well as medium and high-speed
is used, tune the instrument to 30 kHz. bearings, gears, pumps, and compressor
Compare similar bearings under the same load valves.
and RPM conditions. Most of the bearings
should be within the same range with the same
sound quality (usually a rushing noise similar
to an air leak). The bearing with the lowest
reading can be used as the baseline reading.
Another method is to take an average of the
readings and use that as the baseline.

A few rough guidelines on amplitude increase

are as follows. An 8 dB gain over baseline
with no change in sound quality could indicate
pre-failure, or lack of lubrication. A 12 dB
increase could show the very beginning of the
failure mode and may sound rough. A 16 dB
Figure 4. Compressor.
gain could indicate advanced failure
condition, while a 35-50 dB gain warns of Determining when to lubricate bearings and
catastrophic failure. Once a series of bearings how much lubricant to apply are two of the
have been tested and a baseline set, data is issues facing technicians responsible for
recorded and then compared to future readings maintaining bearings. Under-lubrication can
for historical trending and analysis. wear out a bearing before its time; applying
too much lubrication often can lead to
Spectral analysis is another important feature
catastrophic results to the bearing or long term
for ultrasound mechanical and bearing
damage to motor coils and windings.
condition analysis. It enhances vibration
analysis programs and can be used when no Traditionally, lubrication scheduling has been
vibration program exists. This can be achieved “time-based.” Equipment suppliers often
by either connecting the ultrasound instrument recommend lubrication schedules based on
to a vibration analyzer with a cable from the hours of operation. In addition, they
headphone (heterodyned output) to the frequently provide instructions as to the
vibration analyzer, or to incorporate spectral amount of lubricant to be applied during these
analysis software, which some suppliers of scheduled maintenance procedures. It is not
instruments offer. If spectral analysis software uncommon to hear of instructions where
is used, the sounds must be recorded with a customers have been told to lubricate at short-
tape recorder or minidisk and played back time intervals and to suggest adding what
through the software. If the software is loaded appeared to be excessive amounts of grease.
on a laptop computer, the sounds may also be
recorded directly to the software. Some The concept of lubrication intervals is based
ultrasound instruments have on-board sound on a simple premise: to keep equipment
recording capability and can download the running optimally by preventing a bearing
sound samples directly to a computer. Once from running dry and causing catastrophic
recorded, the sound samples may be analyzed damage. It is a solid “preventive” concept.
in either a spectral screen or a time series to However, there is a balance that must be
determine the condition of the equipment. struck between preventing lubrication
© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 7
Ultrasonic Inspection

starvation and the extreme of over lubrication. methods in general. Of course, every
Also, one has to take into account secondary hydrocarbon processing plant is unique, and
functions of the lubricant such as keeping-out inspection methodologies should be tailored to
contamination, and to absorb wear debris, the specific needs of a facility. The best advice
leading to shorter (re)lubrication intervals. In is to research the variety of preventive /
any case, to accomplish the goal of lubrication predictive instruments and accessories
optimization, one should know when (not) to available, and then talk with manufacturers
(re)lubricate and how much lubricant to add. and service providers regarding what best
suits the needs. Ultrasonic instruments have
This may be accomplished with a condition- also proven effective for the detection of valve
based lubrication strategy. Simply put, the blow-by, cavitations in pumps, corona in
condition of the bearing determines when to switchgear, and the inspection of and the
lubricate. If a bearing is working properly and integrity of seals and gaskets in tanks.
does not demonstrate any changes that warrant
lubrication, such as increased decibel levels
(over a baseline), temperature, or
contamination level, the bearing should be left
alone. Should such conditions change and a
bearing demonstrates a need for lubrication,
then a lubricant should be (re)applied.
Monitoring the lubricant as it is applied can
also help to determine how much to add and
when to stop the application.

At one facility, a maintenance supervisor

became suspicious when a pump manufacturer
recommended that he lubricate the bearings on
pumps every two weeks and send them in for Figure 5. Switchgear.
overhaul in two years. The manufacturer
recommended 42 pumps of grease (a full About UE Systems
ounce). The supervisor decided to use his
For more information, contact UE Systems,
ultrasonic instrument to monitor the bearings
Inc. at:
in action. He set up an inspection route and
found that all it took was six or seven pumps UE Systems manufactures and distributes
of lubrication once every six months! He hand held portable ultrasonic instruments for
reported that it saved his company manpower leak detection, mechanical and electrical
and time and extended the life of the inspection. Customers can select products
equipment. When he sent the pumps in, as ranging from simple analog to sophisticated
prescribed by the manufacturer, the repair digital instruments and software to meet
shop informed him that the next rebuild cycle specific inspection needs. Established in 1973,
could be extended an additional six months it is the recognized worldwide leader in the
because the pumps were in better shape than technology of airborne/structure borne
they had expected. ultrasound. A network of trained specialists as
well as comprehensive training material and
Conclusions courses supports the products.
In this article, we have discussed ultrasonic
leak detection and mechanical inspection
© 2004 SKF Reliability Systems All Rights Reserved 8