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Where We Go Wrong With Compressors

Dick Hawrelak
Presented to ES-317y in 1999 at UWO


5% of large property damage losses are caused by failures in pumps and compressors. When a major failure takes place, the average trended Loss is $19.2MM. C3H6 compressor,driver & spares in a world scale ethylene plant costs $17MM purchased.

Compressors Costs FS LHC#1

Cost Summary Estimated CG K-201/K-321

By Elliott




Propylene K-601 $8,667,000 $6,674,797 Ethylene K-651 $6,014,000 $5,478,011 $31,920,800 $29,625,139

Compressor Problems

The following are some of the problems found in compressor design and operation. The compressor train includes; compressors, drivers, KO Pots, exchangers and storage vessels.

Complex Comp Systems Can Be Found In An Ethylene Plant

Mass Balance Problems

Process start-up, shut down or upset conditions not well defined. Refrigerant mass balances. Steam driver mass balances Hot gas turbine mass balance. Designers did not consider all problems associated with recycle for turn-down or false-load conditions.

Typical Steam Balance

Pressure / Temperature

Operating points not well located. Poor data from the field. Poor data is useless for determining compressor performance.

Interstage Conditions

If low stage pressure drops are higher than designed, final stage discharge pressure may not be achieved. See NCOMP example for demonstration.

NCOMP Results

Discharge Conditions

Discharge temperatures higher than allowable limits. Indicates lower efficiency and pending trouble. See NCOMP example for demonstration.


Actual plant feed stock differs from design feed stock. Condensate compositions differ from one oil field to another. Design for 100% ethane cracking but operate with mixed HC feeds.

Physical Properties

Vendor and customer did not agree on physical properties. Non-ideal vapor / liquid systems. VCM plant operates at 50% of capacity.

Vendor Offering

Vendors often quote unusually high compressor efficiency to try and win the contract. Many customers are gullible enough to swallow the offering. Difficult to pin vendor down on final performance. Too many degrees of wiggle freedom.


Customer fails to up-date material and energy balance after vendor shop tests confirm projected adiabatic compression efficiency.


Customer accepts vendor prototype offering with blind faith. Ford Edsel example.

Spare Parts

Customer fails to request a spare rotor. 6 months to fabricate. Customer orders a spare rotor but stores it incorrectly. Rotor must be balanced in a coffin, turned regularly and the coffin nitrogen purged under positive pressure.

Shop Tests

Customer goes the cheap route and specifies only a one point shop test. Customer fails to witness construction and final shop test.


Customer accepts vendor without shop visit. Poor fabrication techniques.

Interstage Seals

Poor seal selection. Mechanical seal. Hot gas seal. Water seal.


Vendor fails to identify all critical speeds. Vendor makes a poor vibration corrections. Poor vibration monitors and trip system.


Poor fabrication. Poor alignment. Poor maintenance.

Anti-surge Control

High vibrations on approaching stonewall point. Anti-surge control does not respond as required.

Shut-down Trip Systems

Cheap trip systems do not identify what tripped the compressor by a first out diagnostics trip system. Poor trip systems do not permit good diagnostics following a compressor trip.

Lube Oil Systems

Insufficient lube oil reservoir capacity for roll-down. Lube oil lines not cleaned before start-up. Poor lube oil supply. Non union lube oil system reassembled by local union.

Field Inspection

Customer fails to inspect lines after contractor finishes job. Contractor hammer wrecks compressor on start-up.

Compressor Gears

Poor gear design. High noise. Poor alignment on maintenance. Poor lubrication.

Compressor Configuration

Over-hung lines on compressors are poor for maintenance. Bottom-hung lines on compressors are good for maintenance but require taller compressor building.

Typical Configuration

3 Case C3H6 Compressor


Poor soil bearing tests fail to disclose soil loading problems. Compressor experiences settling. Alignment suffers and compressor wrecks. One project manager doubles all foundation specifications to be on the safe side.

Inlet Piping

Inlet lines too small. Inlet vanes do not receive design flow due to poor flow distribution.

Driver Selection

Electrical motor. Diesel motor. Gas turbines. Steam turbines. Drivers require as much attention as the compressor.

Possible Exam Questions

In a multi-stage compressor, if the low stage pressure drops are higher than designed, how will the final final discharge pressure be affected? What is the problem of running a compressor with a very high discharge temperature? Why do we install vibration monitors and high vibration trips on centrifugal compressors? ***