How to turn steam traps into money savers

Don’t blow off steam: Steam traps can provide energy- and money-saving opportunities.

By Ed Kriz, Nicor Gas

Do you rely on a boiler system for heating or as part of your manufacturing process? If so, then what you are really relying on is its ability to process and transmit its steam efficiently. Adverse effects such as losing steam or processing steam inefficiently due to failed steam traps can cripple your heating or manufacturing capacity and cost you money. Fortunately, in most cases, faulty steam traps are detected with a simple testing and maintenance routine. Factor in utility incentives for steam trap replacement or repair, and you’ve got an instant operational improvement that quickly yields a return on investment.

Steam traps protect and serve

Three centuries after the invention of the steam engine, steam boilers remain a popular heating source for buildings. It is also a critical part of many manufacturing processes. Which is largely due to the fact that steam is an efficient way to create and deliver heat: It holds more energy per pound than water.

In a boiler system, steam traps protect and serve. After the boiler plant applies heat to water to create steam, traps capture the condensate and ensure that maximum heat transfer is achieved. From there, a functioning steam trap effectively regulates the flow of condensate and gases so that the system’s thermal efficiency is maximized. Then the steam continues the process of transferring heat to your end use – whether it is manufacturing, space heat, sterilization, or another process.

Steam traps, like anything mechanical, require regular maintenance to perform effectively and efficiently. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), up to 30 percent of steam traps will fail within three to five years due to a lack of maintenance. Further, the DOE reports that a single trap with an opened 1/8-inch orifice costs $6,640 per year in wasted steam. In most cases, you cannot spot a failed steam trap by looking at it; however, there are noticeable symptoms in other forms, like inefficient operation, increased heating costs, mineral buildup, and corrosion in the boiler system.

While the DOE recommends monthly to quarterly steam trap testing, “It’s one of those things that just gets forgotten about, or the knowledge isn’t transferred when a senior employee retires,” said Jeff Crittenden, director of engineering at energy efficiency consulting firm CLEAResult.
Translated into bottom line terms, steam traps become as important to the C-suite as they are to operations managers. Failing steam traps drive operational costs up, diverting resources from business-building investments. The other side of that coin is much more appealing: Regular maintenance ensures a more energy-efficient system, lower overhead costs and freed-up capital to invest back into your business.

Solutions to remedy failed steam traps

A steam trap lasts about six years if given recommended inspection and maintenance. A steam trap can fail in an open position, allowing live steam to escape and waste the energy embedded in the steam. Steam traps also can fail in a closed or mostly closed position, which blocks all steam from flowing through the system, creating inefficiencies.

A failing trap is often repairable. Steam trap repair can be simple—the key is catching failed traps early and often. Because leaks are often invisible, thermal imaging and ultrasonic testing may be used to determine if your steam traps require repairs or replacement. Contact an HVAC contractor (boiler maintenance experience is recommended) to analyze your existing system for failed traps.

As vital as steam traps are, they require low maintenance that is relatively easy to achieve, especially when a plant is able to partner with local utility energy efficiency programs. One example of this is the partnership that developed between Koppers Industries, based in Cicero, Ill., and energySMART, a Nicor Gas program.

In 2011 Brandon Hunter, P.E., the energy and raw materials manager at the global chemical and materials company, requested a free steam trap assessment from energySMART and learned that his organization could earn $5,000 in utility rebates for steam trap replacements. That is cash back on top of the significant operational and energy savings benefits of the replacements themselves.

However, for Koppers Industries, the assessment and initial replacements offered a gateway to bigger, better things. “We were later able to take further advantage of subsidized steam trap surveys, subsidized energy assessments, and rebates for performing energy efficiency projects,” said Hunter. “The initial check for $5,000 grew to $50,000.The initial contact with energySMART has grown to the point where our energy efficiency initiatives have turned into a small profit center.”

“Some people call steam traps low-hanging fruit – they’re a huge energy waster with a relatively low-cost, simple solution," said Brittany Zwicker, the business rebates program manager with CLEAResult, which manages several Nicor Gas energy efficiency programs. "The rebates available through energySMART can cover a large percentage of the cost of steam trap repair or replacement.”

Solutions are a call or click away

If you are a facilities or operations manager, you are probably aware that your local utility offers incentives for upgrades and retrofits that increase energy efficiency. But these rebates are changing and often expanding. And you do not need to be an expert in steam systems to take advantage: These programs can offer technical guidance and may be able to connect you with a local contractor with the expertise you are looking for.

If you are looking to improve your facility’s performance, meet corporate sustainability goals or lower operating costs, take a few minutes to research or call your utility directly. You are likely to find energy- and money-saving opportunities all around you, in new and unlikely places. Like steam traps.

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