Winterizing with electric process heaters saves money and maintenance headaches

Aug. 29, 2006
Proper winterizing efforts require a broad, more thoughtful approach. Of the many options available, the use of electric process heaters, although not exceptionally well known or understood, is often the most practical and effective approach to winterizing.

As winter approaches, processing plants and engineering firms begin to turn their thoughts toward preparing for the extreme weather conditions they will soon be facing.  Typically, when individuals working in the processing industries think of “weatherizing” their plants, they conjure up images of “heat tracing.”  However, proper winterizing efforts require a broader, more thoughtful approach.  Of the many options available, the use of electric process heaters, although not exceptionally well known or understood, is often the most practical and effective approach to winterizing. 

Most processing industries have multiple applications where winterization should be made a significant priority – to avoid maintenance headaches or simply to improve processes.  Below are just a few examples, by industry, of applications where process heating is recommended and can have a substantial positive impact.

Process Heating

Large processing plants, such as refineries, electric power plants and pulp and paper mills, primarily use either steam or fired types of heat sources (gas, coal or oil) for large bulk heating and processing requirements.  However, there are many instances where electric heating should be employed to overcome the limitations of these systems (especially steam) during periods of exceptionally cold weather.  Two good options are electric steam superheaters and trim heating systems.  In both cases, these systems consist of in-line (circulation) heaters coupled with temperature control systems.  Steam superheaters prevent steam from reaching its saturation point within long, remote pipe runs by boosting the steam temperature well into the superheated region.  This same in-line concept is used for electric “trim” heaters.  These heaters are used in conjunction with steam systems to provide steam at the process point with the correct temperature and pressure.  An electric heater and control system respond much faster to load variations and can be controlled much more accurately. 

At a minimum, when steam heat loads reach plant capacity, an electric heater system should be considered as an alternative economical solution, versus expanding the facility’s boiler capacity or adding an entire new boiler system.

Calendar rolls, used within pulp and papers mills, are a good example of an application where electric process heating is an ideal solution.  Calendar rolls are located at the ends of paper machines and are used to increase paper smoothness, improve final surface finish and act as a final thickness gauge.  Fluctuations in temperature naturally cause the roll to expand or contract, and therefore greatly impact the quality of the finished product.  To avoid fluctuations (which can be significant in winter months), many paper mills use either electrically heated hot oil heat transfer systems or forced ducted air systems using tubular or finned heating elements.  These types of electrically heated systems, mated with the proper control systems, can achieve temperature uniformity within 1°C or better. 

Operating Temperature Maintenance

As the thermometer plummets, oils become increasingly viscous, especially fuel oils, making pumping difficult.  In addition, as temperatures fall below -0°C, oils such as diesel #2 have the added problem of paraffin wax precipitating out of the oil solution, causing wax build up and deposits and potentially clogging fuel nozzles on boilers, engines and other equipment.  Watlow’s solution to this problem was to develop an ‘O’ shaped over-the-side heater.  These electric heater assemblies employ robust, rigid tubular heater elements in an ‘O’ shape attached to an unheated riser mounted to a flange plate.  Either a local or a remote control box can be used with the heaters.  The system uses a low wattage surface loading to warm the oil, yet not to the point of element coking and/or oil degradation.  Additional precautions include a high limit temperature sensor attached to the heater element “bundle,” and a high limit control circuit set to trip well below the fuel’s flash point.  Overall, the use of electric heaters within tanks is a simple solution to ensure that fuel oil is ready to flow for main system use, or that back up fuel tanks, used by standby generator systems, are ready at a moment’s notice.

Another place where cold can wreak havoc is on tank farms.  Crude tank farms typically employ some type of temperature maintenance system – either steam loops or some form of internal electric heating.  Yet, there are some lesser-known electric heating designs that often offer substantial energy savings over these methods.  For example, one economical alternative to steam loops is the use of pipe insert (or bayonet type) electric heaters.  These heaters can be removed and serviced without having to drain a tank’s contents.  Watlow typically recommends installing additional tubular elements in the heater design to function as spares should any of the elements fail.  This significantly reduces downtime by allowing maintenance to simply rewire to the spare tubular heaters, without having to remove or replace the heater bundle. 

Pipe insert heaters are essentially composed of pipe vessels mounted through the sides of storage tank walls.  Screw plug or flanged immersion heaters are then inserted into these bayonet-like wells.  The wells may remain dry or may be filled with a heat transfer fluid to improve heat transfer to a tank’s contents.  The exact design selected depends on the type of oil, desired temperatures, tank capacity and other variables.  These heaters normally need to be AMSE code stamped and/or obtain a CRN to ensure proper operation in hazardous locations. 

Suction heaters, although not well known, are another good alternative for heating storage tanks.  Similar in design to pipe insert heaters, suction heaters only heat the liquid pumped, not the entire contents of the tank.  This not only significantly reduces energy consumption (heat is only applied as oil is drawn out), it also reduces pumping system requirements – which translates to savings on capital equipment investments. 

The setup of a suction heater system usually involves bolting a flanged immersion heater directly to the storage tank through a pipe section.  As the liquid closest to the pump is heated, it easily flows and is drawn through the outlet nozzle attached to the pump suction side.  The power densities of these heating systems are kept low (0.6 to 1.5 W/cm2 tubular heater surface loading) to ensure minimal oil degradation and heater element coking.  Watlow highly recommends the installation of a valve on the intake side of the pipe section to facilitate removal and service of the heater bundle, as needed. 

Heat Tracing Alternatives

Heat trace begins to lose effectiveness as equipment mass begins to increase and temperatures climb into the 100°C to 150°C range.  Alternatives to heat trace, while initially more expensive, are fundamentally better suited to overcome problems with temperature maintenance and system heat loss. 

For example, Watlow recently assisted a company that manufactures carbon pitch that was seeking a way to insulate the mating flanges on its pitch pipelines.  The pipelines, which operate at around 370°C, were insulated, but all attempts to insulate the mating flanges using traditional heat tracing had failed.  Watlow installed a FIREBAR flat tubular heater element, curved to fit the flange circumference.  Appropriate terminal boxes were also installed on the heater ends, which were designed to bend up at a 90° angle from the flange surface to allow for easy installation and wiring.  The solution proved to be simple, relatively inexpensive, and much more reliable and controllable than heat trace.

Heat tracing also has limited value in high temperature and/or high mass valving.  Traditionally, heat trace installers coil or wrap a large amount of heat trace cable onto valves to ensure they get enough heat energy.  Even when this approach is effective, it increases the maintenance times required to service or remove a valve.  A more effective and more maintenance-friendly approach is to use small diameter cable heaters (non-self limiting) with controller packages and internal temperature sensors.  The heater, control and installation expense is higher than a solution that uses heat tracing.  However, the investment usually proves to be worthwhile, as the heater package provides a much higher power density, higher temperature capabilities (to 760°C) and the ability to shape the cable to the contours of the valve.

Freeze Protection

Conveyor systems, including chutes and hoppers, can also have problems when temperatures drop far below freezing.  Specifically, moist or wet particulate materials, even when covered, have a good chance of bunching up on, or freezing to, conveyor belts or a conveyor’s chains and rails.  Freezing can also cause belts and chains to snap and chutes and hoppers to become blocked or clogged.  Because of moisture within the conveyed materials, as well as from Mother Nature, a robust, water resistant heating solution is required.  For such applications, Watlow usually specifies its FIREBAR flat tubular heater, because its ends are sealed against moisture and contamination ingress.  Clamping bars are used to ensure good physical contact between the heaters and conveyor rails.  Heaters are also often placed at points along, and in direct contact with, conveyor belts. 

Within industrial cooling towers, used to shed excess heat from industrial processes and HVAC systems, the primary winterization concern is preventing a tower’s catch basin (sump) from freezing – which can result in pump failure, frozen lines and, potentially, complete system failure.

For towers used within air conditioning, refrigeration and light industrial applications, an immersion heater solution is best.  In these applications, the heater is immersed in the cold water sump to keep the water above freezing.  Factory installed heaters are normally through-the-side immersion heaters with mounting flanges and gaskets. Add-on installers may also use this type, or, if clearances permit, may choose to utilize an over-the-side type to avoid penetration of the basin.  An adjustable thermostat, complete with bulb and capillary, is also installed to energize the heater element contactor and to maintain a basin water temperature of at least 4.4°C.

A float switch wired into the control circuit assures that the heater cannot energize unless completely submerged in water.  And, to disconnect the main power supply in case of excessive current draw (caused by a short to ground somewhere in the heater, the heater controls, or the wiring) a circuit breaker is necessary.


Overall, the use of electric heating technology offers process industries, such as pulp and paper, oil and gas, refining, electric power, chemical processing and waste water treatment, an effective and economical solution to prevent freezing, improve processes normally impacted by cold temperatures and overcome the limitations of steam systems used with process heating applications.  Although every application and industry is different, more often than not, the use of electric heaters for winterizing is, in the long run, the best solution to recurring maintenance problems and other headaches caused by the effects winter has on process facilities.

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