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This Module of The Steam and Condensate Loop is intended to give a brief, non-technical overview of the steam plant. It offers an overall explanation of how the different parts of the steam plant relate to each other - and represents useful reading for anyone who is unfamiliar with the topic, prior to progressing to the next Block, or, indeed, before undertaking any form of detailed study of steam theory or steam plant equipment.
The boiler is the heart of the steam system. The typical modern packaged boiler is powered by a burner which sends heat into the boiler tubes.
The hot gases from the burner pass backwards and forwards up to 3 times through a series of tubes to gain the maximum transfer of heat through the tube surfaces to the surrounding boiler water. Once the water reaches saturation temperature (the temperature at which it will boil at that pressure) bubbles of steam are produced, which rise to the water surface and burst. The steam is released into the space above, ready to enter the steam system. The stop or crown valve isolates the boiler and its steam pressure from the process or plant.
If steam is pressurised, it will occupy less space. Steam boilers are usually operated under pressure, so that more steam can be produced by a smaller boiler and transferred to the point of use using small bore pipework. When required, the steam pressure is reduced at the point of use.
As long as the amount of steam being produced in the boiler is as great as that leaving the boiler, the boiler will remain pressurised. The burner will operate to maintain the correct pressure. This also maintains the correct steam temperature, because the pressure and temperature of saturated steam are directly related.
The boiler has a number of fittings and controls to ensure that it operates safely, economically, efficiently and at a consistent pressure.
The quality of water which is supplied into the boiler is important. It must be at the correct temperature, usually around 80°C, to avoid thermal shock to the boiler, and to keep it operating efficiently. It must also be of the correct quality to avoid damage to the boiler.
Ordinary untreated potable water is not entirely suitable for boilers and can quickly cause them to foam and scale up. The boiler would become less efficient and the steam would become dirty and wet. The life of the boiler would also be reduced.
The water must therefore be treated with chemicals to reduce the impurities it contains.
Both feedwater treatment and heating take place in the feedtank, which is usually situated high above the boiler. The feedpump will add water to the boiler when required. Heating the water in the feedtank also reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen in it. This is important, as oxygenated water is corrosive.
Chemical dosing of the boiler feedwater will lead to the presence of suspended solids in the boiler. These will inevitably collect in the bottom of the boiler in the form of sludge, and are removed by a process known as bottom blowdown. This can be done manually - the boiler attendant will use a key to open a blowdown valve for a set period of time, usually twice a day.
Other impurities remain in the boiler water after treatment in the form of dissolved solids. Their concentration will increase as the boiler produces steam and consequently the boiler needs to be regularly purged of some of its contents to reduce the concentration. This is called control of total dissolved solids (TDS control). This process can be carried out by an automatic system which uses either a probe inside the boiler, or a small sensor chamber containing a sample of boiler water, to measure the TDS level in the boiler. Once the TDS level reaches a set point, a controller signals the blowdown valve to open for a set period of time. The lost water is replaced by feedwater with a lower TDS concentration, consequently the overall boiler TDS is reduced.
If the water level inside the boiler were not carefully controlled, the consequences could be catastrophic. If the water level drops too low and the boiler tubes are exposed, the boiler tubes could overheat and fail, causing an explosion. If the water level becomes too high, water could enter the steam system and upset the process.
For this reason, automatic level controls are used. To comply with legislation, level control systems also incorporate alarm functions which will operate to shut down the boiler and alert attention if there is a problem with the water level. A common method of level control is to use probes which sense the level of water in the boiler. At a certain level, a controller will send a signal to the feedpump which will operate to restore the water level, switching off when a predetermined level is reached. The probe will incorporate levels at which the pump is switched on and off, and at which low or high level alarms are activated. Alternative systems use floats.
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