Profit-seeking companies are discovering the bottom-line benefits of steam system reliability and management.

Even small improvements made to steam systems can yield big benefits in operating reliability and efficiency. A typical industrial plant has an average of 124 steam traps.

Traditionally, businesspeople see steam simply as a source of heat and power. Today’s cost-conscious industrial professionals also are seeing it as a source of potential to increase the corporation profits: Achieving steam system reliability can increase profits by an average of 6.4 percent.

A high percentage of the steam systems at use in industrial applications today are operating far below world-class standards in efficiency, reliability and safety. Industry professionals are finding that even small improvements made to their often-ignored steam systems can yield big benefits in operating reliability and efficiency as well as contribute handsomely to an organization’s bottom line. In a competitive market, one cannot ignore the savings achievable by improving a neglected steam system.

The nature of steam makes it one of the least noticeable candidates for cost cutting. It is relatively plentiful and, at the same time, can be used and reused. Both steam and water are clean, odorless and tasteless. Steam boasts a highly usable energy content and gives up heat at a constant temperature. The constant pressure, temperature and volume characteristics of steam make it a highly predictable and reliable energy source to heat or power processes or, through turbine drives, to generate electricity. Steam even offers the value of relatively effortless distribution and control.

While steam is a highly effective means of energy transmission, the mismanagement of steam systems can lead to a significant waste of resources. Ultimately, steam is highly effective only if people know how to use it correctly.

In this marketplace, the cost of common carelessness with steam is growing rapidly. For example, a single steam trap blowing through on a distribution system may cost a facility about $2,800 annually. A typical industrial plant has an average of 124 steam traps, and steam system auditors estimate that a typical industrial plant that fails to do preventive, predictive maintenance will have approximately 28 percent of its steam traps in failure mode at any given time.

Steam traps are far from the only sources of reliability and efficiency losses. Steam valves, condensers, heat exchangers, thermocompressors, steam coils and piping also cause steam reliability and efficiency losses. When working properly, these components are extremely efficient; when mismanaged and not working, they decrease steam reliability and efficiency.

The replacement of lost steam results in higher fossil fuel emissions and greater difficulty in complying with the dictates of the federal Clean Air Act.

Other Benefits of Improving Reliability

Steam or energy loss is irresponsible from more than merely a cost standpoint. The replacement of lost steam results in higher fossil fuel emissions and greater difficulty in complying with the dictates of the federal Clean Air Act. Cost-cutting opportunities also exist through the use of higher burner efficiencies and better steam distribution systems, which allow even systems that are not losing steam to benefit from better steam system management.

The owners of efficient steam systems in some geographic regions also can be rewarded with a financial return for their maintenance efforts. Clean Air Act regulations provide for trading surplus emissions “credits” among designated source facilities. Steam efficiency programs generate these credits by reducing fuel inputs, thus lowering combustion emissions below target thresholds. When facilities restrict more than their share of emissions, the surplus reduction becomes a credit that can be sold to underperforming facilities in the same geographic area.

In addition, experts agree that manufacturers interested in maximizing worker safety and productivity would profit from closer attention to their plant’s steam systems. Steam can be a dangerous commodity even in pressures as low as 15 psi. The obvious need to protect employee welfare is compounded by the need to follow the regulatory guidelines of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, and other government agencies, both to avoid fines and to minimize the bite of constantly spiraling insurance costs. In some cases, documented compliance with basic steam safety training and standards can result in an immediate, tangible financial benefit in reduced insurance rates.

Professionals in the industry have learned through experience that a steam system that fails to properly maintain pressure or temperature can result in producing products of substandard quality. Worse yet, steam systems failures are often serious enough to shut down a manufacturing facility.

Training should look at the overall steam system, including the burners, boilers, piping, heat transfer, steam traps, the condensate return system, and root-cause analysis and code compliance.

The Role of Training

One key to successful steam utilization -- and to reaping the benefits just described -- is to provide effective steam system training for employees. While the solution seems simple, there is a difference between a training program and an effective training program.

Industry experts in steam training note that most successful programs share a set of common attributes. Companies seeking to institute training that results in the fastest return on their investment in time and financial resources would be wise to seek these attributes in any training program they select.

Comprehensive Curriculum. Productive training takes every aspect of the overall steam system into account, including boilers, piping, heat transfer, steam traps and the condensate return system as well as root-cause analysis and code compliance. An outside training consultant should have unbiased knowledge of various manufacturers’ products and the way these products interact with other components within a given system. While typically inexpensive and sometimes free, training delivered by an equipment supplier may be narrowly focused on the specific component manufactured or sold.

Documentation. Effective long-term training provides proper documentation, both before training begins and after sessions are completed. Quality trainers commonly insist on starting their work by performing an initial system evaluation, and typically finish by leaving behind a set of materials to reinforce the ongoing process of in-house steam education. The training program also should provide a plant-specific overview of each steam system to serve as a system reference for day-to-day maintenance and repair.

Accountability. A company’s commitment to ongoing training remains strongest when it is matched with documented evidence that steam system reliability was achieved, and energy, downtime and product losses were decreased. One way to achieve this accountability is to establish a person or a team of people to oversee the training program. Set benchmarks of the existing system before training begins (see sidebar). While most facilities function with no data on steam system energy, manpower or production utilization, benchmarks are relatively easy to establish and are the foundation of the documentation. Benchmarking information also provides the justification for capital improvements that may reduce overhead costs in the long term.

Establishing a steam system team and assigning accountability for the steam system are some of the first steps to reliability. Without a person or team assigned accountability, the steam system will continue to be unreliable. Who needs to be involved in this process? Everyone. A neglected and unreliable steam system will affect everyone: safety, environmental, production, profits, engineering and maintenance.

A single steam trap blowing through on a distribution system may cost a facility about $2,800 annually.

Sidebar: Benchmarking Your Steam System

Every business must measure itself against the standards set by each industry’s leader regardless of where those leaders are located. To achieve world-class performance, you must target the best in steam system performance and aim above that mark. Remember, the benchmark will have progressed while you were benchmarking yesterday’s data!

Benchmarking should be designed to find the “what” and the “how.” Among the questions your benchmarking should answer are:

  • What areas of the system can be improved?
  • What actions can you take to create those improvements?

What is the True Steam Cost? One of the first benchmarks -- or the beginning of any steam system reliability program -- is to understand the true cost of steam. There two ways of assigning a cost of steam. One is the unloaded cost, which is only the cost of the fuel to generate the steam. The other steam cost is a loaded cost, which takes in to consideration all the different costs to produce the steam. Examples of the costs are capital, operation, operating personnel, maintenance personnel, maintenance cost and other overhead expenses included.

With today’s fuel prices increasing, the cost of steam will be increasing. Can you afford to operate your steam system less than efficiently and reliably?