Steam systems are dependable and resilient and sometimes lull users into a false sense of security…
I have been working in the manufacturing sector a long time and, when talking to plant managers, inevitably the topic of automation comes up. Is it a good thing? Of course it is, but where does it stop? It is immeasurably helpful in situations where the environment is harsh or dangerous, it is a relief when it can manage jobs that are tedious and repetitive. It is worth the cost for tasks that require a precision that is impossible for a human operator. But if the task needs the ability to react to changing conditions, when it has a complex set of actions that require freedom of movement and flexible decision making automation just doesn’t have the wherewithal to manage those processes.
I would argue that inspections generally fall into that category. There are too many variables to program into a machine. Inspectors are like superheroes, they crawl under things, they tap and prod and twist and go where others fear to tread. They have the know-how to use many types of diagnostic tools plus the experience to “just know” that something is not right. The problem with inspections is their data is obsolete the moment it is created. An inspector checks a heat pump to see that the thermostat gauge is working, the hoses are connected and that it doesn’t have any cracks or kinks, that filter is clean, the reverse valve is operational, no liquids are leaking out etc and moves on. As soon as he/she is out of hearing range the thermostat dies and the whole thing shuts down. It’s even worse for steam traps because they are inside heavy steel pipes and it requires an ultrasound wand placed on the trap at the outside to determine whether or not they are functioning.
Even workers standing right beside the trap have no clue whether or not it is operational.
So how do you decide how often to do inspections? Typically, different types of machinery have set inspection guidelines based on a number of characteristics including Failure Developing Period (FDP), pass/fail rate, duration and frequency of use, danger to user (for example equipment used to lift persons is required to be done more frequently), cost and complexity of inspection, certification requirements and various other criteria. For example, OSHA requires that each piece of heavy equipment pass inspection before every use. Other aspects of the guideline may include the method of inspection.
In the case of steam trap inspections the need is clear.
You can’t see or hear a failure (you need special equipment to test)
Failure rates are high (from 5 to 25%)
Energy losses are significant from failures
The cost of energy is high - both financially and in environmental detriment
There are many traps in every steam system (anywhere from 50 to 1000)
It makes so much sense to automate steam trap inspections. Having the traps monitored constantly by a plug and play solution that costs very little to install and maintain that sends failure alerts via email is brilliant. Hmmm that sounds familiar?! I look forward to the day that plant managers, union leaders, CFO’s, CEO’s and everyone in between can focus on strategy and productivity and workplace culture and other more important topics. All with the comfort of knowing that all the machinery supporting the business is running smoothly and if anything goes wrong the right person will know instantly and can do what is necessary to remedy the situation.