The Forgotten Areas of an Oil Refinery | RefinerLink

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The Forgotten Areas of an Oil Refinery

By Steve Pagani

Jun 29, 2018

Quick tips on understanding vulnerabilities of an oil refinery.


If you ask most people that work in a refinery, they’ll tell you that the Utilities, Offsites, and Sulfur Plants are hugely important where they work. After all, not many refineries can operate without reliable steam, cooling water, or electricity; nor can they operate without a sulfur plant or sufficient tankage.


Yet most every refinery faces a challenge with getting sufficient money and effort invested in these areas. So I’m not going to waste a lot of words telling you about how important these areas are but rather give you some items to think about as you face the common challenges in these areas.



Steam Supply


  • Always operate with sufficient steam cushion so that no major impacts are felt if one of the major boilers trips.
  • Have a steam shedding procedure available and more importantly… updated. It’s critical that steps are taken quickly in the event that the steam system begins to lose pressure
  • Be diligent in monitoring quality around your steam system. This includes boiler feed water, steam, and condensate. Many problems can be avoided if the proper parameters are monitored.
  • When was the last time steam system pressures were reviewed?  Is there an area of the refinery where you are pinched on temperatures? 



Cooling Water


  • A contingency plan for loss of cooling water needs to be available. Drills for this scenario should also be performed so that everyone involved is aware of how to execute the plan.
  • Like all other areas, the critical parameters for cooling water should also be closely monitored. Many simple activities like backflushing exchangers and controlling conductivity are often taken for granted but should not be overlooked.
  • Many refiners neglect to focus on the water process before it enters the refinery. Mechanical filtration is often overlooked and debris can have material impacts on cooling water capacity.
  • Lastly, how well maintained are those towers? We’ve all heard the stories about tower collapses.  Do you have a well-defined inspection plan?





Boiler Feed Water and Condensate


  • Controlling your boiler feed water quality is vital for having good quality steam and condensate. Controlling hardness, pH, and oxygen content is extremely important for every system. Not watching these qualities carefully can quickly create big problems.



Sulfur Plant


  • Understand your acid gas and sour water balances. Too often, knee jerk reactions are made when acid gas and sour water capacities are pushed to the limit. It’s important to know where the sources of each are and which ones can be trimmed back most efficiently.
  • If you operate close to SRU incinerator emission constraints, take a quick look at sulfur recovery in your Claus reactors.  There are some refiners who operate reactor outlets well above the dew point buffer temp, thus resulting in lower sulfur conversion.
  • How well are your tail gas analyzers calibrated? The sulfur conversion reaction is an equilibrium reaction that requires a fine balance of H2S and SO2. Skewed analyzer readings can reduce sulfur recovery.
  • Most of the safety concerns in sulfur plants are focused around H2S awareness. While this is justifiable, many tend to forget about the hazards of molten sulfur exposure during startups and unit upsets.  Simple devises such as Sultraps can be installed to improve SRU personnel safety.





  • Everyone knows a refinery can’t operate without sufficient tankage but if this area isn’t properly monitored, it can create problems for the entire refinery. Simple things like making sure the operating envelopes for tanks are not exceeded can make all the difference.
  • Have you even been constrained by wharf loading and offloading rates?  Seem to always need bigger pumps but never have enough justification to get them?
  • If you thought that your rail system was taxed before, it may get worse as we all explore new ways to deliver crude to refineries by rail.  A simple fix may be to evaluate your staffing plan to see if adequate crews are employed to meet switch requirements.



I’m sure that I have not captured everything, so please feel free to add more thoughts and share your experiences.

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  • :   Another forgotten area in many refineries is water chemistry control in waste heat boilers where they are not treated with the same care as conventional boilers. I have seen many of these steam generators, including those in sulfur plants being operated

    Apr 26, 2013

  • :   hello

    Feb 17, 2016

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