Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Learn From History: Analysis of West, Texas Fertilizer Explosion

Industrial accidents range in severity and impact from minuscule to catastrophic. As operators, owners, or technicians involved with industrial operations, we all have a degree of moral, ethical, and legal responsibility to conduct our work in a manner that does not unduly endanger personnel, property, or the environment. Maintaining a diligent safety stance can be helped by reviewing industrial accidents at other facilities. There is much to learn from these unfortunate events, even when they happen in an industry that may seem somewhat removed from your own.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, or CSB, is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents. Below, find one of their video reenactments of an explosion that occurred in Texas in 2013, along with their findings regarding the cause of the incident. Check out the video and sharpen your senses to evaluate potential trouble spots in your own operation.

Contact Mountain States Engineering & Controls for any safety related information you may need concerning their products.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Specialized Gate Valve For Control Applications

Sliding gate process control valve
Sliding Gate
Process Control Valve
Schubert & Salzer
Gate valves are widely employed throughout the industrial process control field to start and stop the flow of a wide range of fluids and slurries. The common construction of a gate valve, with a solid wedge or disc that moves perpendicularly to the direction of fluid flow, tends to limit the application of this valve type to processes where fully open or fully closed are the desired valve positions. The comparatively large travel range of the wedge from open to closed, combined with a need to close the valve slowly to avoid hammering, saddles the common gate valve with a slow operating speed. Holding the gate at a partially open position has potential to induce vibration in the fluid, resulting in noise and possible negative impact on the fluid transport system. For this reason, common gate valves are generally not used in control applications requiring flow modulation .

The limiting factors just described can be mitigated or eliminated with a modification to the gate configuration. Instead of a solid gate, two plates with matching orifice matrices are mounted in the fluid path. One plate is fixed and the other is moved by the valve actuator, sliding through a motion range that expands flow area by increasingly matching the orifice openings on the two plates. This gate valve design is often called a sliding gate valve and it is easily recognizable through its pattern of slotted openings on the gate.

Some notable features of the sliding gate valve:

  • Straight through flow path with little turbulence.
  • Flow is broken into multiple small streams by the orifice pattern, reducing the impact of the flow force on the valve trim.
  • Suitable for fluid control operation, not just fully open or closed.
  • Travel distance and time from fully open to fully closed is significantly reduced, when compared to common gate valve.
  • Quieter operation.
  • Long service life.
  • Suitable for lower viscosity, generally clean, fluids
Every valve design has applications where it will tower over others in terms of overall performance. The variable orifice control valve (sliding gate valve) will prove to be the best choice for certain applications. Share your fluid process control challenges with an industrial control specialist. Combining your process expertise with their product application knowledge is a sure way to produce positive outcomes. 


Monday, February 8, 2016

A Framework For Thinking About Process Instrument Protection

industrial process steam piping and gauges
Provide adequate levels of protection for instruments
and controls that keep your process running
The performance of every process is critical to something or someone. Keeping a process operating within specification requires measurement, and it requires some element of control. The devices we use to measure process variables, while necessary and critical in their own right, are also a possible source of failure for the process itself. Lose the output of your process instrumentation and you can incur substantial consequences ranging from minor to near catastrophic.

Just as your PLC or other master control system emulates decision patterns regarding the process, the measurement instrumentation functions as the sensory input array to that decision making device. Careful consideration when designing the instrumentation layout, as well as reviewing these five common sense recommendations will help you avoid instrument and process downtime.

Process generated extremes can make your device fail.

Search and plan for potential vibration, shock, temperature, pressure, or other excursions from the normal operating range that might result from normal or unexpected operation of the process equipment. Develop knowledge about what the possible process conditions might be, given the capabilities of the installed process machinery. Consult with instrument vendors about protective devices that can be installed to provide additional layers of protection for valuable instruments. Often, the protective devices are simple and relatively inexpensive.

Don't forget about the weather.

Certainly, if you have any part of the process installed outdoors, you need to be familiar with the range of possible weather conditions. Weather data is available for almost anywhere in the world, certainly in the developed world. Find out what the most extreme conditions have been at the installation site....ever. Planning and designing for improbable conditions, even adding a little headroom, can keep your process up when others may be down.

Keep in mind, also, that outdoor conditions can impact indoor conditions in buildings without climate control systems that maintain a steady state. This can be especially important when considering moisture content of the indoor air and potential for condensate to accumulate on instrument housings and electrical components. Extreme conditions of condensing atmospheric moisture can produce dripping water.

Know the security exposure of your devices.

With the prevalence of networked devices, consideration of who might commit acts of malice against the process or its stakeholders, and how they might go about it, should be an element of all project designs. A real or virtual intruder's ability to impact process operation through its measuring devices should be well understood. With that understanding, barriers can be put in place to detect or prevent any occurrences.

Physical contact hazards

Strike a balance between convenience and safety for measurement instrumentation. Access for calibration, maintenance, or observation are needed, but avoiding placement of devices in areas of human traffic can deliver good returns by reducing the probability of damage to the instruments. Everybody is trained, everybody is careful, but uncontrolled carts, dropped tools and boxes, and a host of other unexpected mishaps do happen from time to time, with the power to inject disorder into your world. Consider guards and physical barriers as additional layers of insurance.

Know moisture.

Electronics must be protected from harmful effects of moisture. Where there is air, there is usually moisture. Certain conditions related to weather or process operation may result in moisture laden air that can enter device enclosures. Guarding against the formation of condensate on electronics, and providing for the automatic discharge of any accumulated liquid is essential to avoiding failure. Many instrument enclosures are provided with a means to discharge moisture. Make sure installation instructions are followed and alterations are not made that inadvertently disable these functions.

Developing a thoughtful installation plan, along with reasonable maintenance, will result in an industrial process that is hardened against a long list of potential malfunctions. Discuss your application concerns with your instrument sales engineer. Their exposure to many different installations and applications, combined with your knowledge of the process and local conditions, will produce a positive outcome.



Industrial Control Systems Have Unique Cybersecurity Challenges

industrial control system cybersecurity
Industrial control systems have special
cybersecurity aspects.
The International Society of Automation is offering a free white paper entitled “What Executives Need to Know About Industrial Control Systems Cybersecurity”. The article provides useful commentary and information that establishes the scope of cybersecurity in the industrial process control space and provides a basic framework for understanding how every process may be impacted by lax cybersecurity efforts. The author, Joseph Weiss, differentiates Industrial Control System (ICS) cybersecurity from that of organizational IT through a review of various attributes common to both types, including message confidentiality, integrity, time criticality, and more. Any reader’s awareness and understanding of the cybersecurity risks to their operation will be enhanced through this article. I finished reading the article wanting more on the subject, and ISA is certainly a resource for additional content.

A quote from article...
“Cyber incidents have been defined by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as occurrences that jeopardize the confidentiality, integrity, or availability (CIA) of an information system.”
ICS cybersecurity extends beyond preventing malicious outside intruders from gaining access. It is an important part of maintaining the overall operating integrity of industrial processes. A holistic approach is advocated to identify physical risk factors to the process and its componentry (more on that in this blog post), as well as vulnerabilities that may prevent exploitation by unauthorized parties. Weiss goes on to describe the role and qualifications of the ICS Cybersecurity Expert, essentially an individual that can function effectively as an IT cybersecurity tech with the added skills of an industrial control systems expert.

A synopsis of attack events is provided in the article, with the author’s conclusion that not enough is being done to secure industrial control systems and the risk exposure is substantial in terms of potential threats to personnel, environment, and economy. By providing your name and email address, you can obtain the white paper from the ISA website. Your time spent obtaining and reading the article will be well spent.


For any specific information or recommendations regarding our products and cybersecurity, do not hesitate to contact us directly. We welcome any opportunity to help our customers meet their process control challenges.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Limit Switches On Valve Actuators Are A Valuable Option

industrial valve electric actuator with limit switches
Electric valve actuator with optional
limit switches
Courtesy Crane
Limit switches are devices which respond to the occurrence of a process condition by changing their contact state. In the industrial control field, their applications and product variations are almost countless. Essentially, the purpose of a limit switch is to serve as a trigger, indicating that some design condition has been achieved. The device provides only an indication of the transition from one condition to another, with no additional information. For example, a limit switch triggered by the opening of a window can only deliver an indication that the window is open, not the degree to which it is open. Most often, the device will have an actuator that is positively activated only by the design condition and mechanically linked to a set of electrical contacts. It is uncommon, but not unknown, for limit switches to be electronic. Some are magnetically actuated, though most are electromechanical. This article will focus on limit switch designs and variants used in the control and actuation of industrial process valves.
Employed in a wide range of industrial applications and operating conditions, limit switches are known for their ease of installation, simple design, ruggedness, and reliability.
Valves, devices used for controlling flow, are motion based. The movable portions of valve trim create some degree of obstruction to media flow, providing regulation of the passage of the media through the valve. It is the movement of critical valve trim elements that limit switches are used to indicate or control. The movable valve trim elements commonly connect to a shaft or other linkage extending to the exterior of the valve body. Mounting electric, hydraulic, or pneumatic actuators to the shaft or linkage provides the operator a means to drive the mechanical connection, changing the orientation or position of the valve trim and regulating the media flow. Because of its positive connection to the valve trim, the position of the shaft or linkage is analogous to the trim position and can be used to indicate what is commonly referred to as “valve position”. Limit switches are easily applied to the valve shaft or linkage in a manner that can provide information or direct functional response to certain changes in valve position.
In industrial valve terms, a limit switch is a device containing one or more magnetic or electrical switches, operated by the rotational or linear movement of the valve.
What are basic informational elements that can be relayed to the control system by limit switches? Operators of an industrial process, for reasons of efficiency, safety, or coordination with other process steps, may need answers to the following basic questions about a process control valve:
  • Is the valve open? 
  • Is the valve closed? 
  • Is the valve opening position greater than “X”? 
  • Has the valve actuator properly positioned the valve at or beyond a certain position? 
  • Has the valve actuator driven the valve mechanism beyond its normal travel limits? 
  • Is the actuator functioning or failing? 
Partial or complete answers to these and other questions, in the form of electrical signals relayed by the limit switch, can serve as confirmation that a control system command has been executed. Such a confirmation signal can be used to trigger the start of the next action in a sequence of process steps or any of countless other useful monitoring and control operations.

Applying limit switches to industrial valve applications should include consideration of:
  • Information Points – Determine what indications are necessary or useful for the effective control and monitoring of valve operation. What, as an actual or virtual operator, do you want to know about the real time operational status of a valve that is remotely located. Schedule the information points in operational terms, not electrical switch terms. 
  • Contacts – Plan and layout a schedule of logical switches that will provide the information the operator needs. You may not need a separate switch for each information point. In some cases, it may be possible to derive needed information by using logical combinations of switches utilized for other discrete functions. 
  • Environment – Accommodate the local conditions and hazards where the switch is installed with a properly rated enclosure. 
  • Signal – The switch rating for current and voltage must meet or exceed those of the signal being transmitted. 
  • Duty Cycle – The cycling frequency must be considered when specifying the type of switch employed. Every switch design has a limited cycle life. Make sure your selection matches the intended operating frequency for the process. 
  • Auxiliary Outputs – These are additional contact sets that share the actuation of the primary switch. They are used to transmit additional signals with specifications differing from the primary signal. 
  • Other Actuator Accessories – Limit switches are often integrated into an accessory unit with other actuator accessories, most of which are related to valve position. A visual local indication of valve position is a common example. 
Switches and indicators of valve position can usually be provided as part of a complete valve actuation package, provided by the valve manufacturer or a third party. It is recommended that spare contacts be put in place for future use, as incorporating additional contacts as part of the original actuation package incurs comparatively little additional cost.

Employing a properly configured valve automation package, with limit switches delivering valve status or position information to your control system, can yield operational and safety benefits for the life of the unit. Good advice is to consult with a valve automation specialist for effective recommendations on configuring your valve automation accessories to maximize the level of information and control.