Thermal Fatigue

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Thermal Fatigue is a specific type of fatigue failure mechanism that is induced by cyclic stresses from repetitive fluctuations in the temperature of equipment. The degree of damage is affected by the magnitude and frequency of the temperature swings. Damage typically appears in the form of one or more cracks at the surface of the component. Unless remedied, cracks may propagate through the material eventually leading to failure.

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All materials of construction and several types of units and equipment can be affected by thermal fatigue. A few include:

  • Hot and cold stream mixing points
  • Areas where condensate and steam systems contact each other
  • Coke drum shells and skirts
  • Steam generating equipment
  • High temperature superheater and reheater tubes

Prevention, Inspection & Mitigation

The best way to prevent failure due to thermal fatigue is to minimize thermal stresses and cycling in the design and operating of equipment. Reducing stress raisers, controlling temperature fluctuations (especially during shutdown and start-up), and reducing thermal gradients can help prevent thermal fatigue. Taking proactive measures to prevent cool liquid from touching hot boundary walls, e.g. installing liners or sleeves, can also prove effective. This event occurs as products travel downstream from one processing unit to the next where successive units may operate at various temperatures.

Unfortunately, thermal fatigue cannot always be prevented. As a result, there are several ways to inspect for and mitigate thermal fatigue, including:

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Articles about Thermal Fatigue
January/February 2021 Inspectioneering Journal

Thermal fatigue, a specific form of fatigue driven by varying metal temperature gradients and ensuing differential thermal expansion, is generally most effectively mitigated by reducing the severity of metal temperature gradients.

November/December 2020 Inspectioneering Journal

Conventionally, three primary fatigue analysis methods have been used to estimate fatigue life; these are the stress-life (S-N) approach, the strain-life (ε-N) approach, and the fracture mechanics (crack growth) approach.

September/October 2020 Inspectioneering Journal

This article reflects the first in a series on damage mechanisms that will appear in this recurring Inspectioneering column entitled “Damage Control.” The inaugural topic discussed in this column is thermal fatigue.

January/February 2020 Inspectioneering Journal

This article addresses two failure events where inadequate attention to thermal fatigue led to premature equipment failure while specifying guidelines to help prevent such failures that can be a part of a plant's inspection and maintenance programs.

January/February 2020 Inspectioneering Journal

There are many sources and occurrences of metal fatigue in the chemical and refining industries. They range from low-cycle thermal stresses in an FCCU, to the relentless pressure cycling of a PSA, to the ultra-high cycles of a rotating pump.

Authors: Greg Garic, P.E.
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January/February 2015 Inspectioneering Journal

Avoiding cracking under pressure when managing high-energy piping systems is common subject matter in the power industry. Just as high-energy piping can give way to pressure, stress and fatigue, so can the people in charge of operating them when...

Authors: Pamela Hamblin
May/June 2014 Inspectioneering Journal

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    Downloads & Resources related to Thermal Fatigue
      Sponsored eBook

      This eBook offers practical guidance for, and real examples of, in-service degradation attributed to thermal fatigue. It provides a detailed discussion on thermal fatigue detection, characterization and evaluation, and mitigation or remediation.

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