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The indirect heater is an optional piece of surface testing equipment that may
be required, depending on the characteristics of the well effluent, when a well
is being tested. This training page describes the purpose of the indirect heater,
shows where it's located in relationship to other surface testing equipment,
examines how the indirect heater works, and describes its main components.

An indirect heater is used to raise the temperature of the well effluent for the
following reasons:

Hydrate Prevention
Water is often present in the well effluent along with oil and gas. Under certain
flow conditions, the temperature of the well effluent can drop significantly.
This temperature drop can cause the particles of water and some of the light
hydrocarbons in the gas to solidify. The accumulation of solid particles can
make the valves along the flow path inoperative. If these solid particles are not
eliminated or prevented from forming, they can eventually block the flow line.
Natural gas hydrates have the appearance of hard snow and are formed at
temperatures above the normal freezing point of water when certain
hydrocarbons are dissolved in water under low temperature and high pressure
conditions. High velocities, pressure pulsations, and agitation accelerate this
phenomena. H2S and CO2 promote the formation of hydrates.
Viscosity Reduction
If the effluent has a high viscosity, then its ability to flow through the pipe is
impaired. Because viscosity is temperature-dependent, using an indirect heater
to raise the effluent temperature decreases its viscosity.
Emulsion Breaking
Under certain conditions the oil and water in the effluent are miscible, creating
an emulsion that will not separate unless the temperature of the effluent is
Foam Reduction
For certain types of crude oil, reducing the flow rate pressure causes some gas
bubbles to become encased in a thin film of oil, instead of being liberated from
the oil. This results in the dispersion of foam or froth throughout the oil,
creating what is known as foaming oil.
Foaming greatly reduces the flow rate capacity of oil and gas separators and
makes it difficult to accurately measure the oil flow rate. These problems,
combined with the potential loss of oil and gas because of improper
separation, emphasize the need for special equipment and procedures to
handle foaming oil. Heat is one of the main methods used to eliminate or
reduce foaming.
Increased Burner Efficiency
Reducing the oil viscosity improves the atomization of oil at the burner head.

Upon completion of this package, you should be able to:

Explain the operating principles of the indirect heater.

Explain how the temperature regulator for the indirect heater works.
Explain how the CMA flameout shutdown system for the indirect heater
Draw a diagram of the indirect heater circuits that the well effluent, propane,
compressed air, water, mercury, and diesel fluids flow through.
Write down a list of the safety rules to be observed when operating the indirect

Upon completion of the practical exercises for the indirect heater, you should be able

Identify all the components of the indirect heater by visual inspection.

Complete the steps required to prepare the indirect heater to flow fluids
through both coils.
Write down the steps required to pressure test the coils, then pressure test both
Follow recommended safety procedures when operating an indirect heater.
Divert the flow to bypass the indirect heater.

Principles of Operation
The indirect heater shown in the "Indirect Heater" diagram consists of a
nonpressurized water vessel that contains two coils through which well fluid passes.
The well fluid in the coils is indirectly heated by the water, which is heated by a flame
from a diesel burner. The diesel burner is contained inside a firetube. This system
causes the water to conduct heat to the coiled tubes, warming up the effluent. There is
no direct contact between the tubes carrying the fluid to be heated and the flame that's
used as a heat source. This system is intrinsically safer than a direct heater in which
the tubes containing the well effluent are in direct contact with the flame. A common
example of a direct heater is a domestic boiler.

After the well fluid passes through the first coil section, a choke assembly between
the coils allows the well to be controlled at the indirect heater instead of at the choke
manifold. An inlet manifold with three gate valves controls fluid flow and provides a
way to bypass the coils and choke. To maintain a preset temperature, the diesel flame
is regulated by an automatic control valve (ACV). A shut down valve cuts the diesel
supply if the pilot light is extinguished. The internal design of the vessel is such that
convection currents prevent any localized heating of the water because boiling would
impair the performance and life of the indirect heater.
The parts of the indirect heater are shown in the "Indirect Heater" diagram and are
described below. Click on the graphic or scroll down for detailed information on each

The firetube is shaped like a "U" tube. Combustion occurs on one side of the
"U" and the chimney is located on the other side. The firetube is mounted on a
flange and inserted inside the vessel. This configuration allows the firetube to
be easily removed for repair or replacement. It has brackets on the bottom or
on the side (or both) to prevent it from touching the vessel. Because the tube is
immersed in the water, its temperature is approximately the same as the water,
even though the combustion temperature inside the tube may be greater than
165o C (300o F).
If the tube touches the vessel, a hot spot will develop that can distort or melt
the tube and the vessel. To prevent this from occurring, a liner is located inside
the firetube in the combustion area. This protective device, made of a heat
resistant metal, prevents the flame from striking the tube wall, which could
cause the tube to overheat and fail. In the event the fire does strike the liner, it
will eventually melt and have to be replaced. If the damaged liner is promptly
replaced, the fire tube will not be damaged.

Diesel burner
The burner of an indirect heater, located at the inlet of the firetube, is designed
to produce a long, narrow flame pattern so the flame will not touch the walls.
It is centered in the firetube. It is made up of a mixing chamber where air
under pressure sprays the diesel into tiny droplets before it burns. The amount
of air passing through the flame arrestor (necessary for the diesel combustion)
can be adjusted with a flap. When the proper volume of diesel and volume of
air are mixed in the firetube, a blue flame results. The diesel is sent to the
burner with an air driven pump that typically sits on top of a diesel drum. The
flow rate of the diesel supplied to the burner is controlled by adjusting an air
pressure regulator on the pumping unit.
Pilot burner
The pilot burner is similar to the main burner, but it is much smaller. It does
not require compressed air because it burns propane gas. To maintain a
constant flame pattern, a pressure regulator is fitted on the propane line to the
pilot burner. A view glass allows the status (on/off) of the pilot light to be

Air ring
Located inside the firetube, the air ring sweeps out the firetube with fresh
compressed air before the pilot light is ignited. If any gas vapors are present
inside the firetube when the pilot light is ignited an accidental explosion could
The stack or chimney is a piece of pipe that fits over the outlet end of the
firetube. The chimney dissipates the unused heat to the atmosphere. Its height
varies from 2 to 6 meters, depending on the length of pipe required to properly
vent the smoke in the area where the heat exchanger is located. It is equipped
with a spark arrestor to prevent sparks from being released to the atmosphere
through the chimney.
Flame ignition system
This system consists of a high voltage coil and a spark plug to light the pilot. A
push button is used to create the spark that lights the pilot.
Temperature control system
A temperature controller senses the temperature of the water bath and signals
the diesel valve to open or close as required to hold the water temperature at
the set point on the controller.
The temperature control system consists of a thermostatic valve and a
temperature bulb. The thermostatic valve is designed to maintain the
temperature of the water bath at the desired value. A temperature bulb
immersed in the water activates the valve. When the burner is off, the
temperature bulb is cold and the valve is open. When the burner is lit, the
water bath temperature heats the bulb. The fluid inside the bulb and the valve
chamber expands, exerting a force on the valve stem and the spring that's
proportional to the temperature. At a certain temperature, the force of the
expanded fluid is higher than the force of the return spring so the valve closes,
cutting off the diesel supply. This extinguishes the flame in the diesel burner.
When the burner flame goes out, the water bath and the bulb cool down. This
heat loss causes the fluid in the expansion chamber to contract and the valve
opens by means of the return spring, restoring the diesel supply to burner.

The temperature controller is set for a delayed response of the diesel valve.
The delayed response setup allows the diesel burner to burn continuously, and
the intensity of the flame varies in response to temperature changes. In
contrast, when the temperature controller is set for a quick response, the diesel
burner burns at full rate when the diesel valve is fully open and is completely
extinguished when the diesel valve is fully closed. This on/off action increases
the likelihood of firetube burnout at full-rate. Consequently, the delayed
response setup is desirable because it stabilizes the firing rate and avoids full
firing even for short periods.

The following paragraphs describe how the diesel valve's delayed response
If the temperature of the water begins to fall, the temperature controller reacts
by opening the diesel valve more, increasing the intensity of the flame in the
diesel burner. It takes a few minutes to heat the volume of water in the vessel
to the set temperature. When the set temperature is reached, the diesel valve
does not return to its original position immediately. This delay allows the
water temperature to rise slightly above the set point.
If the temperature of the water begins to rise, the temperature controller reacts
by closing the diesel valve more, decreasing the intensity of the flame in the
diesel burner. It takes a few minutes to cool down the volume of water in the
vessel to the set temperature. When the set temperature is reached, the diesel
valve does not return to its original position immediately. This delay allows
the water temperature to fall slightly below the set point.

The drawback to the delayed response system is that the temperature is not
perfectly constant. As described in the previous paragraphs, it cycles around
the set temperature. This variation around the set temperature can affect
pressure readings at the separator.

Flameout shutdown
This safety system, known as the CMA control box, consists basically of a
three-way switch that's operated by the expansion of mercury when it is
exposed to heat. The purpose of this system is to shut off the diesel flow to the
burner when the propane gas pilot goes out.
When the heater is started, a manual knob opens the propane inlet orifice,
causing propane gas to flow to the ACV and to the pilot simultaneously. This
opens the ACV and allows the pilot to be lit. Once the pilot is lit, the mercury
in the sensor and capillary tube expands, pushing down the stem inside the
control box. In this position, the stem causes the propane inlet orifice to
remain open even when the manual reset knob is released. If the pilot flame
goes out, the mercury will cool down and contract, releasing the pressure on
the stem and causing the stem to retract. Under the action of the return spring,
the propane inlet will close. Because the ACV is no longer supplied with
propane, it will close by means of the return spring. Consequently, there is no
danger of diesel being supplied to the main burner when the pilot is not lit.
Flame arrestor
The flame arrestor is mounted on the inside of the door that permits access to
the burner. If a flame tries to move to the outside of the tube, the flame arrestor
will stop the flame. The flame arrestor is made of a thin aluminium sheet
wound in a spiral coil. The flame arrestor is also designed to let air from the
outside into the firetube, because the air is necessary for diesel combustion. If
the indirect heater was not equipped with a flame arrestor, a gas leak or the
presence of a flammable liquid outside the heater could be ignited by the
flame and cause a major fire or explosion.
Spark arrestor
Located on top of the chimney, the spark arrestor is made of a wire mesh.
Sparks from the diesel burner flame that travel up the chimney are stopped by
the spark arrestor before they can escape to the atmosphere.
Choke box
The choke box is designed to receive either a fixed or an adjustable choke. It is
located between the two coils in order to heat the fluid before it passes through
the choke. When the fluid arrives at the choke, it is preheated. This helps to
prevent the formation of hydrates in the fluid; or in the case of gas, it prevents

The indirect heaters are available in 3000 and 5000 psi pressure ratings. The 3000 psi
version is heli-portable. The heating capacity expressed in Btu/hr (British thermal unit
per hour) is also a main characteristic of the indirect heaters. The wide range of
indirect heaters makes it possible to select an indirect heater that can accommodate
the required well test without having to use equipment that is larger, more
complicated, or more expensive than the overall project requires.

This drawing shows an example of an indirect heater. Specifications are provided for
this drawing. If you would like a printed version of the tool specifications, please use
the PDF in the original graphics.

Indirect Heater Selection Guidelines

The principal criteria for selecting an indirect heater are:

Pressure rating requirements

Heating capacity
Safety regulations (an indirect heater is not accepted in some locations)
Available space (an indirect heater must be located in a safe area)

Additional considerations are:

Air supply for the diesel burner and sweep system of the indirect heater.
The indirect heater needs electricity for the ignition of the pilot light.
The indirect heater needs diesel supply and a diesel pump for the burner.
The indirect heater needs propane to supply the pilot light.
Water and corrosion inhibitors are needed to fill up the vessel of the indirect

The following is a list of key safety considerations for indirect heaters:

A perfect understanding of the diesel, propane, and air circuits is a prerequisite

to a successful and safe job.
Before starting or restarting the indirect heater, sweep out the firetube with
fresh compressed air. In the event that gas or diesel vapors are present, this
practice can avoid an accidental explosion.
Do not touch the water vessel with bare hands when the indirect heater is
Verify that the spark arrestor is installed on the chimney.
After the job, flush the coils thoroughly with soft water and fill them with
corrosion inhibitor before storage.
Never flow the well through the coils if a choke is not installed. Sand particles
or corrosive fluids can erode the threads in the choke box.
Do not use the adjustable choke to stop the flow, you can break the stem tip.
Do not use the gate valves on the indirect heater as chokes.
Do not transport the indirect heater when it is full of water. The frame cannot
support this extra weight.
Before starting the indirect heater, verify that the inlet and outlet valves of the
coils are open. If the coils are filled with liquid and the valves closed, the
thermal expansion that results can generate enough pressure to burst the coils.

For information about the preparation and functional checks for the indirect heater,
see the recommended steps in the Field Operating Handbook (FOH) for Surface Well
Testing. For information about equipment maintenance, see the maintenance manuals
for the indirect heater.

For this type of equipment, it is quite common to implement some modifications

which originate from the engineering center. The changes to be made are listed on
modification recaps (MR) and can be mandatory.

In this training page, we have discussed:

The purpose of the indirect heater and five reasons to use

The general description of the indirect heater.
The function of the parts of the indirect heater.
How the temperature regulation and flameout systems work.

Self Test
1. List five reasons to raise the temperature of the well effluent.
2. Why is this heater called an indirect heater?
3. How is the temperature of the indirect heater regulated?
4. Briefly explain how the flameout shutdown system works.
5. What is the important thing to do prior starting or restarting the indirect


The indirect heater is used to raise the temperature of the well effluent to prevent
hydrate formation, reduce fluid viscosity, and breakdown emulsions before the well
effluent enters the separator. The indirect heater uses a diesel burner to heat a water
bath which in turn heats the well effluent.

Features and Benefits

The indirect heater has the following features and benefits:

A choke assembly to control the well at the indirect heater instead of the choke
manifold. The fluid is heated before it passes through the choke.
An inlet manifold made of three gate valves to control the fluid flow and to
bypass the indirect heater if necessary.
The diesel flame is regulated by an automatic control valve (ACV) to maintain
a preset temperature.
A shutdown valve stops the diesel supply if the pilot light is extinguished.

The indirect heater permits testing of wells with effluent characteristics that would
normally impair the separation and metering process if the effluent were not heated.


An indirect heater is used whenever the well effluent needs to be heated up before it
enters the separator.

As safety regulations become more and more stringent, the indirect heater is
progressively being replaced by the steam exchanger.
Indirect heater:


The indirect heater is used to raise the temperature of

well effluents for preventing hydrates, reducing viscosity
and breaking down emulsions.

The skid mounted indirect heater diesel fired is

composed of:

a vessel for water bath atmospheric pressure,

split coil 4 in. XXH x XXH with intermediate
choke, adjustable choke with 1 1/2 in. seat and
solid stem tip.
a manifold equipped with three gate valves 5000
psi VVP 3 in.
a diesel shut down valve actuated by pilot light
stoppage and by temperature controller
a flame arrestor on burner air inlet
a lifting frame without panels