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Proceedings of the ASME/USCG 2017

4th Workshop on Marine Technology and Standards

October 16-17, 2017, Washington, DC, USA

Laboratory Testing of Safety Relief Valves
Thomas Kegel (tkegel@ceesi.com) and William Johansen (bjohansen@ceesi.com)
Colorado Engineering Experiment Station, Inc. (CEESI)
54043 WCR 37, Nunn, Colorado 80648

Introduction the user needs to decide if the uncertainty in predicted

flowrate, if available, is acceptable for the application.
Industrial fluid handling and storage systems can ex-
perience excessive pressure resulting from process up- This paper describes several aspects of PRV testing. The
sets. A catastrophic component failure can compromise discussion begins with design descriptions and operat-
personnel safety or damage property. A pressure relief ing equations for orifice and venturi meters. Next sev-
valve (PRV) represents a common design element that eral PRV operating equations are presented along with
allows material to be vented to reduce pressure and re- a generic valve design. Flow meter and valve similarities
store safe conditions. Obviously selecting the proper and differences are noted. The third section consists of
PRV requires specification of the relief pressure. Less five case studies based on PRV calibration data. The case
obvious might be the requirement of confirming that studies illustrate several types of tests and relate the data
the flowrate is adequate to vent the system volume. to laboratory experience with flow meter calibration.

The relationship between discharge pressure and flow- Flowmeter Equations

rate must ultimately be based on laboratory testing. In
the absence of laboratory data the predicting the flow- The conservation equations of energy (Bernoulli) and
rate capacity will be higher. Common practices include mass (continuity) are applied to provide a simplified
testing one sample valve of a particular size and design mathematical description of the flow through a con-
or extrapolating to a similar design. Uncertainty is al- verging-diverging channel. The differential producing
ways introduced when a group of products is character- flow element represents one common industrial appli-
ized based on a few samples. In the current application cation of the generalized analysis. The volume (qV) and
mass (qm) flowrates of fluid through a differential pro-
∆P ducing flow element are given by:
 π  Cd d Y 2∆p
qv =   [Eq. 1]
 4  1 − β4 ρ

π C d Y
Figure 1: Typical Venturi Meter qm =   d 2ρ∆p [Eq. 2]
 4  1 − β4
∆P ρ = density
p1, p2= two pressure measurements
∆p = p1-p2: differential pressure
d = throat or bore diameter
FLOW Free Jet
D = inlet or tube diameter
β = d/D
Cd = discharge coefficient
Y= gas expansion factor
Figure 2: Typical Orifice Meter
57 Published with permission.

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A typical Venturi meter is shown in Figure 1. The shape The discharge coefficient accounts for Reynolds num-
of the venturi provides complete guidance from a larger ber effects that reduce the mass flowrate from the ideal
flow area (inlet) to a smaller flow area (throat). The ∆p case. In a Venturi, the dominant Re effect arises from a
is the difference between inlet (p1) and throat (p2) pres- boundary layer that forms along the internal wall. The
sures. presence of a low velocity boundary layer reduces the
flowrate and Cd decreases in proportion. An example of
A typical orifice meter, shown in Figure 2, consists of a Venturi calibration results is contained in Figure 3. The
sharp edged orifice installed within a 15D - 30D long open symbols represent data points, the lines represent
meter tube. The flow forms a free jet downstream of the curve fits of the data. The equation formats match those
plate, the acceleration of the fluid into the jet produces that traditionally predict boundary layer thickness
the reduced pressure (p2). changes with Reynolds number. The laminar boundary
layer is much more sensitive to Re. Most Venturi meters
The Reynolds Number (Re) is defined as: are designed to operate at high Re to reduce the sensi-
4q 4ρq v
Re = m = [Eq. 3a]
πdµ πdµ The flow through an orifice plate is unguided, a free jet
forms adjacent to the outlet pressure tap. The discharge
coefficient accounts for jet contraction in response to
the inlet velocity profile, which is in turn a function of
4q m 4ρq v
Re = = [Eq. 3b] Reynolds number. The orifice meter data contained in
πDµ πDµ Figure 4 represent part of the database of on which Ref-
erence 1 is based. Like the Venturi the Cd is nominally
where μ is the absolute viscosity. constant over the higher Re range. Unlike the venturi
the Cd rises at low Re, the result of very different under-
The Reynolds number is the ratio if inertial forces to lying physical behavior.
viscous forces. The inertial forces quantify the tendency
of the fluid to keep moving, the momentum; the viscous The random variations in the data of Figure 4 are quite
forces quantify the tendency of the fluid motion to be a bit smaller in the low Reynolds number range. These
retarded. The Reynolds number allows for kinematic data were obtained in a liquid calibration system while
similarity between two systems; in flow measurement the higher Re data were obtained using compressed gas.
the two systems are the calibration laboratory and the These results are typical; gas calibration systems are
field installation. The Reynolds number is calculated more difficult to control because of larger variations in
based on a characteristic length that is relevant to the pressure and temperature.
particular application. With flow measurement either
the inlet or throat diameter is used. The gas expansion factor accounts for the change in
density between the two pressure taps. Typically Y< 1,

1.02 0.625

1.00 0.620
Discharge Coefficient
Discharge Coefficient

0.98 Turbulent boundary layer
0.97 0.610
Laminar boundary layer

0.94 0.600
0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 0.0 0.5 1.0 1.5 2.0 2.5
Reynolds Number [thousands] Reynolds Number [millions]

Figure 3: Typical Venturi Meter Data Figure 4: Typical Orifice Meter Data

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the exact value depends on the thermodynamic process The control valve coefficient, Cv, represents another way
as the fluid moves from between the taps. It is often to represent valve data. Below is one of several equa-
characterized as a function of the measured pressure tions given in Reference 2:
values, three examples are:
CV = [Eq. 8]
Y = f(∆p/p1) [Eq. 4a] NY xP1ρ1
Y = f(∆p/p2) [Eq. 4b]
or where:
Y = f(p2/p1) [Eq. 4c] Cv = valve coefficient
W = mass flowrate
Liquids are considered incompressible and Y=1. In gen- N = unit conversion coefficient
eral the curves predicting Cd and Y are unique for an Y = gas expansion factor
individual meter. Calibration is always recommended P1 = inlet pressure
for critical applications. ρ1 = inlet density
x = ∆P/P1
Pressure Relief Valve Equations
The N coefficient varies in value depending on the en-
The flow through a pressure relief valve is governed by gineering units. The values of Cv and Y are determined
the same principles as a differential producing flowme- from laboratory test data. As noted Reference 2 con-
ter. This section describes similarities and difference in tains several multiple equations to include the follow-
the presentation and interpretation of laboratory data. ing conditions:

One way to represent PRV data is to define an effective • gas or liquid

area (Ae): • low (laminar) or high (turbulent) Reynolds number
• installed fittings
2 • choked flow
π C d Y
Ae =   d 2 [Eq. 5]
 4  1 − β4 Several parameters appear in other equations. A Reyn-
olds number factor (FR) accounts for reduced flow at
Applying Equations 1, 2 and 5 results in: low Re. A factor (FP) accounts for the pipe and fittings
installed adjacent to the PRV; either during testing or
∆p in the final installation. Choked flow is a special case
q v = Ae [Eq. 6]
where the pressure drop is sufficiently high enough so
that the local velocity reaches the speed of sound. Op-
eration at the speed of sound is outside the scope of this
q m = A e ρ∆p [Eq. 7] paper.

Pressure Relief Valve Operation

The differential ∆p is the difference between pressure
vessel and barometric pressures. Selecting the proper
Figure 5 shows the conceptual sketch of a generic pres-
density can be a challenge because it might be unknown
sure relief valve in the open and closed position. It is
during a process upset. The terms d and β are constant
bolted to the top a pressure vessel being protected. The
aside from minor thermal expansion while the terms
spring holds the valve disc and seal against the seat. The
Cd and Y might be constant depending on valve design.
housing is a rigid structure that supports the spring load
The effective area is constant if all four variables are
as well as providing some protection from the ambient
constant. Like a flowmeter Cd, constant Ae simplifies the
environment. The nut at the top of the housing repre-
task of predicting field performance by reducing the
sents a method to adjust the spring tension and change
sensitivity to an independent variable like flowrate or
the valve characteristics.
Reynolds number.


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Seal Disc ∆P



Figure 5: Generic Valve in Closed (left) and Open (right) Positions

The vessel pressure acting over the disc area increases flow path is difficult to predict, another characteristic
until sufficient to overcomes spring force and the valve that can be determined from laboratory testing.
opens. The arrows represent the flow path of the vented
material; the housing is perforated to allow venting. As One common feature not shown in Figure 5 is a physi-
shown in Figure 1 a Venturi is characterized by a gradu- cal stop that limits spring compression. The stop helps
al change in area along the flow path. In contrast an ori- maintain a constant open flow area at higher flowrates.
fice is characterized by a single abrupt change in area.
The area variation of the flow path in Figure 5 does not Test Data Examples
resemble that of either meter. The effect of a complex
This section describes examples of data from five tests.
The cases illustrate a variety of PRV tests, based on both
liquid and gas, as well as a variety of data presentations.
6.0 The discussion compares and contrasts test results with
flow meter calibrations.
Effecve Area


4.0 Case 1
Data from the first valve test are contained in Figures
2.0 6a and 6b. In each graph the abscissa is Reynolds Num-
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
Reynolds Number [millions]
ber with nominal valve diameter as the characteristic
length. The ordinate is effective area as defined by Equa-
6.6 tion 5. Figure 6b shows a limited range of the same data
as Figure 6a. The engineering units of effective area
can vary depending on the units selected or the vari-
ables in Equation 5. The data presented as case studies
Effecve Area

is focused on how Ae varies as opposed to the absolute
value. When laboratory data are applied to the field it is
5.8 important that consistent engineering units are applied
when calculating Ae.
0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
Reynolds Number [millions] The Figure 6 data define very different curves above and
below Re = 0.4 million. Much of the lower Re range data
define a curve similar to the Venturi curve of Figure 3
Figures 6a (upper) and 6b (lower) : Case 1 Test Re-
suggesting a similar boundary layer based behavior.

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values to form a single data point. Each symbol in Fig-
ure 6 represents an individual sample. Analysis of in-
dividual readings data can often yield additional infor-
Valve Coefficient, Cv

mation about the test stability as well as supporting an
uncertainty analysis. The data of Figure 4, for example,
quantify the random variations in liquid and gas cali-

756 Case 2
295 300 305 310 315 320
Flowrate [sc, thousands]
Data from the second valve test are contained in Fig-
ure 7. The abscissa is flowrate and the ordinate is Cv as
Figure 7: Case 2 Test Results defined by Equation 8. As stated above in reference to
Ae, the engineering units for Cv vary depending on the
units of Equation 8. In the present discussion the shape
Two observations are noted: First, the change in curva-
of the curve is more important than the absolute value.
ture for Re < 0.2 million is not generally observed with
These data were obtained over a very narrow range of
venturi meters. Second, the variation in Ae is much larg-
conditions which is typical of many valve tests. While
er than the typical range of Venturi Cd values. Both ob-
the data range is narrow, a trend is noted is the data; a
servations are attributed to an assumed gradual change
1% change in Cv results from a 5% change in flowrate.
in valve disc position with increasing pressure.
The data are only applicable over the narrow range, op-
eration outside the range requires extrapolation.
Laboratory data such as those in Figure 6 are applied
to the installed conditions to predict flowrate based on
A first impression might suggest that the observed
differential pressure and density. The values of Ae are
trend represents operation where the valve disc posi-
nominally constant for Re > 0.4 million meaning that
tion changes with pressure. This behavior would result
small variations in pressure or density will not affect the
in a positive slope that is not present in Figure 7. An-
flowrate capacity. The region of constant Ae likely rep-
other explanation would be a valve flow geometry that
resents valve operation where an increase in pressure
resembles an orifice meter, the low Re data of Figure 4
does not result in movement of the valve disc.
shows a negative slope. Confirming evidence can gen-
erally be obtained based on calibration over a broader
Ideally test data are obtained over the range of antici-
flowrate range.
pated field operating conditions (pressure, temperature
composition). Generally the valve cannot be tested us-
One parameter that has not been discussed is the gas
ing actual fluid and the laboratory uses a “surrogate”
expansion factor. In general Y decreases with increas-
fluid that exhibits similar behavior. The Reynolds num-
ing flowrate which corresponds to increasing ∆P/P.
ber is the most common parameter applied to achieve
The slope of the data of Figure 7 could be the result of
similarity. Sometimes the vented fluid composition is
a decrease in Y. The gas expansion factor is a measure
unknown because the fluid system operating in an up-
of Mach number which is important to understanding
set condition. In this case calculating a Re value can be
choked flow. As noted above, choked flow is beyond the
scope of the present paper.
Figure 6b includes a pair of dashed lines that form a
Case 3
statistical interval that contains 95% of the data; within
this interval it can be stated that Ae = 6.26 ±1%. The
The first two cases are based on data obtained over
PRV user can decide if the uncertainty is adequate to
steady state conditions. Case 3 is based on observing
assume a constant Ae in the application.
how instrument reading change under dynamic condi-
tions. The data are contained in Figure 8; the abscissa is
Common laboratory practice is to average instrument
readings over a time interval and process the averaged

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120 35 The initial flowrate data represent the process of charg-
100 30 ing the buffer tank.
P1 25
80 P2 P3
Returning to the graph, flowrate begins at the “start to

Flowrate [lb/s]
Pressure [psi]

60 P4 discharge pressure” point at t = 146 sec. This is the first
40 data point (P1) of four that are reported to the customer.
The interval 146 < t < 160 sec. characterizes the disc be-
20 Flowrate 5
ginning to move way from the seat as the pressure force
0 0 compresses the spring. The pressure decreases with
50 100 150 200 250 300 350
Elapsed Tme [sec] flowrate while the laboratory control valve is moving to
increase pressure; interaction between the valves causes
the small instability observed in Figure 8. As noted ear-
Figure 8: Case 3 Test Results lier the instabilities are more common with compress-
ible flow. The size of a buffer tank can affect the ampli-
tude of instabilities.
elapsed time and the ordinates show flowrate and pres-
The pressure and flowrate curves each reach maximum
values at t = 210 sec.; the peak values represent an over-
As the test begins the flowrate curve does not indicate
shoot condition that allows the target pressure to be ap-
zero flow; this behavior is a result of the test design. First,
proached from a higher value. The conditions are well
the flow standard is selected to best measure flowrate at
controlled resulting in the steady pressure and flowrate
nominal valve operating conditions; at lower flowrates
data observed for 230 < t < 280 sec. Averaged data are
it is operating below the best measurement range. Sec-
reported at t = 230 and 280 sec. (P2, Q2 and P3, Q3); the
ond, a buffer tank is installed between a control valve
two sets of data bracket the requested pressure (85 psia).
and the PRV under test to ensure an adequate supply of
For 280 < t < 300 sec. the control valve is closing with
compressed air to maintain steady flow at high pressure.
accompanying decreases in pressure and flowrate. At t
= 311 sec. the pressure rises slightly as a result of the
closed valve being bubble tight (P4).

Case 4
Effecve Area

Two tests of the same valve illustrate valve dynamics
Increasing and how they are potentially distorted by the test setup.
5 Pressure
Figure 9a shows a hysteresis loop exhibited by a PRV;
the abscissa is pressure and the ordinate is effective area.
220 240 260 280 300 320 Each symbol represents an instrument reading; blue
Pressure [psi] and red represent increasing and decreasing pressure.

20 Pressure is seen to be gradually building up to 290 psi

with no flow (Ae = 0). Once the valve begins to open,
the flowrate increases rapidly, recorded as Ae, settling
Effecve Area

Pressure to a steady value that is stable over a pressure range. As
Pressure noted above, steady Ae is beneficial for the user.
Figure 9b shows an earlier test of the same PRV. The
clearly defined hysteresis loop at 250 < P < 300 psi is
220 240 260 280 300 320 missing; instead the Ae value are unstable. Each test in-
Pressure [psi] cludes a buffer tank as described in Case 3; the first (9b)
contains 480 cubic feet, the second (9a) contains 700
Figure 9a (upper) and 9b (lower): Case 4 Test Results cubic feet. The larger volume likely results in more re-

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200 References

15 Turns
1. API 14.3, “Orifice Metering of Natural Gas and
Effecve Area

12 Turns
Other Related Hydrocarbon Fluids—Concentric,
9 Turns Square-edged Orifice Meters,” 2016.
6 Turns 2. ANSI/ISA–75.01.01, “Flow Equations for Sizing
3 Turns Control Valves,” 2002.
0 500 1000 1500 2000 2500
Flowrate [gpm]

Figure 10: Case 5 Test Results

alistic PRV performance data. The lesson learned from

these tests is to properly design the test setup.

Case 5

The previous case illustrates that the PRV spring con-

tributes two flow characteristics not present in tradi-
tional flowmeters: First, the physical flow area increases
with pressure as the spring is compressed. Second, in-
stability can complicate testing and data interpretation.
One laboratory solution is to replace the spring with a
mechanism that holds the disc in a fixed position and
allows the flow characteristics to be documented. Data
from such a test are shown in Figure 10. Disc position is
proportional to a number of turns; the graph shows five
disc positions. Each curve exhibits a linear region where
Ae does not vary with flowrate. As expected both Ae and
the linear range flowrate increase with the number of
turns. Each curve exhibits an increase in Ae at low flow-
rate, much like the orifice data of Figure 4.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper discussed laboratory testing of gas and liq-

uid pressure relief valves. The first section described the
operation and equations of two differential producing
flowmeters. The next section compared and contrasted
the valves and flowmeter equations. The paper con-
cludes with five case studies.

The important lesson is that the operation of a pressure

relief valve can only be fully characterized based labora-
tory testing.


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