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Steam Traps

Inspecting and Repairs

(If it’s not Scheduled, It Won’t Happen)

A simple, economical steam system consists of certain basic components:

• a boiler that generates steam

• piping that delivers steam from the boiler and returns condensate to the boiler
• a heat exchanger where heat is transferred to perform work
• a steam trap

A steam trap is a
device that
senses the
difference between
steam (non-
condensable gases)
and condensate. It
assures retention of
steam within the
system, while
condensate and

There are several different kinds of steam trap designs, varying according to application demands and requirements.

An effective steam trap maximizes the efficiency of a steam system in three ways:

• It keeps the system filled with dry steam (saturated steam without entrained condensate)
• It removes by-products (condensate and air) from the system that form insulating barriers that prevent
efficient and effective heat transfer
• It makes the hot condensate available for recycling, reducing both waterside care and energy costs at the

Mechanical traps operate by using the difference in density between steam and condensate. A float within the trap
detects the variance in weight between a gas and a liquid.

Thermostatic traps detect the variation in temperature between steam and condensate at the same pressure. The
sensing device operates the valve in response to changes in the condensate temperature and pressure.

Thermodynamic Traps use volumetrics and pressure differences that occur when water changes state into gas.
These changes act upon the valve directly.

An excellent site to learn much more about the different types of steam traps and their functions is at
www.steamuniversity.com. Provided by Armstrong International.

At this website, they have animations of each type of steam valve, explaining their operations.
Steam Trap Inspection Methods
Steam Trap Testing Facts
Proper steam trap maintenance is essential to a steam system. Faulty Steam traps are tested to determine if they are
steam traps not only waste energy, they can contribute to pipe functioning properly and not cold plugging or
erosion due to poor water quality and contaminants allowed to pass failing in an open position and allowing live
steam to escape into the condensate return
down stream. Faulty steam traps can negatively affect product
system. There are four basic ways to test steam
quality in various processes such as paper, food or chemicals, and traps: visual, temperature, sound and electronic.
even add to environmental pollution.

Steam Traps should be inspected routinely. The frequency of inspection is often determined by application. As an
example, steam systems used just for facility comfort (i.e. heating) are routinely inspected annually while systems
that utilize steam as part of a manufacturing process might be inspected anywhere from biannually to quarterly,
depending on the impact steam has on the process. While there are many steam trap users who routinely provide
“preventive maintenance” by replacing trap elements annually, this not often practical. In fact it can prove costly
and ineffective since traps can fail or leak in between these routines and many traps will work for years before the
elements need to be replaced. It is often more cost effective to establish a routine steam trap audit. As part of any
predictive maintenance routine, knowledge of the system is critical. For this reason, before inspection begins, a map
or some diagram of the location of all the steam traps and valves in a facility should be available. All traps should
be tagged and coded and referenced on the map/diagram. In addition, the trap inventory should include the trap
type, size, manufacturer, and application.

Note: a very inexpensive writable tag you can place on just about any steam trap can be found at
http://secure1.infinities.com/commerce/csiessentials/onlinestore/detail.cfm?ID=DC-6222-4&storeid=1 , I know it’s
a long URL but at 1.3cents each you can’t go wrong.

To improve on inspection routines, it is recommended that some form of record keeping/data collection be
employed to provide information about the steam system over time. This is useful in spotting potential areas of
recurrent problems, possible clues about misuse of traps and possibly data about costs and savings incurred. There
is commercially available steam management software available which can be quite useful in maintaining accurate
trap records. Once the record keeping has been put in order, various methods of inspection should be considered.

Trap inspection methods

The most common inspection methods are a visual inspection, temperature, acoustic stethoscopes and ultrasonic
testers. Of the four, ultrasound is the most reliable.

Visual inspection requires an inspector to let a steam trap discharge to atmosphere. However, doing that changes
the parameters of the closed system and, therefore, can be unreliable.

There are enough variables in the system - back pressure, for example - so that temperature is not the most reliable
indicator either. Portable infrared thermometers provide close estimations of pressures on valves, traps, and coil
heaters. These devices are also useful for spotting conditions such as heat loss, the need for insulation, overheating,
overloads, and cooling failures. Thus, an infrared thermometer should be used along with ultrasound.

Traps that have failed completely open are easy to detect, but the object is to find failing traps before they fail
completely. Ultrasonic testing can do that. In essence, using an ultrasonic instrument is like putting the inspector
inside the steam trap and piping system allowing him to detect a leaking steam trap. Ultrasonic detectors translate
ultrasonic emissions ... into sounds the human ear can hear.

Ultrasonic testers translate the high frequency emissions of a trap down into the audible range where they are heard
through headphones and seen as intensity increments on a meter. Some units have frequency tuning to filter out
additional signals and to tune into the sounds of steam and condensate while others have on-board recording and
data logging so that users can record the sounds of steam traps and data log important test information.

Technicians who use ultrasonic detectors on a daily basis can achieve accuracy that exceeds 98%. The balance of
this document will focus on testing steam traps using the ultrasonic, (ultrasound) testing methods.
Types of Steam Traps

While there are a variety of traps available in the market place, for purposes of inspection, there are basically two
main types: intermittent (on/off) and continuous flow.

Intermittent, “On-Off” Traps

On/off traps will have a basic ‘hold-discharge-hold’ pattern. Typical of this type are:
Inverted Buckets
Thermostatic (Bellows)

Continuous Flow Traps

Continuous flow traps discharge condensate continuously. The most common are:
Float and Thermostatic trap
Fixed Orifice

Each type of trap has its’ own unique sound pattern that is described below. It is recommended that you listen to a
number of traps to determine a “normal” operation in your particular situation before you proceed with your survey.
Generally, when checking a trap ultrasonically, a continuous rushing sound will often be the key indicator of live
steam passing through. Sound samples of different trap types can be heard on UE Systems web site: www.uesystems.com

The most common method for testing a steam trap ultrasonically is to touch the trap on the downstream side. Adjust
the sensitivity to the point where the trap sounds are heard. This is usually a setting in which the meter intensity
indicator is at a mid-line position. Do not reduce the sensitivity too low or too high for in either setting, the trap
sounds will be difficult to hear. If frequency tuning is available on your instrument, choose 25 kHz.

INVERTED BUCKET TRAPS (intermittent trap)

Inverted Bucket traps normally fail in the open position because the trap loses its
prime. This condition means a complete blow-through, not a partial loss. The
trap will no longer operate intermittently. Aside from a continuous rushing
sound, another clue for steam blow-through is the sound of the bucket clanging
against the side of the trap. Leaking steam, not a total blow through, will have a
continuous, but slight hissing sound. An early warning signal of potential
leakage or blow-through in this type of trap will be the rattling sound of the
linkage. This indicates linkage looseness that can lead to steam loss.

THERMODYNAMIC (DISC) TRAPS (intermittent trap)

Thermodynamic traps work on the difference in dynamic response to

velocity change in flow of compressible and incompressible fluids.
As steam enters, static pressure above the disc forces the disc against
the valve seat. The static pressure over a large area overcomes the
high inlet pressure of the steam. As the steam starts to condense, the
pressure against the disc lessens and the trap cycles. A good disc trap
should cycle (hold-discharge-hold) 4 – 10 times per minute. It usually
fails in the open position, allowing for a continuous blow-through of
steam. While a trap operating in good condition will have a
distinctive shut off between discharges, a leaking trap will never shut
and will produce a slight hissing sound. Should the disc become
worn, a condition referred to as “motor boating” or “machine gunning” can occur. This produces a very rapid
rattling sound that closely resembles the above descriptive terms. This condition allows steam to leak through and
is a predictor of more severe problems to come.
THERMOSTATIC TRAPS (bellows and bimetallic) (intermittent trap)

Thermostatic traps operate on a difference in temperature between condensate and

steam. They build up condensate so that the temperature of condensate drops down to a
certain level below saturation temperature in order for the trap to open. By backing up
condensate, the trap will tend to modulate open or closed depending on the load. These
traps will have a hold-discharge-hold pattern. They can take a long time before
discharging when there is little condensate build up. At times of high condensate, such as
in start up they will stay open continuously (for that period in which the condensate is
present). For this reason, it is best not to test these traps during start up. When closed,
Bimetallic trap
these traps will be silent; a slight hissing sound will indicate leakage. Blow-through will
have a high amplitude rushing sound.

Should the bellows in a bellows trap become compressed by water hammer; the trap will not function properly. The
occurrence of a leak will prevent the balanced pressure action of these traps. When either condition occurs, the trap
will fail in its natural position either opened or closed. If the trap fails closed, condensate will back up and no sound
will be heard. If the trap fails open, continuous rushing of live steam will be heard. Bimetallic traps have plates that,
when exposed to heat from steam will set and discharge as they cool in the presence of condensate. An improper set
will prevent the plates from closing completely and allows steam to pass through. This will be heard as a constant
rushing sound.


Float and thermostatic traps contain two elements: a ball float and a thermostatic element (similar to that found in a
thermostatic trap). When operating properly, the trap ball floats up and
down on a bed of condensate, which keeps the discharge valve open.
When listening to this condition, a modulating sound of the discharging
condensate will be heard. This type of trap normally fails in the “closed”
position. A pinhole leak hammer will collapse the ball float. Since the
trap is totally closed, no sound will be heard and the trap will be cold. In
addition, check the thermostatic element in the float and thermostatic
trap. If the trap is operating correctly, this element is usually quiet. Its
main function is to remove air from the steam system at start up. If a
rushing sound is heard, this will indicate steam blowing through the air
vent since it will be in a state that will not differentiate between steam or fluid. This indicates that the vent has
failed in the open position and is wasting energy. Should the mechanical linkage become loose it will effect the
operation of the discharge valve and can eventually lead to steam leakage. This will be heard as a clanging, rattling

FIXED ORIFICE TRAPS (continuous flow)

These traps contain a narrow orifice designed to create a “venturi” effect. Basically, pressure differentials occur due
to the temperature differentials between steam, hot and cold condensate. When cold condensate enters the trap,
steam pressure forces condensate and air through the orifice. In theory, when hot
condensate or steam reaches the trap, the pressure drop across the orifice
produces flash steam that blocks the flow of live steam. As the load on the steam
system falls, the condensate temperature increases and so does the amount of
flash steam. The sounds of a modulating condensate flow in normal conditions
will be a sign of a properly functioning trap. Contamination may cause the trap to
fail closed. If this does happen, there will be no sound and the trap will be cold.
Should the trap blow live steam due to possible changes within the trap body, this
will be heard as a high-pitched, continuous rushing sound.

Fixed Orifices by nature cannot adapt to handle the varying loads commonly associated with steam heating
systems. Because the orifice is fixed and sized according to either the maximum or minimum load requirement, any
fluctuation in ambient temperature will cause the steam heating load to change. Thus, any change in the load
requirement will cause a backup of condensate or loss of live steam. Because one size does not fit all in a steam
heating system, fixed orifices are typically oversized by 25%-30%, resulting in live steam loss.


Since ultrasonic testing of steam traps is a positive test, it provides results in a “real time” basis. The main
advantage to ultrasonic testing is that it isolates the area being tested by eliminating confusing background noises.
A user can quickly adjust to recognizing differences among various steam traps. While performing a steam trap
survey, it is important to note specific trap condition on a chart. As mentioned above, every trap should have a tag
with a corresponding identification code. During the inspection procedure, trap condition should be noted. All
poorly operating traps should be documented and a follow up procedure should be planned. The follow up
procedure should include such items as trap number, condition and date of repair. As part of a quality assurance
procedure, all repaired traps should be scheduled for re-test.

Any steam system, no matter how diligent the operation, can leak; any trap can potentially waste steam. If
performed properly, a routine, planned program of steam trap inspection and repair can continually pay for itself
and contribute to a company’s bottom line in terms of productivity, quality and energy savings.


How much energy can be saved from a steam trap survey? A rule of thumb states that if there has been no steam
trap survey or maintenance program, upwards of 50% of a system’s traps can be blowing live steam. If a survey is
performed annually, this figure drops to about 25%. A bi-annual survey will reduce this even further to less than
12%. Use the guide below to estimate the amount of loss steam leaks are costing your company.
Steam System Best Practices

What is a successful Steam Trap Management Program?

With today’s energy costs, it is extremely important to have a Performance Assessment Methods
proactive steam trap-testing program included with the Steam trap performance assessment is basically
overall “Steam System Management Program”. Poor steam concerned with answering the following two
trap maintenance is a major cause of energy dollar losses in 1) Is the trap working correctly or not?
steam systems. A successful steam trap management program 2) If not; has the trap failed in the open
can identify defective steam traps. Additionally with this position or the closed position?
knowledge, the amount of dollars lost for each steam trap can
be calculated.

A steam trap program will accomplish the following:

o Reduce Steam energy losses
o Increase system reliability
o Decrease combustion emissions
o Decrease production downtime
o Improve steam quality

The return on the investment of a complete and integrated steam trap program is typically less than twelve months.

Why get involved?? With the continuous volatility of fuel prices, operational costs continue to rise and cause
negative effect on the operating profit of the plant. Allowing steam losses to continue is no longer an option. A
successful program must include the participation of people at all levels of the organization.

Twelve (12) Steps to a Successful Steam Trap Management Program

1. Select a steam team and team leader

a. The team participants may include personnel from production, safety, engineering, maintenance and
management. A representative from each department might be part of the “Steam Team”
b. The team leader will coordinate all aspects of the program.

2. Steam system training. Develop a roadmap to train the plant personnel on the different aspects of the steam
trap system and operation. Some examples of training topics include:
a. Steam traps
b. Root cause analysis Free steam trap training at ASU*
c. Testing *ASU = Armstrong Steam University
d. Problem solving
e. Correct sizing www.armstronginternational.com
f. Piping
g. Installations Professor Armey, has the answers.
h. Condensate recovery methods

3. Each organization needs to evaluate the steam traps that will be used. The best practice is to implement a
methodical selection process for steam trap evaluation and selection of vendors. Even if the plant is using a
specific manufacturer, there is a need to reevaluate. New steam traps will leak steam; the plant must select one or
two manufacturers with the least amount of leakage.
a. Select one to four manufacturers.
b. After the evaluation process, select no more than two (2) manufacturers for steam trap suppliers.

4. Evaluation area. Find or locate six (6) to ten (10) steam traps that will be used for the steam trap evaluation.
Select a location where it is easy to monitor the steam trap performance.
Suggestions to follow during the steam trap evaluation process:
a. Ensure the use of the Universal mount design steam traps (ease of change out– five (5) minutes or less).
b. A Test valve arrangement shall be used to inspect the steam trap discharge (steam, condensate, flash, etc)
during the evaluation process.
c. ** A video record of steam trap operation should be taken for evaluation, benchmarking and training
purposes of proper steam trap operation.

5. Select the operational design of the steam traps.

Set a standard for the operational design of the steam trap that will be used in the different applications found in
your plant. Example: Mechanical, thermodynamic, and thermostatic. Most plants need to have more than one
operational steam trap design, but not more than two.
a. Steam line drip leg, unit heater, tracer or other small condensate load will use_______ design steam trap.
b. Process applications (heat exchanger, reboiler, reactor, etc.) will use __________ design steam trap.

6. Do you know where your steam traps are?

All steam traps need to be identified with a unique identification code. Additionally, important information
should be recorded on each steam trap. The steam trap population should be recorded in a database. There are
several software databases available that will meet these requirements.

Examples of information to be recorded during a steam trap survey:

a. Application
b. Manufacturer
c. Location
d. Size
e. Orifice size
f. Connection
g. Condition

7. Testing the steam traps.

The survey should consist of all data that we have listed above. All documentation must be gathered on each
steam trap. The steam trap software database should include repair or replacement costs as well as other
important information.

Typical tools used for testing steam traps include the following:

Visual Inspection - Observe of the actual steam trap discharge by means of a block and test valve. The
flash steam amount can be confusing and therefore experience is required to understand what is seen. But; a
steam trap that is leaking during the off cycle will be easily detected or a steam trap that is severely leaking
and completely failed. Understand though that this method changes the operating conditions of the steam
trap due to the elimination of back pressure. This does affect a few types of steam trap operation.
Temperature Measurement – Sense upstream and downstream temperatures with contact pyrometers or
infrared detectors. This method will determine if there is blockage (steam trap is cold) as well as providing
an estimate operating pressure.
Ultrasonic Detection – Ultrasound devices that detect a high frequency ultrasound sound are a simple
method of testing traps and are extremely accurate. Steam traps make distinctive ultrasound during proper
operation and can be distinctively heard with an ultrasonic device
*** All the above tools require training of the person assign to do the task.

Sight, sound, and temperature measurements have been used to assess the performance of steam traps since
steam traps were invented, but the measuring technology has evolved over the years. In particular, sound
measurement has progressed to include ultrasonic devices that compare measured sounds with the expected
sounds of working and nonworking traps to render a judgment on trap condition. Equipment using a fourth
method, based on the conductivity of the fluid at a specific point in the pipeline, has also been developed in
recent years. These advanced technologies are often coupled with temperature-measuring capability to increase
diagnostic accuracy.

8. Establish standards for steam trap installation. Standardization of steam trap installation will reduce the failure
rate of steam traps. A high percentage of steam trap failures are due to an incorrect steam trap installation.
9. Establish standards for sizing steam traps and design selection. Proper trap sizing is the most important factor
in obtaining efficient steam trap operation. Even though the correct operating design of a steam trap was
selected, and the installation was correct, improper steam trap sizing will cause either condensate to back up in
the system or excessive steam loss into the return system. Be sure to review the necessary considerations in
sizing steam control valves, steam piping, expansion and heat transfer. It is important to take time, consider all
the parameters and evaluate the dynamics of the system while making the correct sizing and selection of the
steam trap. Steam Trap sizing is not just a selection based upon pipe size. Rather it is sizing of the internal
diameter of the steam trap discharge orifice. For low pressure heating systems, commercial steam trap
manufacturers have made steam traps available in which pipe size relates directly to the steam trap capacity
(orifice size). However, in industrial steam traps, this is not typically the case. A 2” steam trap can have the same
capacity as a steam trap with ½” connections. Only following the determination of the condensate capacity,
maximum orifice pressure rating, operating steam pressure, pressure differential and steam trap model have been
determined, the pipe size or connections can be selected.

10. Benchmark the steam system before replacing or repairing the steam traps. The steam system should be
“Benchmarked” before repairing or replacing the steam traps. This will determine the success of the program.

11. Replace or repair the steam traps. You need to determine whether you are going to repair or replace the
steam trap. Today, operations mandate a steam trap to be reliable for at least six (6) years or longer. If the
current steam trap does not have that capability, then the steam trap must be changed to a high performance
steam trap design.

12. Take all benchmark data (after the corrections) and continue the steam trap program on a PM schedule. Do
not let the program stop; the program must continue indefinitely.

Recommended time schedule for testing steam traps

o Process steam traps Every 3 months At an absolute minimum, every steam
o High pressure steam traps Every 6 months trap should be surveyed once a year!
o Low to medium pressure steam traps Every 6 months
o Building heating steam traps Twice a heating season

Conclusion: With today’s fuel cost to produce steam, today would be good time to get started with a proactive
steam trap program. Do not let the steam system manage you; instead be the manager of the steam system.

Where to Apply

Steam trap performance assessment equipment varies significantly in initial cost and moderately in operating cost
and assessment effectiveness. For smaller steam systems with relatively few traps and/or for energy managers with
exceptionally small budgets, a simple ultrasonic gun (without built-in diagnostics) is probably the best investment.
However, where many different staff may be called upon to conduct tests, the incremental investment in an
ultrasonic gun with built-in diagnostics makes the most sense. The built-in diagnostic capability practically
eliminates the need for training, which is essential to achieving good results without built in diagnostics, but would
be expensive if a large group had to be trained.

Conductivity-based assessment equipment offers the best performance improvement and lowest operating costs via
continuous, remote monitoring, but installation of the sensing chambers and wiring make this the most capital-
intensive steam trap assessment system. The extra investment is most likely to be cost-effective in steam systems
serving heating equipment with relatively large loads and, hence, relatively large steam traps. Larger steam traps,
when failed open, result in larger, more expensive leaks. Industrial process heating applications would be most
attractive for this type of assessment system, but space-heating applications should not be excluded from
What to Avoid

The retrofit of sight glasses or test valves allowing a visual assessment of steam trap performance should be
carefully considered. While visual assessment is judged by the majority of steam trap experts to be the best
assessment technique, the cost of retrofitting this type of equipment is significantly greater than any portable
temperature or sonic test equipment and comparable to conductivity-based test equipment. The latter has the
advantage of being wired for continuous, remote monitoring, however, which should reduce operating costs and
improve steam system efficiency for a relatively modest incremental investment, compared with sight glasses or
test valves.

Bottom Line

The widespread cost-effectiveness of proactive steam trap maintenance is well documented. Thus, implementing
almost any type of steam trap maintenance program will be beneficial; selecting the specific type of assessment
equipment is secondary.

Other resources to review…


Steam trap manufacturers…


Ultrasonic test equipment suppliers…


Maintenance and trap survey scheduling software…

Do we want to…

Provide maintenance scheduling software? YES

Refer reader to our website for live links and more details. YES

Offer to supply trap ID tags?

With our info pre-printed on them?

Provide training video; about what a proper test and repair consists of?
Make it look easy or hard?

Offer constant electronic remote monitoring.? (web based)

Like the Armstrong “SteamStar”?

Offer our services to test their steam traps.

Price per trap?

Offer to supply (order) all rebuild kits for them.

Flat price by size?
Full traps also.

Offer testing equipment?

Rental fee?
For sale?

More details for the techs?

More details on savings?

How to present the Avista rebates?

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