Selecting expansion joints in chemical process industry applications

Mike Edwards   

Features chemical process industries CPI Environment expansion joints leaks operations Proco Products safety

Selecting the correct type of expansion joint for the process conditions will maximize the lifetime of the joint.

Although sometimes overlooked or treated as an afterthought in a piping system, expansion joints are critical elements in chemical process industries (CPI) operations for providing flexibility and stress relief to piping systems. Failures in expansion joints can result in leaks of process fluids, with implications for personnel safety, environmental protection, and operational uptime.

Selecting the correct type of expansion joint for the process conditions will maximize the lifetime of the joint. By considering a full set of process characteristics when selecting expansion joints, plants can maximize production and operational uptime while still maintaining safety and environmental stewardship.

For the selection process, plant engineers should consider taking advantage of expansion-joint vendors, who can offer specialized expertise and on-the-ground experience to guide users to the optimal type of expansion joint for certain process conditions. Vendor companies serve as a valuable resource for arriving at the best expansion-joint choice.

Expansion joint types

Expansion joints can be split into three general categories: rubber expansion joints, stainless steel expansion joints and hose-and-braid flex connectors. Each type has its own advantages and limitations, and each category can be further broken down into subcategories, because there are several different types of elastomers used for expansion joints, as well as multiple types of stainless steel. In addition, there are multiple design variations with different joint geometries that help their performance in certain specific applications.

Figure 1. Expansion joints can be divided into three general categories, as shown here: Rubber, hose and braid, and stainless steel.

For rubber expansion joints, the most common elastomers are ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) rubber, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), polychloroprene (Neoprene), nitrile rubber, butyl rubber, natural rubber, & synthetic elastomers. Rubber expansion joints are generally more versatile than other types of joints, although issues of chemical compatibility, pressure and temperature may preclude them from being used under some process conditions. Rubber expansion joints effectively handle compression (movement inward), and extension (movement outward), as well as lateral offset motion, vibration and sound dampening in a short overall length.

Stainless steel expansion joints are also available in several variants, such as 304, 316, and 321 stainless steel grades. Expansion joints made from other metals, such as titanium, or high-temperature alloys, such as Hastelloy and Inconel, are also available. Stainless steel expansion joints are good for handling compression, extension, lateral motion and vibration, but they will exert a larger overall force on the piping system and are longer in overall length

Stainless steel expansion joints should not be confused with stainless steel flex connectors, which are hose-and-braid-style connectors with a stainless steel braided material on the outside. They can address lateral movement and vibration in pipe and equipment joints.

Factors For Selecting Expansion Joints

When selecting expansion joints for process pipes and equipment, engineers should begin by following a set of criteria that has been generally agreed upon by the industry as a method of taking a comprehensive look at the requirements of the joint. The set of criteria is known by the acronym “STAMPED.” By gathering information according to this set of factors and questions will provide an excellent basis for which expansion joints should be used. The components of the acronym are defined here:

  • S size (what are the diameter and pipe thickness of the pipes under consideration?)
  • T temperature (what is the process temperature?  Is the temperature variable?  What is the rate of change in temperature?  Will the process temperatures stay below the temperature rating for the material of the expansion joint under all process situations?)
  • A application (what are the details of the application? What type of equipment is being connected? What are the characteristics of the process media? Is it acidic, basic, or neutral? Is the joint located outside or indoors?)
  • M movement (what type of movement will the joint experience?  Compression and expansion, vibration, lateral movement, complex motion, and what is the magnitude of that movement?  What forces will the movement exert on the adjacent equipment and what is the magnitude of those forces. Also, is the pipe anchored and will there be a need for control rods?
  • P pressure (what is the pressure inside the pipeline? Does it vary?)
  • E end fittings (how are the pipes capped?)
  • D delivery  (how are the joints to be installed?)

Figure 2. Rubber expansion joints shown on a process pump and piping setupExpansion joint and pipe layout.

The STAMPED criteria can go a long way toward narrowing down the choices in expansion joints to steel or rubber, but there are still a wide variety of choices within each of those categories, and different designs available for conditions and applications. For example, if an application requires a great deal of movement, there are joints with more convolutions or arches built into the bellows of the joint. Again, expansion joint vendors can be a resource here.

Selection Recommendations

Once you have established the information for the questions associated with STAMPED, there a several additional considerations to help arrive at the final selection of expansion joints. They are discussed here:

Rule of 250. The “Rule of 250” concerns pressure and temperature of the media. If the pressure is lower than 250 psi and temperature lower than 250°F, then rubber expansion joints should be used, but for pressures above 250 psi and temperatures over 250°F amount probably requires stainless steel.

Specific temperature requirements. Beyond the so-called Rule of 250, the selection of expansion joint material should get more specific. EPDM and butyl rubber expansion joints are suitable up to 250°F, but Neoprene is only good to 220°F and nitrile rubber up to 212°F.

MSDS. Material safety data sheets (MSDS) provide details on various compounds that might be present in process media. The information can include details about the potential health and environmental hazards of the components, as well as chemical compatibility. It is highly recommended that users consult MSDS before selecting an expansion joint. Two similar compounds used in a process, such as ethylene glycol and propylene glycol, could require different expansion joints. For example, ethylene glycol is suitable for EPDM expansion joints, while propylene glycol works with nitrile rubber. The degree of specificity that users can have for the type of media that the expansion joint will encounter can have huge impact on the type of elastomer selected.

Concentrations. Beyond the identity of the process media that is present, concentrations of various components within the media are also important. For example, a 5% solution of a caustic substance might be suitable for a particular type of elastomer, but if the concentration of the same caustic material is increased to 20%, for instance, the rubber material might break down. In these cases, stainless steel expansion joints might be required.

Gas handling. For processes involving gases, the material should be considered carefully also, since rubber expansion joints are somewhat permeable to gases. Cases where gas escape would be a problem might also require the use of stainless-steel expansion joints.

Figure 3. Rubber expansion joints can be used in applications where temperatures are lower than 250°F.

Life expectancy. It can be useful to identify factors that might reduce or extend the lifetime of an expansion joint. The average lifespan of a rubber expansion joint is roughly 7-10 years. Depending on the particulars of an application, however, expansion joints might only last a matter of 2-3 months, while other joints might function well for 25 years or more. Some of the factors that can contribute to a shorter life expectancy are high pressure, high temperature, aggressive or abrasive media, exposure to outdoor weather and extensive levels of movement.

Expansion joint surveys. Although there are lengths of time that expansion joints can be expected to last, a definitive method for determining exactly when to replace expansion joints or to identify the exact moment when they will fail does not exist. The best way to prepare for an expansion joint failure, and to limit downtime in the event of a failure, is an expansion joint survey. Member companies of the Fluid Sealing Association (FSA; Wayne, Pa.; www.fluidsealing.com) offer expansion joint surveys. These surveys can be critical for plant maintenance, especially with plants that are trying to maximize productivity and profits while also limiting downtime. Surveys have the potential to help a plant avoid environmental concerns associated with expansion joint failures.

No matter what process details are found in a process, expansion-joint manufacturers will be able to guide users toward the correct type of expansion joint for given operational conditions.

This article was contributed by Proco Products.

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