What you need to know about cleaning different tube configurations

Fouling on both the shellside and tubeside is common in petroleum refinery shell and tube heat exchangers.

Fouling on both the shellside and tubeside is common in petroleum refinery shell and tube heat exchangers.

When considering your options for a new shell and tube heat exchanger, one important factor is the tube configuration.

Various options benefit different types of processes. For example, a floating head configuration is better suited to processes prone to significant thermal expansion because the tubes aren't constrained by the tube sheet or the shell, and can therefore expand or vibrate without risking damage to the rest of the equipment.

Beyond taking into account the intended use for the exchanger, and other elements like location of the exchanger or the product that will be introduced to it, it's also a good idea to think about cleaning methods. Not all cleaning strategies are appropriate for all configurations, but all exchangers will need to be properly and thoroughly cleaned sooner or later. It's best to know what cleaning capabilities you'll have with a particular configuration beforehand so you can factor it into your decision, or at least prepare for new sanitation needs.

How to clean fixed tubesheet shell and tube heat exchangers

A fixed tubesheet is a popular shell and tube heat exchanger design for several reasons, including cost effectiveness and ease of cleaning. Since the tubes are straight and the tubesheet is welded straight to the shell, construction is relatively simple.

"Shellside cleaning is a bit more complicated with fixed tubesheet designs."

To clean a fixed tubesheet shell and tube heat exchanger, the bonnet first needs to be removed. This is a relatively simple task with this configuration. The insides of the tubes can be cleaned mechanically, and the straight configuration makes it easy for brushes, hoses or other cleaning supplies to be fed into the bores. The tubes can also be cleaned chemically, and running the cleaning solution through the tubes is fairly easy, again, because of the straight design.

While cleaning the tubeside is pretty straightforward, shellside cleaning is a bit more complicated with fixed tubesheet designs. Because the tubesheet is welded to the shell itself, it's nearly impossible to mechanically clean the outsides of the tubes. Chemical cleaning must be done instead. However, it's critical that operators are confident that the chemical cleaning agent can be thoroughly rinsed from the shellside before operation reconvenes. Leftover residue can damage the material of construction or contaminate the product.

The bonnet type plays a role in how easy it is to reach the tubes. L-type and N-type bonnets, which have removable covers, grant easy access to the inside of the tubes without removing any piping. The M-type bonnet does not have this removable cover, which means the entire head needs to be taken off to access the tubes.

An A-style bonnet with stainless steel fabrication sits on stands at Enerquip.An A-style bonnet allows access to the tubes without removing piping to the exchanger.

The difficulty in shellside cleaning isn't always a problem. If the shellside of this heat exchanger is only used for clean fluids rather than fouling services, there's virtually no need for future cleaning.

How to clean a U-tube shell and tube heat exchanger

As the name suggests, the tube bundle of a U-tube exchanger is curved at the end and returns the fluid back to the same side it entered, rather than providing a point of exit on the opposite end of the exchanger. Thus, only one tubesheet is required, leaving the other end free to expand or vibrate without risking damage to the rest of the construction.

While the U-shaped bend provides benefits in some ways, it becomes cumbersome when it comes time to clean the equipment. The curve at the end of the tube makes it challenging for mechanical cleaning, unless a flexible-end drill shaft is utilized. Chemical cleaning is possible, but certain types of fouling, make it challenging – particularly scaling that hardens to the sides of the tubes and is difficult to remove without physical force. Additionally, with scales forming at the point of the bend, it may be difficult to assess whether all fouling has been completely removed. The solution to this dilemma is to use clean fluids on the tubeside with this configuration, Thermopedia pointed out.

An articulating brush moves through the bend of a U-tube pipe.
An articulating brush is advantageous for cleaning U-tubes.

While cleaning the interior of the tubes on U-tube exhchangers is a challenge, the shellside is very easy. Since there's only one tubesheet, deconstruction is simple. Once removed, the shell and the outside of the tubes can be cleaned easily.

How to clean a floating head shell and tube heat exchanger

The floating head tube bundle configuration is the best of both worlds. Only one end of the two tubesheets is welded to the shell, allowing the other to expand as needed according to the process it's engaging in, similar to the U-tube configuration. Meanwhile, the straight tube design makes cleaning easier, comparable to the fixed tubesheet configuration.

These advantages make floating head shell and tube heat exchangers a favorite among operators who are concerned both about thermal expansion as well as fouling on both sides, such as petroleum refineries or kettle reboilers, for example.

A number of methods can be employed to sanitize floating head shell and tube heat exchangers and remove fouling. Mechanical cleaning is a practical solution, as the straight tubes make it easy for brushes, bits and sprayers to reach all areas of the bores. The floating head configuration makes it easier to remove the tube bundle than with the fixed tubesheet design, so it's easy to reach the outsides of the tubes and the interior of the shell.

"The bonnet type plays a role in how easy a heat exchanger can be cleaned."

Chemical cleaning is also a possibility, especially because it's easy to spot inconsistencies in the cleaning job. When insufficiently cleaned areas are identified, they can be mechanically or chemically cleaned again before the equipment is put back into operation.

The bonnet type associated with a particular exchanger's construction plays a role in how easy this configuration can be cleaned. A P-type rear header, which is an outside packed header, gives convenient access to the tubeside but does not allow the tube bundle to be removed so the shellside can be difficult to clean.

The S-type header also allows the tube bundle to be removed, but it is hard to take apart for bundle pulling, which can cause some complications when it's being cleaned, inspected or repaired. The T-type header is easier to dismantle and remove than the S-type, often making it a more desirable configuration, though it also tends to be a bit pricier. The W-type header is also easy to remove and is often the least expensive of the options for a floating head heat exchanger.

No matter what type of shell and tube heat exchanger you have, it's important to know how to properly clean it to prevent fouling and ensure deposits left behind won't cause corrosion. To learn about the right configuration for your operation, reach out to the helpful engineers at Enerquip.

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