Understanding Shell and Tube Heat Exchangers

Heat exchangers are versatile pieces of equipment designed for use in a variety of applications and industries. These integral heating system elements work as part of an industrial heating system to regulate the temperature of viscous fluids, like oil and asphalt. 

While they come in a number of different styles and designs, including bayonet immersion heaters and suction heaters, shell and tube heat exchangers are among the most effective.   

Here, we’re going to take a closer look at shell and tube heat exchangers specifically, reviewing the key things to know about these important industrial heating system components.

About Shell and Tube Heat Exchangers

Whether you’re shopping your heat exchanger options or you’re simply curious about these large-scale pieces of equipment, there’s a lot to learn about shell and tube heat exchangers. 

Here are some basic details to get you started.

The Shell and Tube Heat Exchanger’s Unique Design

Here at American Heating Company, we build BEU style shell and tube exchangers, which are positioned on the outside of storage tanks. 

For a closer look at the design, check out this diagram:

diagram of shell and tube heat exchanger

As you can see, the material being heated via the exchanger enters at the back of the and exits near the bonnet, or head, area.

The heating medium – hot oil in our heat exchangers – enters the tubes through the bonnet and exits through the bonnet (head) area. 

Within the heat exchanger, there is a bundle of tubes, held together with baffles and tie rods. The tubes are made of conductive materials, which allow them to transfer heat between materials.

The exterior of the heat exchanger is essentially a shell, which contains the tube bundle and the other heat exchanger components. 

How Shell and Tube Heat Exchangers Work

Shell and tube heat exchangers work in a similar way to suction heaters – with one major difference. While suction heaters are positioned on the interior of a material storage tank, shell and tube heat exchangers are mounted to the outside. 

They heat the materials inside the tanks through the use of either hot oil or steam. (At American Heating Company, our shell and tube heat exchangers use hot oil as the heating medium.) The tubes, made of thermally conductive materials, transfer heat between the interior of the tubes and the fluid outside of the tubes. 

Only the material moving through the shell and tube heat exchanger is heated. As a result, shell and tube heat exchangers are not an ideal solution for heating an entire tank of material at one time.

You can learn more about how shell and tube heat exchangers compare with other types of heat exchangers here

Shell and Tube Heat Exchanger Benefits

Though shell and tube heat exchangers are not ideal when it comes to heating whole storage tanks simultaneously, they do have a wide variety of benefits, including: 


These heat exchangers can adjust the temperature of materials very efficiently, using minimal energy to heat or cool substances.


The shell and tube design can be used to heat and cool various materials in a variety of industries. They can also be utilized for a variety of functions as well.

Easy to Clean and Repair

It’s relatively easy to take this style of heat exchanger apart, which can simplify regular maintenance as well as repairs, when and if they are necessary. 

Compact Size 

Shell and tube heat exchangers can be relatively compact in size and they don’t take up room in storage tanks, which means that they are a great solution when space is limited. 

Why Choose a Shell & Tube Heat Exchanger?

Plant managers love these exchangers because of the numerous benefits listed above, but they’ve become increasingly popular in recent years specifically because of their immense versatility and efficiency.

For instance, in the tank terminal industry, shell and tube exchangers are being utilized much more often because of their ability to increase operational flexibility, and because of the way they contribute to overall plant efficiency.

Here are a couple of examples of how shell and tube heat exchangers are making a difference:

Loading Products and Materials

When loading customer trucks with a product that needs to be at a temperature of 400F, an exchanger makes it possible to keep your extremely large product tank at 300 to 350F. Simply pump the product through the exchanger to heat it up to the 400F as you are loading trucks. 

Pumping the product through the exchanger heats only what is needed to the 400F temperature, saving you from using additional energy to heat an entire tank of the product when it’s not necessary to do so.

Receiving Products and Materials

When off-loading rail cars, barges or ships when you receive a product from suppliers, typically, the product you’re receiving at your facility will be colder than the product already stored in the tanks on-site. Barges and rail cars are heated to about 265F, to the point they can start pumping the material – but still significantly lower than the temperature of what you already have stored. 

As the product is pumped into the storage tank, it can run through a heat exchanger to get to the desired temperature of 300F. This avoids cold new product from cooling the tank, and makes the storage tank ready for use immediately. Without a shell and tube heat exchanger in place, these tanks can cool down and it could take days – if not weeks – to heat up with the internal coils.

With both loading and unloading materials, time is money. Shell and tube heat exchangers make it possible to pump materials as soon as possible, and they transfer temperatures efficiently so you can ensure the materials are at the necessary temperature without expending extra energy to do so. 

More About Industrial Shell & Tube Heat Exchangers

Shell and tube heat exchangers are among the most widely used type of heat exchanger out there – and for good reason. If you’re looking for an effective heating solution for your plant, this could be it.

Interested in learning more about what heat exchanger options are available for your specific industry, application or heating system set-up? The experts at American Heating Company can help! 

We have decades of experience designing and manufacturing heat exchangers and other industrial heating system components for businesses in a variety of industries. Our solutions are custom-built to your specifications right here in the USA, so you can rest assured that our equipment will work for your plant! 

Give us a call today at (715) 748-5888 or contact us online to get the conversation started. We’d love to help your business augment it’s efficiency and profitability through the use of a shell and tube heat exchanger – or another thermal fluid heating system component

Not quite ready to take that next step yet? You can check out equipment photos and learn more about our shell and tube heat exchangers here.

Have questions about heat exchangers? We can help with that too! Be sure to review our Industrial Heat Exchanger FAQs and, if you have specific questions about your application or facility set-up, be sure to give us a call at (715) 748-5888 to discuss.