Exceptional Opportunities in Process Control – Peak and Integrated Error – Part 2

How does controller tuning affect on-stream time and environmental costs?

The basic process control system (BPCS) forms the inner protective layer for safety instrumentation systems (SIS) as shown on slide 5 of Effects-of-Loop-Tuning-and-Dynamics-on-KPI.pdf. The performance of the BPCS loops must limit excursions to be well within the operating limits that correspond to the trip points of the SIS. Specifically, the peak error for the largest and fastest disturbance should not cause a trip. The SIS should only be activated for failures or extremely abnormal conditions. The trip of a process unit not only causes downtime but can cause off-spec and additional waste during the shutdown and startup of the unit. The start-up of the process unit is often the most operator intensive and hazardous time. The importance of minimizing peak errors to prevent shutdowns can involve all types of loops (e.g. flow, level, pressure, and temperature). We normally think this is important only for continuous loops but I have been able to increase a fed-batch reactor capacity by 25% by eliminating level, pressure, and temperature trips by a series of override controllers tuned to minimize peak errors.

The peak error from the closure of a downstream valves (e.g. trip of reactor feed valves) on the discharge of a compressor controller must not cause an excursion of the operating point of the compressor to the left of the surge curve. If the operating point reaches the negative slope of the characteristic curve, it is like the compressor is falling off a cliff. The operating point jumps to a negative flow operating point in 0.03 seconds. This precipitous drop rivals water hammer in disturbance speed (both phenomena involve momentum balances that are orders of magnitude faster than material balances). Once a compressor gets into surge, the feedback controller is helpless and needs an open loop back-up (e.g. kicker) to get out of trouble as detailed on pages 6 – 8. Surge cycles can cause a decrease in compressor efficiency and damage by excessive vibration. I have also seen where surge caused a runaway speed response.

RCRA environmental regulations may classify a pond as hazardous waste if the pH of an effluent stream going into the volume momentarily ventures outside the permissible 2 to 12 pH range. Even though a short term excursion can not possibly change the pH in the volume and is effectively filtered by the volume where the change in pH is not detectable, the volume may still be classified as hazardous. For these systems, peak errors are incredibly important and kickers are used as shown on page 10 to prevent RCRA violations that not only can cause excessive fines but necessitate the process unit to apply for a new permit that might not be approved. A violation could result in the permanent shutdown of a unit because operation is no longer economically feasible or even allowed under new permit requirements.

Many process units have relief devises (e.g. relief valves and rupture discs) to prevent the over pressurization of piping and equipment. Often, pressure letdown and vent loops are the first line of defense. The peak error for the largest and fastest disturbance should be sufficiently away from the relief device setting to prevent fatigue and activation of the relief device taking into account setting tolerances and fatigue that cause a premature relief. The activation of a relief device is hazardous and causes downtime and waste burned in a flare stack or at best in a waste heat boiler.

So how do we minimize peak error? Given a set of dynamics and disturbances, the solution is to maximize controller gain even if it means increasing the reset time. This is seen in the first equation on page 1 but also intuitively from the realization that gain provides an immediate response whereas reset provides a gradual response. In the fed-batch reactor example cited above, the override controllers were proportional-only with their gains set high enough to cut back the reactant feeds immediately when the reactor pressure and level from the gas released as a byproduct or the temperature from the exothermic reaction approached settings that would cause a trip and the associated delay and disruptive restart of the feeds.

We can reduce the peak error per the first equation on page 2 by increasing the process time constant and decreasing the loop deadtime which increases the maximum allowable controller gain. We can also decrease the open loop error in the time frame of the controller’s response by increasing the disturbance time constant. The fastest possible tuning should be able to stop the excursion from a disturbance after the loop deadtime. Thus, slowing down the disturbance slows down the excursion and reduces the peak reached in one loop deadtime (more on this next week). The process time constant is typically set by process equipment size and design, but we as automation engineers can greatly affect the disturbance time constant and the loop deadtime and sensitivity. We can iimprove the degree of automation, interaction, speed, reliability, and precision in automation systems. The opportunity may be larger than we realize. Up to 50% of downtime is attributable to instrumentation problems as noted in the March 2010 Control magazine article “Look to Valves for More Uptime”

Next week we will look at how the dynamics and precision of measurements, valves, and disturbances affect peak and integrated errors. We conclude this series with a check list for improving loop performance (Part 4).