Lessons learned from fire in air supply ducts


  • This article was originally presented at the 9th Global Congress on Process Safety, San Antonio, TX 29 Apr to 1 May 2013.


In 2012, loss of air flow caused activation of interlocks to shut off steam and electrical heat inputs to an air heating system that was part of a drying/milling operation. Shortly thereafter, upstream filters and air ducts ignited causing more than US$500K in damage and business interruption. Investigations concluded that the interlocks functioned as designed on loss-of-airflow but were not sufficient to prevent overheating the inlet air filters (including HEPA filters) by the residual heat in the air heaters. The two main lessons learned from this fire incident apply to a broad range of operations in the chemical process industries (CPI):

  1. Mundane unit operations such as air filters that have combustible components must be evaluated as thoroughly as the rest of the chemical process.
  2. Designers and PHA leaders must recognize the potential of thermal inertia of heaters (and coolers) to heat (or cool) a stagnant volume of fluid when flow is interrupted. Gas streams are particularly susceptible due to the low heat capacity relative to the heat capacity of a metallic heat exchanger. Interlocking the supplies (to steam and electrical heaters in this incident) is often necessary but may not be sufficient.

Other lessons “relearned” include the importance of learning from a previous near miss, the importance of limiting escalation aspects of this fire, and the importance of preventative maintenance. © 2014 American Institute of Chemical Engineers Process Saf Prog, 2014