Industrial Heat Exchangers: What They Are, How They Work, and Why They Are Needed

July 12, 2014

Exchangers are easily one of the most important and widely used pieces of process equipment found in industrial sites. Regardless of the particular industry in question, it will likely require some type of temperature regulation, and for that, exchangers, along with heat exchanger service, are likely to come into play. Exchangers may be used for either heating or cooling, however, in the industrial sector, particularly within plants and refineries, they are overwhelmingly used for cooling. Let’s dive a little deeper into what they are, why they are needed, how they work, and how they are classified.

What Are Industrial Heat Exchangers?

As their name implies industrial heat exchangers are pieces of industrial equipment which are designed to exchange or transfer heat from one medium to another. The heat exchange may be for the primary purpose of heating up elements or cooling it down. Within the industrial sector, cooling tends to be the more prevalent function in order to prevent equipment or volatile substances from overheating. There are many different types of heat exchangers, each with their own advantages and drawbacks, yet tailored to best suit different purposes and industries.

Why Are Heat Exchangers Needed?

Heat exchangers have a very broad range of industrial applications. They are used as components of air conditioning and cooling systems or of heating systems. Many industrial processes call for a certain degree of heat to function; however, typically great care must be taken to keep these processes from getting too hot. Within industrial plants and factories, heat exchangers, which often undergo a heat exchanger cleaning process, are required to keep machinery, chemicals, water, gas, and other substances within a safe operating temperature. Heat exchangers, when maintained with heat exchanger cleaning and maintenance services, may also be used to capture and transfer steam or heat exhaust that is released as a byproduct of a process or operation so that the steam or heat can be put to better use elsewhere, thereby increasing efficiency and saving the plant money.

How Do Heat Exchangers Work?

Different types of heat exchangers work in different ways, use different flow arrangements, equipment, and design features. One thing that all heat exchangers have in common is that they all function to directly or indirectly expose a warmer medium to a cooler medium, hence, exchanging heat. This is usually accomplished by using a set of tubes housed within some type of casing. Heat exchanger fans, condensers, belts, coolants, additional tubes and lines, along with other components and equipment work to increase heating and cooling efficiency or improve flow.

Classification of Heat Exchangers

Heat Exchangers are generally classified by one of the following four metrics:

  • The nature of the heat exchange process
  • The physical state of the fluids
  • The heat exchanger’s flow arrangement
  • The design and construction of the heat exchanger

The Nature of the Heat Exchange Process

This first heat exchanger classification method refers to whether or not the substances between which the heat is being exchanged come into direct contact with each other or not, or whether they are separated by a physical barrier, such as the walls of their tubes.

Direct Contact Heat Exchangers – Direct contact heat exchangers bring the hot and cold fluids into direct contact with each other within the tubes rather than relying on radiant heat or convection. Direct contact is an extremely effective means of transferring heating since the contact is direct, but naturally for direct contact to be used it must be safe, or even desired to have the fluids come in contact with each other. Direct contact heat exchangers may be a good choice if the hot and cold fluid are merely different temperature variations of the same fluid, or if the fluid mixture is a desired or irrelevant part of the industrial process.

Indirect Contact Heat Exchangers – Indirect contact heat exchangers keep the hot and cold fluids physically separated from each other. Typically indirect contact heat exchangers will keep the hot and cold fluids in different sets of pipes and instead rely on radiant energy and convection to exchange the heat. This is commonly done to prevent contamination or pollution of one fluid by the other.

The Physical State of the Fluids

Heat Exchangers may also be classified based on the physical state of the hot and cold fluids. For instance:

  • Liquid – Gas
  • Liquid – Solid
  • Gas – Solid

If the heat exchanger uses direct contact then the classification “immiscible liquid – liquid” may also exist to refer to liquids that will not blend together. For example oil and water are immiscible.

The Heat Exchanger’s Flow Arrangement

The arrangement of the hot and cold fluid’s flow within the heat exchanger is another major way of categorizing them. The three major categories based on flow arrangement are: parallel-flow, countercurrent-flow, and cross-flow.

Parallel-Flow – In parallel-flow heat exchangers the hot and cold fluids enter the heat exchanger from the same end and flow parallel to each other.

Countercurrent-Flow – In countercurrent-flow heat exchangers the hot and cold fluids enter the heat exchanger from opposite sides and flow toward each other.

Cross-Flow – In cross-flow heat exchangers the hot and cold fluids enter the heat exchanger at different points and as they travel through the heat exchanger they cross paths with each other, often at right angles.

Heat Exchanger Services and Maintenance

To ensure the longevity and efficiency of heat exchangers, regular heat exchanger service is crucial. This includes routine inspections, performance checks, and necessary heat exchanger repair. A professional heat exchanger cleaning company can provide specialized heat exchanger cleaning services, ensuring that the equipment runs at its optimal capacity.

Types of Heat Exchangers

  • Tube Heat Exchanger: Commonly used in various industries, this type involves a set of tubes through which one fluid runs, with another fluid flowing outside the tubes to facilitate heat exchange.
  • Frame Heat Exchangers: These are characterized by a frame that holds the heat exchanger plates in place. They are suitable for applications where easy disassembly and cleaning are required.
  • Industrial Heat Exchanger: A broad category that encompasses heat exchangers specifically designed for heavy-duty industrial applications, ensuring durability and efficiency.
  • Direct Contact Heat Exchangers: These bring the hot and cold fluids into direct contact, making them highly effective for certain applications where mixing of fluids is not an issue.
  • Indirect Contact Heat Exchangers: In these, the hot and cold fluids remain separated, often by a solid wall or barrier, preventing any mixing or contamination.

Cleaning and Maintenance Process

The heat exchanger cleaning process is a meticulous procedure that ensures the removal of any residues or build-ups. This not only enhances the efficiency of the heat exchanger but also prolongs its lifespan. Regular cleaning, especially heat exchanger cleaning, is essential to prevent potential operational issues.

Industrial Applications

The industrial heat exchanger plays a pivotal role in various sectors, including chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and power plants. Their primary function is to regulate temperature, ensuring that machinery and substances maintain a safe operating range.

It is important to keep in mind heat exchanger maintenance and servicing. Maintenance and servicing will vary based on the particular type of heat exchangers in question and their design and construction. Keeping heat exchangers well-maintained is critical for optimal performance.