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District heating thermal expansion warning

A manufacturer of district heating pipe systems has highlighted its serious concern at the growing sector’s apparent lack of awareness in the effects that thermal expansion has on pre-insulated pipe networks.

If ignored, the company is warning that systems will fail and this will risk damaging the faith placed in the resurgent technology by DECC’s heat strategy.

Although a pre-requisite in some of the better-developed markets for district heating in Europe, the company believes that stress analysis is being overlooked – particularly at a site level. Managing director Mark Whettall explained: “It’s all too common for civil works to commence on site and hit an unforeseen obstruction in the ground that requires a deviation from the planned route. These changes - which are often made on the hoof – can seriously affect the integrity of a system’s performance. Although they may not be apparent straight away, as soon as the system is operational and the temperature cycles commence, the stress levels increase dramatically and in the worst cases, stress fatigue can occur.”

Experienced district heating network designers and manufacturers should always be able to assist the on-site teams with calculating the effects that these system changes can have – so that necessary steps can be taken to ensure that the thermal expansion stays within the requirements of both the manufacturers’ recommendations and the requirements of the EN 13941 standards for the design and installation of pre-insulated bonded pipe systems for district heating. Mr Whettall continued: “It’s not rocket science, it’s just sound engineering design and by using advanced stress analysis tools such as the industry-leading sisKMR software package, as a manufacturer we’re able to analyse and correct a client’s proposed design so that its performance and life expectancy are maximised.”

“In an ideal situation, contractors should pre-stress a pre-insulated pipe system by heating the network before it’s buried – then backfilling and compacting the trenches whilst the system remains heated in order to reduce the initial stress to acceptable levels. Unfortunately though, site conditions – particularly when working in urban environments - often prevent this approach, so we have to use other methods of dealing with expansion as dictated by our stress analysis calculations.

“As the UK’s district heating sector continues to gather apace, we must all remain vigilant and ensure that these fundamental calculations are not only carried out, but implemented. Project teams will always be under pressure to get a trench backfilled and the surface re-instated – particularly if it’s in a public highway or in a residential area – so developers need to select a supplier that will provide them with quick and accurate calculations and advice.

“With this upsurge in district heating projects, we are inevitably seeing traditional utility contractors with experience in MDPE water and gas pipes move into the district heating sector and it’s imperative that the project teams – particularly those in supervisory roles – receive training in installing district heating networks.  Many are largely unaware of the importance of dealing with thermal expansion and as such are prime candidates to attend manufacturers’ training courses.”

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