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Indirect Heaters

Indirect heaters use an intermediate bath of heating fluid to transfer heat energy
from the heat source to the process fluid. Typically, a flame and hot exhaust gases
are confined within a firetube, which is surrounded by the heating fluid. Exhaust
gases from engines and turbines are also commonly used to heat the bath fluid.
The process fluid flows through a pipe coil that is also surrounded by the heating
fluid. Heat energy is transferred through the firetube or exhaust pipe wall to the
heating fluid and then through the surrounding heating fluid to the process fluid.
Within the heating fluid either natural or forced convection may be used to
distribute the heat energy.
Several types of indirect heaters are available, differing chiefly in the heating fluid
used to transfer the heat. Table 1 lists the most common types of indirect heaters,
with normal bath temperatures and typical bath properties listed for each. Typical
firetube Net Thermal Efficiency (NTE), which indicates the useful heat transferred
per net heat input, is on the order of 65 to 80 percent.
Table 1: Typical Bath Properties for Firetube Heaters

Bath Temp Outside Coil

Bundle ho Btu/

Firetube Flux
(Q/A) Btu/(hrft2)

Temp F

Efficiency NTE

Water Bath






50 percent
Ethylene Glycol





Low Pressure






Hot Oil or HTF






Molten Salt




1000-1200 68-74

TEG Reboiler






Amine Reboiler






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Common Types of Indirect Heaters

Water Bath Heaters
Water bath heaters are the most common form of indirect fired heater. Line heaters
for heating well fluids to prevent hydrate formation are almost exclusively water
bath heaters.
The heater is designed to operate at atmospheric pressure, and it is typically a
horizontal cylinder flanged at both ends with saddle type supports, as shown in
Figure 1. The firebox assembly inserts through one end and flanges to the shell.
The process coil flanges to the opposite end. The firetubes are located in the lower
section of the shell, with the process coil above the firetube.

Figure 1
Water heated by the firetubes rises due to density differences and transfers heat to
the process coil. The cooled water then drops back toward the firetubes, and the
cycle is repeated. This type of natural convective circulation is used in all indirect
The firebox consists of single or multiple U-shaped firetubes, a cover flange, the
burner or burners, and the exhaust stacks. Figure 1 shows a single firetube with
one burner and one stack. Heat transfer from the firetube surface to the bath fluid
occurs by natural convection. Firetubes are designed for a specific heat flux rate,
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the rate of heat per unit area of firetube, above which the firetube surface will not
stay wetted (vapor or bubbles will form on the firetube surface). The firetube heat
flux rate is a function of the heater fluid. Firetubes in water bath heaters are
normally designed for a heat flux rate of 10,000 to 13,000 Btu/hr-ft. The lower valve
is recommended. Designs that exceed the recommended firetube heat flux rate will
experience a loss in heat transfer efficiency, an increase in evaporation losses, and
an increase in firetube hot spots and burnout.
The process coil is the only portion of a water bath heater designed for pressures
above atmospheric. The coil consists of a series of straight tubes connected with
180 degree return bends and a cover flange. Seamless pipe is normally used for the
coil. Fabrication of the coil should be in accordance with ASME SEC VIII D1; ASME
B31.3; API SPEC 12K; or other acceptable codes. For onshore installations, API SPEC
12K is generally used. Offshore, ASME B31.3 is required in the U.S. and adds a
margin of safety in the design of the process coil.
The fuel gas supply to the burner is normally controlled by a temperature controller
on the water bath temperature. To prevent the loss of water from the bath the
operating temperature is normally limited to 190F. At higher temperatures
excessive amounts of water will be lost through the atmospheric vent.
Alternatively, a temperature controller may be used to maintain a certain process
fluid outlet temperature. In this case the bath temperature would fluctuate,
depending on the process fluid inlet temperature. One common method uses a
temperature controller on the water bath which overrides the temperature controller
on the process fluid to assure that the bath fluid is controlled at less than 190F. A
separate high temperature shutdown shall be considered on the water bath
regardless of the temperature control method.
Other sources of heat can be used in place of the firetube in Figure 1. The most
common is to route the exhaust piping from an engine or turbine through the water
bath. In such a system, the exhaust is diverted through the pipe in the bath, as
required by the process temperature controller, and allowed to go straight to
atmosphere through its normal exhaust stack when heat is not required from the
bath. A coil of either steam or a heat medium fluid, or an electrical immersion
heater can also be used to add heat to the bath fluid.
Hot Oil or Heat Transfer Fluid (HTF) Bath Heaters
HTF bath heaters use organic heat transfer fluids such as Dowtherm, and
Therminol as heating media. These fluids have low vapor pressures at elevated
temperatures, allowing operating temperatures up to 550F at atmospheric
pressure. Therefore, HTF bath heaters are very similar to water bath heaters but
are normally used for temperatures greater than 190F.
The particular HTF selected for an HTF bath heater affects the heater design. The
physical properties of the HTF shall be obtained at the intended operating
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temperature. The HTFs vapor pressure and thermal expansion characteristics are
important factors to consider when a heater is designed. To prevent the loss of
these expensive HTFs to the atmosphere the vapor pressure shall be low. Typically,
a small expansion tank is attached to an HTF bath heater so that at low operating
temperatures the shell may be full or nearly full of HTF. As the temperature rises,
the expansion tank allows for the thermal expansion of the HTF.
The firebox for an HTF bath heater is the same as for a water bath heater except
that the heat flux is normally limited to 8,000 Btu/hr-ft. This protects the HTF from
hot spots and excessive film temperatures that cause thermal degradation of the
The process coil may be made of seamless pipe (as with a water bath heater), or it
may be a tube bundle arrangement fabricated of heat exchanger tubing to provide
a large surface area. This allows a close approach between the HTF bath and the
process fluid temperatures. Thus, the HTF bath may be operated at a minimum
temperature that reduces heat losses to the atmosphere and protects the bath fluid
from thermal degradation. A typical HTF bath heater with an expansion tank is
shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

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Direct Fired Heaters

Direct fired heaters transfer heat directly from the combustion gases through a tube
wall to the process fluid. Thus only one pipe or tube wall instead of two separates
the process fluid from the flame and the heating medium. The transfer of heat to
the process fluid is more efficient, but the danger of exposing the process fluid to
the flame is greater.
Direct fired heaters may be designed to contain either the combustion gases or the
process fluid within tubes. For low pressure applications a heater may be used with
firetubes surrounded by the process fluid. This type of heater is very similar to
indirect heaters. Alternately, the process fluid may be contained within tubes past
which the combustion gases are required to flow. With this type of direct heater the
process fluid can be at high pressures within the tubes. Regardless of the function
of the heater, either firetube or process tube direct heaters may be used.
Three major types of direct fired heaters are classified as Liquid Heaters, Steam
Generators and Reboilers. The description is restricted to Liquid Heaters and

Liquid Heaters
A direct fired liquid heater that has a firetube for heating a crude oil stream prior to
processing is shown in Figure 3. Note that the firetube is surrounded by the process
fluid and the heat energy is transferred directly to the process fluid. As with indirect
heaters, other sources of heat could be used to heat the process fluid (e.g., exhaust
gas, steam coils, heat transfer fluid coils, etc).

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Figure 3
If the direct heater's shell is designed to contain pressures of 15 psig or more, it
shall be designed and fabricated in accordance with ASME SEC VIII D1 or other
acceptable codes. Firetubes shall be of the removable u-tube type. The shell for
this type of heater is typically limited to 125 psig for economic reasons. At higher
pressures it is usually economical to confine the process fluid within high pressure
tubes surrounded by the combustion gases. Direct fired heaters may be used for a
variety of heating requirements such as:
1. Heating crude oil to break water emulsions
2. Heating a fluid that can then be pumped to a number of heat users
3. Heating a glycol to drive off water vapor
4. Heating an amine or other chemical solvent to reverse a chemical reaction
5. Heating crude oil to reduce the oil viscosity prior to pumping
6. Heating bottoms of stabilizers or fractionators.

Direct fired kettle reboilers may be used to regenerate glycols or amines, or to boil a
variety of liquids for separation processes. These reboilers are very similar to
firetube steam generators, but typically a liquid weir is added to maintain the liquid
level in the firetube section. Excess liquid spills over this weir and is removed.
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Table 2: Criteria for Selection between Indirect and Direct Fired



Direct Fired

Direct fired heaters need
to operate at lower heat
flux due to the following:
a. Greater probability of
hot spot formation
b. Chemical degradation of
the liquid (coke formation)
c. Excessive localized
thermal stresses in the
d. Accumulation of coke or
scale on the firetube
e. Enhancing corrosion
from fluids containing H2S
or CO2

Heat Flux

13,000-18,000 Btu/

8,000-10,000 Btu/(hrft2)




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First Cost

Ease of

Generally Larger

Generally Smaller

Case to-case basis

depending on the

Case to-case basis

depending on the

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This is specifically
applicable to any heater
which has a firetube