The problem is not with your brain, Sir, it is the number of limbs

Functional safety design is a concurrent activity with process design. In a process plant, the process engineer will specify the safety functions for a given unit. Take for example a pressure vessel with several inlets, such as a typical second-stage separator in an oil-production train. This is a pressure vessel separating oil and gas by gravity, and typically the number of inlets is quite high. This is because the main production stream enters this separator, together with recovered oil from multiple units downstream the separation train, for example compression train scrubbers, an electrostatic coalesce, reclaimed oil sump from the flare knock-out drum, etc. A simplified drawing of this may look as follows:

This pressure vessel is equipped with an automatic safety trip – a level alarm high high (PAHH). When the high high level is reached, the process shutdown system (PSD) will automatically stop inflow to the tank to avoid the level from increasing any further. Let us say this function has to satisfy a SIL 2 requirement, and that we have the following data available for the process shutdown valves (shown on the drawing), for the PSD logic node including I/O cards, and for the level transmitter:

Equipment type

Failure rate (Dangerous undetected failures per million hours)

Valve with actuator




Safety PLC with I/O cards


Level transmitter


(These data are made up for this example – use real data in real applications)

The formula for calculating the average probability of failure on demand for a function with no redundancy is PFD = λDU x τ / 2, where λDU is the failure rate for dangerous undetected failures per hour, and τ is the proof test interval between each time the function is fully tested. If we assume that we test this function once per year, we can calculate the overall PFD:

PFD = [PFDValve + PFDSolenoid ] x NValves + PFDPLC + PFDTransmitter

If we calculate this with the above data and 5 critical valves we get a PFD of 0.02. For a SIL 2 function we have to get below 0.01 – so this function is not reliable enough. Which options do we have, and what would be the best way to deal with this?

  1. Buy more reliable components?
  2. Redesign the process?
  3. Introduce other risk reduction systems to reduce the SIL requirement?

All of these changes could be useful – alone or together. However, it is a general problem that we get too many final elements in safety trips – and valves are typically much less reliable than electrical components. Therefore, it makes sense to reduce the number of valves. Actual valves can be more reliable than this – but they may also be less reliable. Considering reliability requirements when buying the valve thus is essential. In our case, we can look more closely at the system we are trying to protect;

  • Is the MEG injection really a big contributor? Maybe this line is normally not used, and the line size is very small? In that case we may choose not to include that valve in the SIL loop – although we will actually close it. But it is not critical to the safety of the system.
  • Can we combine some of the feed flows into a header – and locate one shutdown valve on that header instead of having individual valves? All flows are carrying oil – there is no reason to expect chemical incompatibilities. Let us say we confer with the process engineers and they agree on this.

We then have a changed process (we used option b).

With this changed design – what is the PFD now? We can recalculate with only 2 critical valves and end up with PFD = 0.009. This is below 0.01 and is acceptable for a SIL 2 application.

Points to remember

  • Be careful to avoid too many final elements in a safety function
  • Always make sure you buy equipment with the required reliability and sufficient documentation
  • When you need to change something – consider several options to avoid sub-optimizing your design

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