What Is A Steam Trap & How Does It Work?

What are Steam Traps?

Steam systems are designed to put raw energy to work, and steam traps are a critical part of that system. Truly understanding steam traps requires a little bit of knowledge of steam and condensate, so let's start with the basics.

In This Article: 

Steam Traps

What is the Function of Steam?

We’re all familiar with the tried and true method of generating energy, pioneered by our ancient ancestors...FIRE. Fast forward a few thousand years and fire’s still a top choice, but along the way people realized that lighting fires everywhere can create a host of problems. Maintaining a single fire in a controlled, isolated environment is a lot easier – but you can’t send fire down a tube to where it’s needed!  That’s where steam comes into play.  

Steam has many great properties that make it ideal for generating energy. It can hold a lot of energy, can travel down a tube, and transfers heat in a uniform fashion.  The fire takes place in a boiler, which heats water to a boil, converting it into steam.  That steam is distributed to where it’s needed and then some of that energy created in the boiler is harnessed to do work – in components like radiators, water heaters, industrial kettles, sterilizers, turbines, etc.

Steam Trap

What Is Condensate?

Condensate is the ‘sweat’ of steam that’s been put to work.  In other words, it is what results when steam releases its energy through work and turns it back into water. When steam energy is used, some of the steam condenses.  For those in the know, you can forget about technicalities like conductance, latent heat, sensible heat, saturated steam, and convection for a minute and bear with this analogy.  

What Damage Does Condensation Cause?

The excellent properties of steam for energy generation do NOT apply to water! Condensate (water) is inevitable when a steam system is doing work. But, it needs to be taken out of the system so that steam can continue doing its job.  Water also has negative side effects, like corrosion and water-hammer that we won’t get into here – suffice to say, it’s not wanted in a steam system.

What Is A Steam Trap?

A steam trap is a device that removes condensate from a steam system.  A typical steam system will have many steam traps – typically placed at 50-150’ after in straight pipe, after every heat exchanger (where the work gets done), and at every location where there is a change of elevation or pressure.

What Does A Steam Trap Do?

Steam Traps

There are many types of steam traps (Learn  about the four primary ones here), but they all serve to keep steam in the “steam loop” while extracting condensate (and air) and redirecting it to the “condensate loop.” The condensate loop usually feeds into a tank, and from there the water is either processed and returned to the boiler or cooled and discharged as waste.

Steam system operators need to know that steam traps are doing their job, and select the right size and type based on load levels (min, max, and consistency), cycling requirements, process requirements, longevity, and a plethora of other factors.  For the rest of us, the hope is that we are now armed with enough knowledge to dissuade any cavemen we know from lighting more fires – and, more importantly, understand a critical component of systems that play a huge role in our lives in the modern world. 

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