Classifying the fluids we will be sealing


To be able to seal the wide variety of chemicals used in the process industry you need a method of classifying chemicals that puts them into neat, logical categories. These categories can be handled by the use of an off the shelf seal, a special seal design or by controlling the environment in the stuffing box and outside the seal faces.

Any fluid can be classified as either a liquid or a gas and placed into seven sealing categorizes.

  • Fluids sensitive to small changes in temperature and/or pressure.  SA007
  • Fluids that require two mechanical seals.  SA008
  • Non lubricating liquids, gases and solids. SA009
  • Slurries classified as solids in liquid. The solids may or may not be abrasive.  SA10
  • Liquids sensitive to agitation.  SA011
  • Liquids that react with each other to form a solid. SA012
  • Lubricating liquids.  SA013

Let’s look at each of these categories in detail and learn how they affect the life of a mechanical seal:

Any fluid will be affected by a large change in temperature or pressure, but many fluids are sensitive to small changes. By a small change I mean one atmosphere of pressure (15 psi or one bar) or 10 degrees Centigrade (18 degrees Fahrenheit) of temperature.

I have chosen these numbers because the best of seal designs can generate that amount of temperature between the lapped faces, and any seal can experience a pressure drop of one atmosphere across the lapped faces.

  • Corrosive liquids are sensitive to an increase in heat. Most corrosives will double their corrosion rate with an 18 degree Fahrenheit (10 C.) rise in temperature. The temperature at the seal face is always hotter than the temperature recorded in the stuffing box or seal chamber. Keep in mind that any contact between the rotating shaft and a stationary component will cause high heat and will be detected as localized corrosion. Wear rings and throttle bushings are subject to this rubbing. If the equipment you are sealing is provided with a cooling jacket, and the jacket is not being utilized, the trapped air can act as an insulator increasing the heat in the stuffing box considerably.
  • Liquids that vaporize. Most any liquid will vaporize if it becomes hot enough, or if the stuffing box pressure gets too low. It is the product with a low specific gravity that gives us the most trouble. If the product vaporizes between the lapped seal faces they will separate as the gases expand. When hot water vaporizes it leaves behind any chemicals or solids that were dissolved in the water. Most of these chemicals are left in a hard crystal form that will damage the lapped faces.
    • Fluids such as benzene and others with a low specific gravity will freeze as they vaporize. If any oil or lubricant was placed on the seal face it will freeze and possibly damage the lapped faces. Moisture on the outboard side of the seal will also freeze and restrict movement of the sliding or flexing seal components.
  • Liquids that solidify. Some solidify with an increase in temperature, others with a decrease in temperature. Solvents vaporize with lower pressure leaving any solids behind. Paint is a good example of a product where the solvent will vaporize at or below atmospheric pressure. In most cases you can reference a vapor pressure chart to learn when the solvent or carrier will vaporize in your application.
  • Viscous Products. Their viscosity usually decreases with an increase in temperature and increases with a decrease in temperature. Oil is a good example of this type of fluid. High viscosity can interfere with free seal movement and cause seal faces to separate. Lowering the viscosity often increases the seal face wear because there is not enough film thickness to keep the surfaces separated. You need a film thickness of at least one micron (0.000039″) to keep the lapped seal faces separated.
  • Film building liquids.
    • Petroleum products will form a varnish when first heated and then gradually form a layer of coke as the temperature is elevated. These transformations are not reversible and the resultant hard film restricts sliding and/or flexing of the seal components.
    • Hard water is another example of a film building fluid.
    • Hot water systems pick up magnetite (Ferric Oxide) from the inside of the pipes. It is black or reddish in color and will be attracted by a magnet. This abrasive material will collect on the seal components and destroy the dynamic O-ring as well as restrict the movement of the seal causing the lapped faces to open. Magnetite is a severe problem in new, hot water systems. The problem will lessen as the system ages and the protective film stabilizes.
  • Liquids that crystallize. Sugar and salt solutions are two examples of these fluids. If the crystals form between the faces they can destroy the carbon. If they form in the sliding or flexing components they will open the seal faces as the shaft moves. Any leakage across the seal faces will form a solids build up on the other side of the seal causing interference as the seal tries to move when it compensates for face wear.

The names of these chemicals are not important. If you knew how to seal any one of them you could seal all of them. It is just a matter of fitting the particular chemical into the right categories and learning how to seal that category.

Common sense would dictate that the product temperature and/or pressure must be controlled in the seal area to prevent any of the above from occurring. In most cases you should try to avoid the use of two hard faces in these applications because of the additional heat that will be generated between the faces as a result of the higher friction.

Needless to say, only hydraulically balanced seals are acceptable in any temperature or pressure sensitive fluid.

The next category we will look at, are those liquids that require two mechanical seals.

These seals are installed with a circulating barrier or buffer fluid that can be a forced circulation, or in many cases a convection system. The pressure of the barrier or buffer fluid can be regulated to indicate a failure in either of the mechanical seals allowing time for a pump shut down, isolation and no subsequent loss in the pumping fluid.

  • Costly products fit into this category. Sometimes the product costs so much you just cannot afford to have it leak. There are plenty of charts to show how much leakage you get from various sized drips or steady streams. The smallest steady stream you can produce will be between twenty five and thirty U.S. gallons per day (95 to 115 liters/day)
  • Dangerous products require dual seals. These fluids are given a special category because even small amounts of leakage are not acceptable. The danger could fall into many categories including radiation, toxic, fire, explosion, or bacteria. The United States’ “Right to know law” is having a major affect on how mechanical seals used in these types of products will be repaired.
  • Pollutants also qualify. If a pollutant leaks, a penalty or fine is involved and the bad publicity does no one any good. In this day and age a responsible company will not let pollutants leak to the atmosphere, or to the earth for any reason. Fugitive emission legislation has increased the need for these types of mechanical seals.
  • Any time an unexpected seal failure would be inconvenient, dual seals make sense. Down time can be a very costly in many plants. Two seals prevent the unexpected seal failure shut down. This is especially important with batch operations or when there is no back up pump installed. I spent six years on a nuclear submarine; the back up shaft seal would allow us to get to the surface if a main shaft seal failed while we were submerged.

Sealing non-lubricants comes next:

  • Non-lubricating liquids such as solvents and hot water fall into this category. We experience more rapid face wear with these types of fluids because their film thickness is often less than one micron and cannot support a load between two sliding surfaces
  • Dry gases are a bigger problem than non-lubricating liquids. Unlike non-lubricating liquids they will not conduct heat very well and often are dangerous at the same time. This is a common problem if you forget to vent the stuffing box of a vertical pump. A top entering mixer is another example of this type of application.
    • Unless moisture is present, the graphite will not separate from the carbon/graphite face and deposit on the hard face. It is this graphite that provides the face lubrication in many marginal and dry running applications.
  • Dry solids are the biggest problem of all. They can clog the seal sliding components and provide no lubrication for seal faces. Once the faces are open the solids penetrate between the lapped faces and can destroy the lapped surfaces. Pharmaceuticals, freeze dried coffee and cake mix are examples of this category. I am sure you can think of many more.

Slurries, especially abrasive slurries are another sealing problem. They clog the seal components and destroy faces like the dry solids mentioned above.

  • The list of these products is without end. Slurry is defined as solids in liquid that cannot be dissolved by normal control of the fluid temperature or pressure. The number of solids or their size is not important. They will collect in the sliding or flexing components of the seal causing the faces to open and then penetrate between the lapped faces causing leakage and damage. In some designs the springs or bellows (metallic or elastomer) will experience severe wear in a short period of time.
    • In these designs it is important to rotate the fluid rather than have the bellows component rotate within the abrasive slurry.

Liquids sensitive to agitation can become more or less viscous in the stuffing box of the pump:

  • Dilatants increase their viscosity with agitation. This is how cream becomes butter. Some clay slurries have the same problem. The resulting high viscosities will restrict the free movement of the seal.
    • When dealing with dilatants it is important that you do not continually rotate the fluid in the stuffing box area.
  • Thixotropic fluids lower their viscosity with agitation. They seldom present a problem for mechanical seals except for an increase in seal face wear.
  • Plastic fluids change their viscosity suddenly. Catsup is a good example of this type of fluid.
  • Newtonian fluids do not change viscosity with agitation. Unless they fall into other categories, they present no problem for mechanical seals.

Liquids that combine together to form a solid is our next category.

We seldom have problems with these liquids in pumps because the blending takes place outside of the pump, but the problem sometimes comes up in mixer applications. You will note that I have not included anaerobic fluids (they solidify in the absence of air) in any of the categories (super glue is the product that first comes to mind).

  • Epoxy is a combination of a resin and a hardener.
  • Combining several liquids together makes Styrofoam.

Lubricating liquids is the last catagory on our list:

  • This is the ideal application for a mechanical seal but we seldom see it. More often than not we are sealing raw product that falls into one or more of the above categories. Back in the days when we were using packing in pumps we did not pay too much attention to these categories because we were either prepared to let the product leak on the ground or we would flush in clean liquid and concentrate on sealing the clean flush instead.

Now that leakage is no longer tolerable and product dilution is no longer desirable, you must have knowledge of these chemical categories to approach the job of effective sealing.

In most cases the fluid you are sealing will fall into several of the above mentioned categories. Using heat transfer oil as an example we note that it falls into the following five categories:

  • Hot. This oil is pumped at 600 -700 Fahrenheit (315 -370 C); the fluid is too hot for available elastomers.
  • Film Building. The product cokes at these temperatures.
  • Dangerous. You do not need this high temperature oil leaking out. It is not only a fire hazard, but a personnel hazard as well. Recent information indicates that some of these oils are also classified as carcinogens.
  • Costly. Most of these transfer oils cost between $12.00 to $20.00 per gallon (3,8 Ltrs.)
  • Slurry. Because of the coking, solids are always present.

To successfully seal heat transfer oil you would have to address all of these problems at the same time. As is the case with all slurry applications, you would also have to recognize the problems with vibration (impeller imbalance), thermal growth, and frequent impeller adjustments if you were using open impellers.

In addition to handling various chemicals we are often faced with extreme or severe operating conditions. These conditions fall into seven categories also:

  • Hot products – Defined as too hot for one of the seal components, or hot enough to cause the fluid to change from a liquid to a gas or solid. Heat transfer oil is a good example of a fluid that will “coke” at elevated temperature.
  • Cryogenic fluids – They present a problem for elastomers and some carbon faces. Liquid nitrogen or oxygen would be an example.
  • High Pressure – Defined as stuffing box, (not discharge) pressure in excess of 400 psi. (28 bar). Pipe line and boiler-circulating pumps can have stuffing box pressures of this magnitude.
  • Hard Vacuum – Defined as 10-2 Torr or below. This number is well below most condenser or evaporator applications, but does come up every once in a while.
  • High Speed – Defined as the seal faces moving greater than 5000 feet per minute (fpm.) or 25 meters per second. Most process pumps do not approach this speed. The Sundstrand “Sundyne” pump is typical of a high-speed application.
  • Excessive motion – defined as more than 0.005 inches (0,15 mm.) in a radial or axial direction. Mixers, agitators and specialized equipment have shaft movements up to 1/8 inch (3 mm). Long shaft vertical pumps and pumps equipped with sleeve or journal bearings, are another application for excessive motion.
  • Excessive vibration – Unfortunately there are no reliable numbers for the vibration limits of mechanical seals. Most vibration studies have addressed only the bearings. It is important to know that excessive vibration can:
    • Open the lapped seal faces.
    • Chip the outside diameter of the carbon face.
    • Break the metal bellows used in some seal designs.
    • Wear the driving mechanism used to transmit torque from the set-screws to the seal faces.
    • Loosen drive screws.
    • Shorten bearing life
    • Most seal designs can damage (frett) expensive sleeves and shafts.
    • Some, but not all designs have built in vibration dampers to relieve some of these problems.