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ORNL Uses New Technologies to Take Steam Out of Wasted Energy

By installing wireless sensors and replacing faulty traps along the 12 miles of steam lines at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, officials expect to save as much as $675,000 per year.

With 1,600 steam traps, which normally open slightly to discharge condensed steam with a negligible loss of live steam, the problem occurs when a trap fails and that failure goes undetected and unrepaired, said Teja Kuruganti, a member of the Computational Sciences and Engineering Division.

Manual inspections of each trap is a daunting and sometimes dangerous task, but by collecting and monitoring data initially from 30 sensors at five steam trap locations, the team of researchers expects to demonstrate significant savings.

Steam is used at ORNL, industrial sites and universities throughout the nation for heating and cooling buildings. A Department of Energy study published in 2005, however, identified faulty steam traps as a major source of energy waste at industrial sites. “Approximately 20 percent of the steam leaving a central boiler plant is lost via leaking traps in typical space heating systems without proactive assessment programs,” the report, “Steam Trap Performance Assessment,” stated.

With this project, ORNL researchers see a chance to save money, reduce the lab’s carbon footprint and lead by example.

Working with Johnson Controls, ORNL has already repaired or replaced any faulty traps, and is considering expanding the wireless sensor system by installing hundreds of sensors.

“The installation of wireless sensors throughout much of the steam system can give us an early warning of component failures or impending failures,” said Wayne Parker of ORNL’s Utilities Division. “Catching problems as early as possible is essential in minimizing losses and maximizing savings.”

Kuruganti noted that wireless capability is “an ORNL hallmark” and this project leverages tools and technologies developed under the DOE Industrial Wireless Program. The sensors will monitor steam flow and temperature. The project will use the ORNL-developed Sensorpedia technology for standards-based information visualization.

Others involved in this project are Glenn Allgood, Joe Lake, Seddik Djouadi, Wayne Manges, Robert Baugh, Teresa Baer, Rob Crowell, Kenneth Woodworth, Mohammed Olama and Rangan Sukumar.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

NOTE TO EDITORS: You may read other press releases from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or learn more about the lab at Additional information about ORNL is available at the sites below:

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Cutline: Twelve miles of steam lines at Oak Ridge National Laboratory provide lots of opportunities for steam to escape. (Photo by Ron Walli/ORNL)

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