A question we commonly receive is why a valve appears to open, or actuate, earlier than expected. Often, we find that the valve is not, in fact, opening early. Rather, the perception that it is actuating early is due to a misunderstanding of set pressure.

What is set pressure?

The set pressure, also called the opening pressure, of a safety or relief valve is the inlet pressure at which the valve begins to open as required by code.

The definition of set pressure depends on the type of valve and the service:

  • For steam service and most valves used in air or gas service, set pressure is defined as the pressure at which the valve makes a loud, audible “pop.”
  • For some valves in air or gas service, set pressure is defined as the pressure at which the first audible signal appears.
  • For liquid service, set pressure is defined as the pressure at which the first vertical steady stream of liquid appears.

A valve should be set to open at the maximum allowable working pressure (MAWP) of the vessel the valve is intended to protect. There is some tolerance to actual set pressure, which means that a valve set at 100 psig may open slightly above or slightly below this level.

Why does my valve open before it reaches the set pressure?

The first step is to determine if your valve really is opening early. Sometimes safety and safety relief valves appear to open before they reach the set pressure — there may be an audible or visible release of fluid between the seat and the disc. This is known as “simmer” or “warn,” and it is not the same as a full open.

Simmer, or warn, occurs when a valve opens slightly, discharging only a small percentage of its rated capacity. For example, direct spring-operated safety valves may simmer or warn at 90% of the nameplate set pressure. A valve that is simmering is not considered open.

The next step is to check your gauge to ensure that it is reporting the set pressure correctly. The gauge should be calibrated properly and located upstream of the valve, close to the valve inlet. Rapid increases in system pressure can make it appear that a valve is opening early because the gauge can’t accurately report the pressure.

If you still believe your valve is opening early, assess the operating factors that might be contributing to the situation. Valves are factory set using standard conditions, and factors like high temperature, vibration, and back pressure can cause them to open early. These conditions can be compensated for using cold set pressure, aka cold differential test pressure (CDTP). Learn more about CDTP from the National Board.

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