Actuators and signal conversion

Actuators are the final control elements or systems and include contactors and the electrical apparatus under control, valves (control and isolation), including pilots valves, valve actuators and positioners, power supplies and utilities which are required for the actuator to perform its safety function, all of which should be adequately reliable. A measure of their reliability is used in confirming the integrity level of the protective system. This measure should take into account the proportion of failures of the actuator under the relevant process conditions which are failures to danger.

Actuators are frequently the most unreliable part of the tripping process.

Dangerous failures can be minimised by a number of measures such as:

  • Use of ‘fail-safe’ principles so that the actuator takes up the tripped state on loss of signal or power (electricity, air etc.). e.g. held open, spring return actuator;
  • Provision of uninterruptable or reservoir supplies of sufficient capacity for essential power;
  • Failure detection and performance monitoring (end of travel switches, time to operate, brake performance, shaft speed, torque etc.) during operation;
  • Actuator exercising or partial stroke shutoff simulation during normal operation to reveal failures or degradation in performance. Note this is not proof testing but may reduce probability of failure by improved diagnostic coverage (IEC 61508);
  • Overrating of equipment.

Other matters which should have been considered are:

  • Valves should be properly selected for their duty, and it should not be assumed that a control valve can satisfactorily perform isolation functions;
  • Actuators may also include programmable control elements (e.g. SMART instruments) particularly within positioners and variable speed drives and motor control centres. Modern motor control centres may use programmable digital addressing. This introduces a significant risk of introduction of systematic failure and failure modes which cannot be readily predicted. Such an arrangement should be treated with caution. It is normally reasonably practicable for trip signal to act directly upon the final contactor;
  • Potential for failure due to hydraulic locking between valves (e.g. trace heated lines between redundant shutoff valves).
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