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Corrosion in heating and cooling systems

Most buildings services engineers will have come across a heating or cooling system that has not received water treatment and still appears to function perfectly and another that has apparently been treated but experienced serious corrosion related failures. Why should one be vulnerable and the other not?

The answer is that most common metals are subject to corrosion but the rate of corrosion and risk of failure depends on a variety of factors including:

  • The chemical and microbiological environment.
  • The temperature.
  • The flow rate.
  • The thickness of the metal.

In many respects water is the ideal heat transfer medium for building services. It has a reasonably high specific heat, is liquid over a convenient temperature range and is non-flammable, non-toxic and freely available. The downside is that water is an electrolyte that facilitates corrosion in metallic pipework and components. One might think that the obvious solution is to use plastic pipework but this can actually increase the risk of corrosion of the corrodible components that remain.

In a steel pipework system, the dissolved oxygen in the system water will be rapidly used up as it reacts with the large area of corrodible surface, but the loss of metal thickness should be insignificant. In a plastic pipework system there are few corrodible components so oxygen concentration will remain higher for longer and the corrodible materials will continue to corrode at a high rate. This means that almost all water-based heating and cooling systems should have some form of water treatment to control corrosion, and this may be even more important in plastic pipework systems.

The usual construction programme for large building projects involves installation and pressure testing of pipework followed by pre-commission cleaning and commissioning several months later. During the gap between pressure testing and pre-commission cleaning the system may be stagnant and may still be contaminated with manufacturing and construction residues. This is an ideal environment for the development of biofilm and corrosion.

In traditional steel pipe systems (using BS 1387:1985 or BS EN 10255:2004 medium or heavy grade pipe) this is not too much of a problem. The relatively thick pipe (at least 3.2 mm for 1 inch nominal bore and larger) can tolerate the initial corrosion due to the oxygen in the fill water and biofilm development during subsequent stagnation conditions. Provided the pre-commissioning cleaning is carried out effectively, ideally with a biocide wash prior to chemical cleaning, there should be minimal impact on the lifetime of the system.

Thin wall steel pipes and steel panel radiators may not be so fortunate. The thickness of 25 mm nominal bore thin wall carbon steel pipe is only 1.5 mm while a typical steel panel radiator is only 1.3 mm thick. If the initial corrosion was spread uniformly across the metal surface it would not be a problem, but what tends to happen is that small patches of the surface become anodic relative to their surroundings and are preferentially corroded leading to rapid localised pitting. If dissolved oxygen levels persist or are replenished due air ingress, continuing additions of fresh water or permeation through non-metallic materials, then the pitting can progress to perforation. Components that should last 25 years can be perforated in a few months. This is one of the most frequent types of corrosion failure and can result in expensive remedial works even before the building is occupied.

Water treatment chemicals work by inhibiting the corrosion process, either by coating the surface of the metal (anodic inhibitors) or by blocking the corrosion reactions (cathodic inhibitors). However, inhibitors are not the solution to poor closed system design or operational deficiencies and certainly won’t work to best effect in a dirty system (i.e. one with a high level of suspended solids and/or biological contamination). Also, the system operation must allow the inhibitors and other water treatment chemicals to be maintained at an effective concentration and circulated throughout the year.

In summary, the factors necessary to avoid pitting corrosion of steel components in closed systems are:

  1. Minimise the delay between first fill and pre-commission cleaning.
  2. Carry out effective pre-commission cleaning of the pipework system.
  3. Establish, monitor and maintain effective water treatment and water quality as soon as possible in the life of the system.
  4. Circulate water throughout the system on a daily basis to avoid stagnation.
  5. Avoid ingress of oxygen from inadequate pressurisation or excessive fresh water additions.

What happens in the first few weeks of the life of the system will influence its fate over the next 25 years. You can’t easily see what is going on inside a pipe but get it wrong and you could be looking at major remedial works in a tenth of that time.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 edition of BSRIA’s Delta T magazine. It was written by Reginald Brown, Head of Energy and Environment. It has been posted here by --BSRIA 09:12, 8 December 2014 (UTC)

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