The Pressure is On for Pressure Switches

by Breana Cronk, IQS Editor

Nearly three weeks after a massive oil rig exploded in the Gulf Coast, the cast off oil has begun to reach the coastline. The explosion and ensuing fire claimed the lives of 11 workers. As if this loss were not great enough, the continuous flow of oil leaking from the damaged rig will no doubt have a profound impact on wildlife as well as thousands if not millions of people living and working in that area. While we may never know the cause of the explosion, it is evident that shut off switch failure is responsible for the enormous oil spill that so threatens the coastline. Although containment and clean up are at the moment priorities, both BP and the federal government are searching for some explanation behind this disaster. One avenue to explore is the role pressure switches may have played.

Photo courtesy of SOR, Inc.

The shut off switch is in effect a type of pressure switch. The malfunction of this switch, though exceedingly harmful, may not have been the cause of the explosion, but merely a reflection of the damage done. If any pressure switch failure is responsible for the actual explosion it is far more likely that it was the well pump pressure switch. These switches are not relegated to oil drilling alone, in fact the most popular application is domestic and residential water wells. The primary function of this particular switch is to maintain pressure at a functional level. In normal circumstances a functioning switch will detect a problem and shut down the process completely until the error is corrected. Switch failure, however, enhances the risk of potentially fatal over-pressurizing. If found to be responsible, the failure of the oil rig’s pressure switch system illustrates the danger of excess pressurization on a grand scale. These and other switches, such as water and air pressure switches, serve a much broader array of industries than oil production alone. Even oil pressure switches are not exclusive to drilling applications. In fact, one of the most popular applications for oil switches is engine regulation and monitoring for cars, trucks and boats while well and water pressure switches maintain, regulate and monitor commercial, industrial and residential water supplies.

Although the mechanisms may be complex, the overall function is not. The switch is programmed to engage at certain pressure points which may be set from the time of manufacturing or variable as with adjustable pressure switches. This engagement could mean closing the pipeline or opening it further depending upon the specific application and desired pressure. Both pressure rises and falls can activate the pressure switch which functions as an on and off switch to ensure the proper levels are maintained. Additional components may include sensors or chips, transducers, meters, gauges and controllers to more effectively facilitate and regulate pressurized materials. While alarms are commonly used, it is evident that they were insufficient on the unfortunate rig in question.

Functioning pressure switches allow manufacturers and engineers to regulate productivity and safety manually or automatically. In addition to the aforementioned applications, pressure switches are essential to the daily operations of industries such as agriculture, power generation, wastewater treatment and filtration among others. While we may never know for certain what caused the devastating explosion of the coastal oil rig, it is an absolute certainty that pressure switches are an integral component of everyday life. With proper maintenance and safety checks, these regulatory devices more often prevent catastrophes rather than cause them.

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