Tube and tube fittings

Tube, like pipe, is a hollow structure designed to provide an enclosed pathway for fluids to flow. In the case of tubing, it is usually manufactured from rolled or extruded metal (although plastic is a common tube material for many industrial applications). This section discusses some of the more common methods for joining tubes together (and joining tube ends to equipment such as pressure instruments).

One of the fundamental differences between tube and pipe is that tube is never threaded at the end to form a connection. Instead, a device called a tube fitting must be used to couple a section of tube to another tube, or to a section of pipe, or to a piece of equipment (such as an instrument). Unlike pipes which are thick-walled by nature, tubes are thin-walled structures. The wall thickness of a typical tube is simply too thin to support threads.

Tubes are generally favored over pipe for small-diameter applications. The ability for skilled workers to readily cut and bend tube with simple hand tools, as well as the ability to repeatedly break and re-make tube connections without compromising the integrity of the seals, makes tube the preferred choice for connecting instruments to process piping. When used as the connecting units between an instrument and a process pipe or vessel, the tube is commonly referred to as an impulse tube or impulse line. (Impulse lines are alternatively called gauge lines or sensing lines.)

Compression tube fittings

By far the most common type of tube fitting for instrument impulse lines is the compression-style fitting, which uses a compressible ferrule to perform the task of sealing fluid pressure. The essential components of a compression tube fitting are the body, the ferrule, and the nut. The ferrule and body parts have matching conical profiles designed to tightly fit together, forming a pressure-tight metal-to-metal seal. Some compression fitting designs use a two-piece ferrule assembly, such as this tube fitting shown here (prior to full assembly):

Tube Fittings

Just prior to assembly, we see how the nut will cover the ferrule components and push them into the conical entrance of the fitting body:

Tube Fittings - 1

After properly tightening the nut, the ferrule(s) will compress onto the outside circumference of the tube, slightly crimping the tube in the process and thereby locking the ferrules in place:

Tube Fittings - 2When initially assembling compression-style tube fittings, you should always precisely follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure correct compression. For Swagelok-brand instrument tube fittings 1 inch in size and smaller, the general procedure to “swage” a new connector to a tube is to tighten the nut 1-1/4 turns past finger-tight. Insufficient turning of the nut will fail to properly compress the ferrule around the tube, and excessive turning will over-compress the ferrule, resulting in leakage. After this initial “swaging,” the connector may be separated by loosening the nut until it no longer engages with the body, then the connection may be re-made by threading the nut back on the body until finger-tight and then gently tightening with a wrench until snug (no additional 1-1/4 turns!!!).

Swagelok provides special gauges which may be used to measure proper ferrule compression during the assembly process. The design of the gauge is such that its thickness will fit between the nut and fitting shoulder if the nut is insufficiently tightened, but will not fit if it is sufficiently tightened. Thus the gauge has the ability to reveal an under-tightened fitting, but not an over tightened fitting. These gauges fit easily in the palm of one’s hand:

Tube Fittings - 3

Such gauges are referred to in the industry as no-go gap gauges, because their inability to fit between the nut and body shoulder of a tube fitting indicates a properly-tightened fitting. In other words, the gauge fit will be “no-go” if the tube fitting has been properly assembled.

Photographs showing one of these gauges testing a properly-tightened fitting (left) versus an under-tightened fitting (right) appear here:

Tube Fittings - 4

Parker is another major manufacturer of instrument tube fittings, and their product line uses a single-piece ferrule instead of the two-piece design preferred by Swagelok. Like Swagelok fittings, Parker instrument fitting sized 1/4 inch to 1 inch require 1-1/4 turns past hand tight to properly compress the ferrule around the circumference of the tube. Parker also sells gauges which may be used to precisely determine when the proper amount of ferrule compression is achieved.

What a gap gauge will not indicate is over-tightening. Over-tightening of a compression fitting is just as bad as under-tightening, as the fitting cannot form a robust seal once the ferrule and tube have been deformed. An example of an over-tightened Swagelok two-piece ferrule (left) on a plastic tube appears in the following photograph, next to a properly swaged ferrule (right):

Tube Fittings - 5

Note the lack of a substantial gap between the two ferrule pieces in the over-tightened example. Note also the steeper cone taper of the over-tightened front ferrule, as a result of being pushed too deep inside the fitting body.

Regardless of the brand, compression-style instrument tube fittings are incredibly strong and versatile. Unlike pipe fittings, tube fittings may be disconnected and reconnected with ease. No special procedures are required to “re-make” a disassembled instrument fitting connection: merely tighten the nut “snug” to maintain adequate force holding the ferrule to the fitting body, but not so tight that the ferrule compresses further around the tube than it did during initial assembly.

A very graphic illustration of the strength of a typical instrument tube fitting is shown in the following photograph, where a short section of 3/8 inch stainless steel instrument tube was exposed to high liquid pressure until it ruptured. Neither compression fitting on either side of the tube leaked during the test, despite the liquid pressure reaching a peak of 23000 PSI before rupturing the tube :

Note : It should be noted that the fitting nuts became seized onto the tube due to the tube’s swelling. The tube fittings may not have leaked during the test, but their constituent components are now damaged and should never be placed into service again.

Tube Fittings - 6

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