Thermal fluids are a vital component in industrial manufacturing operations, yet don’t always receive the attention and respect they deserve.

When things go wrong with tens of thousands of litres of oil in a factory you don’t need much imagination to think of the consequences. Indeed, explosions have occurred in the panel board sector that have caused fatalities.

Some 54% of all thermal fluid-related fires and explosions are due to poor system maintenance or training.

WBPI spoke to UK-based Thermal Fluid Solutions (TFS), an international provider of thermal fluid system support, maintenance and risk management services.

TFS, originally established in 1996 as Heat Transfer Systems, has developed a PACT Partner Programme for the benefit of panel board manufacturing customers, which already include Arauco, Norbord, Georgia- Pacific, LP Building Solutions and IKEA.

It was originally trialled at Norbord’s plant in Cowie, Scotland and then grew across Norbord’s other plants in North America and then to other manufacturers. TFS' service in North America is operated by TFSA (Thermal Fluid Solutions Americas), based in Houston, Texas and headed up by Marc Gingras. TFS sales director John Shorthouse said the Derbyshire-based company had experience with the panel board sector stretching back to the 1990s but has been more intentional about the industry in the last five to six years, with work also being done at the likes of Latvijas Finieris in Latvia, as well as plants in South Africa, Spain, France and Germany.

“There is a view that thermal oil is just a utility, but thermal oil degrades,” said Mr Shorthouse.

The risk of fire and explosion, he explained, relates to the fact that thermal fluid systems’ operating temperatures are typically higher than the closed cup flash point of the thermal oil within – the minimum temperature at which, in the presence of a source of ignition, such as electrical sparks or pump failure, a fluid’s vapours will ignite.

Degradation of the oil over time at these temperatures results in lowering flash and fire points, reduced viscosity, increased carbon forming and increased vapour pressure, leading to potential explosion risk.

“A thermal oil with a flashpoint of 210OC can degrade down to just 40OC over time,” said Mr Shorthouse.

Thus thermal fluids which were not flammable at the operating temperature when they were initially installed may, over time, become flammable at the operating conditions.

A further risk of high flash point materials is the formation of explosive mist atmospheres around leak points such as flanges, a risk which can be reduced by the fitting of mist guards.


TFS’s PACT programme (Professional Accreditation Compliance Team) is tailored for the panel board sector, offering a thermal fluid risk-management package including advice, implementation and compliance paperwork, designed to enable companies to operate efficiently, cost-effectively and in accordance with health and safety legislation.

This gives wood panel manufacturers a route to achieve and maintain compliance with health and safety legislation such as ATEX (Atmosphère Explosible), DSEAR (Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations) and PUWER (Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations), while protecting their assets, ensuring operational efficiency and, TFS says, potentially minimising their insurance premiums.

“Auditing and compliance has taken off over the last few years,” explained Mr Shorthouse. “You have to understand that thermal oil is not a utility and you have to appreciate the science of it.”

PACT comprises four stages depending on budget – Essential, Active, Total and Plus – beginning with knowledge-building via regular oil sampling and analysis, risk identification and training. It offers routine procedural reviews and facilitates continuous improvements in thermal oil risk management via the establishment of the bespoke PACT Partner Programme.

Customers will soon be able to easily access their PACT reports on an online portal via a new app, allowing them to maintain up-to-date information on their thermal fluid system and legislative compliance.

Reducing Risk

“The company aims to help reduce the risk of fire and explosion and improve safety and control to slow degradation of the oil,” said Mr Shorthouse.

If the thermal oil flash point has reduced to an unacceptably low level, an alternative to replacing all the thermal fluid is to remove the contaminants responsible for reducing the overall flash point.

When you consider the costs of replacing up to 200,000 litres of thermal oil and the production downtime, which on a particleboard mill costs approximately £7,500 per hour of lost production, then filtering and refining existing oil can be an attractive option.

“TFS can offer this service at full operating temperature so there is no downtime on the mill,” he said.

TFS can install proprietary fluid conditioning equipment, designed to remove the VOCs, as part of the thermal fluid system, with the added benefit of potentially extending fluid life considerably, resulting in significant savings.

TFS has health and safety accreditations: SafeContractor, Avetta and SMAS (Safety Management Advisory Services), which are all registered members of SSIP (Safety Schemes in Procurement), plus ISO9000 accreditation in quality management.

“For over 20 years, we have been finding ways to ensure that thermal fluids can be safely used, helping process manufacturers to achieve health and safety legislative compliance and operate cost-effectively,” said TFS’ managing director Richard Franklin.

“Our PACT Partnership programme enables customers to take their thermal fluid understanding and management to the next level thus allowing them to achieve continuous improvement and operational excellence.”