Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Pipeline Crack Propagation

Polyethylene (PE) is the primary material used for gas pipe applications. Because of its flexibility, ease of joining and long-term durability, along with lower installed cost and lack of corrosion, gas companies want to install PE pipe instead of steel pipe in larger diameters and higher pressures. As a result, rapid crack propagation (RCP) is becoming a more important property of PE materials.

This article reviews the two key ISO test methods that are used to determine RCP performance (full-scale test and small-scale steady state test), and compare the values obtained with various PE materials on a generic basis. It also reviews the status of RCP requirements in industry standards; such as ISO 4437, ASTM D 2513 and CSA B137.4. In addition, it reviews progress within CSA Z662 Clause 12 and the AGA Plastic Materials Committee to develop industry guidelines based on the values obtained in the RCP tests to design against an RCP incident.


Although the phenomenon of RCP has been known and researched for several years 1, the number of RCP incidents has been very low. A few have occurred in the gas industry in North America, such as a 12-inch SDR 13.5 in the U.S. and a 6-inch SDR 11 in Canada, and a few more in Europe.

With gas engineers desiring to use PE pipe at higher operating pressures (up to 12 bar or 180 psig) and larger diameters (up to 30 inches), a key component of a PE piping material - resistance to rapid crack propagation (RCP) - becomes more important.

Most of the original research work conducted on RCP was for metal pipe. As plastic pipe became more prominent, researchers applied similar methodologies used for metal pipe on the newer plastic pipe materials, and particularly polyethylene (PE) pipe 2. Most of this research was done in Europe and through the ISO community.

Rapid crack propagation, as its name implies, is a very fast fracture. Crack speeds up to 600 ft/sec have been measured. These fast cracks can also travel long distances, even hundreds of feet. The DuPont Company had two RCP incidents with its high-density PE pipe, one that traveled about 300 feet and the other that traveled about 800 feet.

RCP cracks usually initiate at internal defects during an impact or impulse event. They generally occur in pressurized systems with enough stored energy to drive the crack faster than the energy is released. Based on several years of RCP research, whether an RCP failure occurs in PE pipe depends on several factors:

  1. Pipe size.
  2. Internal pressure.
  3. Temperature.
  4. PE material properties/resistance to RCP.
  5. Pipe processing.

Typical features of an RCP crack are a sinusoidal (wavy) crack path along the pipe, and “hackle” marks along the pipe crack surface that indicate the direction of the crack. At times, the crack will bifurcate (split) into two directions as it travels along the pipe.

Test Methods

The RCP test method that is considered to be the most reliable is the full-scale (FS) test method, as described in ISO 13478. This method requires at least 50 feet of plastic pipe for each test and another 50 feet of steel pipe for the reservoir. It is very expensive and time consuming. The cost to obtain the desired RCP information can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Due to the high cost for the FS RCP test, Dr. Pat Levers of Imperial College developed the small-scale steady state (S4) test method to correlate with the full-scale test3. This accelerated RCP test uses much smaller pipe samples (a few feet) and a series of baffles, and is described in ISO 13477. The cost of conducting this S4 testing is still expensive, but less than FS testing. Several laboratories now have S4 equipment. A photograph with this article shows the S4 apparatus used by Jana Laboratories.

Whether conducting FS or S4 RCP testing, there are two key results used by the piping industry; one is the critical pressure and the other is the critical temperature.

The critical pressure is obtained by conducting a series of FS or S4 tests at a constant temperature (generally 0C) and varying the internal pressure. At low pressures, where there is insufficient energy to drive the crack, the crack initiates and immediately arrests (stops). At higher pressures, the crack propagates (goes) to the end of the pipe. The critical pressure is shown by the red line in Figure 1 as the transition between arrest at low pressures and propagation at high pressures. In this case, the critical pressure is 10 bar (145 psig).

Figure 1: Critical Pressure (Plot of crack length vs. pressure)
Data obtained at 0° C (32°F).

Due to the baffles in the S4 test, the critical pressure obtained must be corrected to correlate with the FS critical pressure. There has been considerable research within the ISO community conducted in this area. Dr. Philippe Vanspeybroeck of Becetel chaired a working group - ISO/TC 138/SC 5/WG RCP - that conducted S4 and FS testing on several PE pipes 4. Based on their extensive research effort, the WG arrived at the following correlation formula 5 to convert the S4 critical pressure (Pc,S4) to the FS critical pressure (Pc,FS):

Pc,FS = 3.6 Pc,S4 + 2.6 bar (1)

It is important to note that this S4/FS correlation formula may not be applicable to other piping materials, such as PVC or polyamide (PA). For example, Arkema has conducted S4 and FS testing on PA-11 pipe and found a different correlation formula for PA-11 pipe 6.

The critical temperature is obtained by conducting a series of FS or S4 tests at a constant pressure (generally 5 bar or 75 psig) and varying the temperature 7. At high temperatures the crack initiates and immediately arrests. At low temperatures, the crack propagates to the end of the pipe. The critical temperature is shown by the red line in Figure 2 as the transition between arrest at high temperatures and propagation at low temperatures. In this case, the critical temperature is 35°F (2°C).

Figure 2: Critical Temperature (Plot of crack length vs. temperature)
Data obtained at 5 bar (75 psig).


The International Standards Organization (ISO) product standard for PE gas pipe, ISO 4437, has included an RCP requirement for many years 8. This is because there were some RCP failures in early generation European PE gas pipes, and the Europeans had conducted considerable research on RCP in PE pipes. Also, European gas companies were using large-diameter pipes and higher operating pressures for PE pipes, both of which make the pipe more susceptible to RCP failures. Below is the current requirement for RCP taken from ISO 4437:

Pc > 1.5 x MOP (2)

Where: Pc = full scale critical pressure, psig
MOP = maximum operating pressure, psig

Most manufacturers use the S4 test to meet this ISO 4437 RCP requirement. If the requirement is not met, then the manufacturer may use the FS test. Therefore, the ISO 4437 product standard requires that RCP testing be done, and also provides values for the RCP requirement.


Until recently, ASTM D 2513 did not address RCP at all 9. The AGA Plastic Materials Committee (PMC) requested that an RCP requirement be added to ASTM D 2513, similar to the RCP requirement in the ISO PE gas pipe standard ISO 4437. The manufacturers agreed to include a requirement in ASTM D 2513 that RCP testing (FS or S4) must be performed. The ASTM product standard D 2513 does not include any required values.

PMC has agreed with this approach and will develop its own industry requirement in the form of a “white paper.” 10 The first draft was just issued within PMC with the following proposed requirement:

  1. PC,FS > leak test pressure.
  2. Leak test pressure = 1.5 X MOP.


CSA followed the direction of ASTM. The product standard CSA B137.4 11 requires that the RCP testing must be done. The values of the RCP test will be stipulated in CSA Z662 Clause 12, which is the Code of Practice for gas distribution in Canada. Clause 12 recently approved the requirement as shown nearby. Rapid Crack Propagation (RCP) Requirements

When tested in accordance with B137.4 requirements for PE pipe and compounds, the standard PE pipe RCP Full-Scale critical pressure shall be at least 1.5 times the maximum operating pressure. If the RCP Small-Scale Steady State method is used, the RCP Full-Scale critical pressure shall be determined using the correlation formula in B137.4.
(end of box)

RCP Test Data

The critical pressure is the pressure - below which - RCP will not occur. The higher the critical pressure, the less likely the gas company will have an RCP event. In most cases, as the pipe diameter or wall thickness increases, the critical pressure decreases. Therefore, RCP is more of a concern with large-diameter or thick-walled pipe. Following are some typical critical pressure values for various generic PE materials. For most cases, the pipe size tested is 12-inch SDR 11 pipe.

PE Material S4 Critical Pressure (PC,S4) at 32°F (0°C)/Full Scale Critical Pressure (PC,FS) @ 0°C

Unimodal MDPE 1 bar (15 psig)/6.2 bar (90 psig)
Bimodal MDPE 10 bar (145 psig) /38.6 bar (560 psig)

Unimodal HDPE 2 bar (30 psig)/9.8 bar (140 psig)
Bimodal HDPE (PE 100+) 12 bar (180 psig)/45.8 bar (665 psig)

In general, the RCP resistance is greater for HDPE (high-density PE) than MDPE (medium-density PE). However, there is a significant difference when comparing a unimodal PE to a bimodal PE material, about a ten-fold difference.

Bimodal PE technology was developed in Asia and Europe in the 1980s. This technology is known to provide superior performance for both slow crack growth and RCP, as evidenced by the table. For the bimodal PE 100+ materials used in Europe and Asia, the S4 critical pressure minimum requirement is 10 bar (145 psig), which converts to 560 psig operating pressure. This means that with these bimodal PE 100+ materials, RCP will not be a concern. Today, there are several HDPE resin manufacturers that use this bimodal technology. Recently, a new bimodal MDPE material was introduced for the gas industry 12,13 with a significantly higher S4 critical pressure compared to unimodal MDPE - 10 bar compared to 1 bar.

Another measure of RCP resistance is the critical temperature. This is defined as the temperature above which RCP will not occur. Therefore, a gas engineer wants to use a PE material with a critical temperature as low as possible. Although critical temperature is not used as a requirement in the product standards, it is an important parameter, and perhaps should be given more consideration. Following is a table with some typical critical temperature values for various generic PE materials. For most cases, the pipe size tested is 12-inch SDR 11 pipe.

PE Material/Critical Temperature (TC) at 5 bar (75 psig)

Unimodal MDPE 15°C (60°F)
Bimodal MDPE -2°C (28°F)

Unimodal HDPE 9°C (48°F)
Bimodal HDPE -17°C (1°F)

Again, we see that RCP performance for HDPE is slightly better than MDPE, but there is a significant difference between bimodal PE and unimodal PE. The bimodal MDPE and HDPE materials have the lowest critical temperatures, which means the greatest resistance to RCP.


As gas companies use PE pipe in more demanding applications, such as larger pipe diameters and higher operating pressures, the resistance of the PE pipe to rapid crack propagation (RCP) becomes more important. In this article we have discussed the phenomenon of RCP and the two primary test methods used to determine RCP resistance - the S4 test and the Full Scale test. We reviewed the correlation formula between the FS test and S4 test for critical pressure. We have also discussed the two primary results of RCP testing - the critical pressure and the critical temperature.

ISO standards were the first to recognize the importance of RCP, especially in larger diameter pipe sizes, and incorporated RCP requirements in product standards, such as ISO 4437. The Canadian standards soon followed, and an RCP test requirement has been added to CSA B137.4. The required values for RCP testing are being added to the CSA Code of Practice in CSA Z662 Clause 12 for gas piping. ASTM just added an RCP requirement to its gas pipe standard ASTM D 2513. The corresponding AGA PMC project to develop RCP recommendations for required values from RCP testing is in progress.

In this article, we also discussed some results of RCP testing. In general, the HDPE materials have slightly greater RCP resistance than MDPE materials used in the gas industry. A more significant difference is observed when comparing unimodal PE materials to bimodal PE materials. Existing data indicate that bimodal HDPE materials show a significant increase in critical pressure compared to unimodal HDPE materials and also have considerably lower critical temperature values.

In addition, this bimodal technology has now just been introduced for MDPE. This bimodal MDPE material also has a significantly higher S4 critical pressure (10 bar vs. 1 bar) and a lower critical temperature than unimodal MDPE materials. With several PE resin manufacturers being able to produce bimodal PE materials, it is likely that in the near future, all PE materials used for the gas industry will be bimodal materials because of their superior RCP resistance.


“Rapid Crack Propagation Increasingly Important in Gas Applications: A Status Report”, Dr. Gene Palermo, http://pipelineandgasjournal.com/rapid-crack-propagation-increasingly-important-gas-applications-status-report, January 2014.

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