Understanding External Pressure Failure in Pressure Vessels


What is the external pressure failure of pressure vessels?

External pressure failure refers to the collapse or implosion of a pressure vessel due to the external pressure being greater than the internal pressure. This scenario is the opposite of what many pressure vessels are primarily designed to handle, which is containing high internal pressures. However, it’s crucial to design vessels to withstand both types of pressure differentials.

Causes of External Pressure Failure:

  1. Vacuum Conditions: If a vessel is emptied rapidly or cooled down, it can create a vacuum inside, making the external atmospheric pressure significantly higher than the internal pressure.
  2. Condensation of Gases: If a hot gas is enclosed within a vessel and then cooled, it can condense, reducing its volume and thus lowering the internal pressure, potentially leading to a vacuum condition.
  3. Blocked Vents: In vessels that are routinely emptied and filled, blocked vents can prevent the equalization of internal and external pressures, leading to vacuum conditions inside the vessel.
  4. Steam Systems: If a vessel containing steam is cooled rapidly, the steam can condense into water, reducing the volume it occupies and thus decreasing the internal pressure.

Characteristics of External Pressure Failure:

  • Buckling: Under external pressure, thin-walled vessels can undergo buckling or wrinkling, leading to an accordion-like collapse.
  • Progressive Collapse: Once the initial buckling begins, it can lead to a progressive collapse as the external pressure continues to push in on the weakened sections of the vessel.

Design Considerations for External Pressure:

  1. Thickness of the Vessel Wall: Thicker walls can provide more resistance to external pressure.
  2. Stiffeners: Rings or other stiffening mechanisms can be added to the vessel’s design to provide added strength and resistance against buckling.
  3. Shape: Certain shapes, like spheres, handle external pressures better than others, like long cylinders.
  4. Material Properties: The material’s modulus of elasticity and yield strength play roles in determining how it will stand up to external pressures.
  5. Safety Devices: Installing vacuum relief valves can help prevent the formation of a vacuum inside the vessel.

In conclusion, while many pressure vessels are designed primarily to handle high internal pressures, it’s crucial not to overlook the potential for external pressure failures. Understanding the causes and characteristics of such failures is essential for safe vessel design and operation. Proper design, routine maintenance, and understanding of operational parameters can mitigate the risks associated with external pressure failure.

External pressure failure of pressure vessels remains an area of concern for pressure vessel manufacturers, operators, and safety regulators alike. The ramifications of such failures can be catastrophic, leading not just to equipment loss, but also potentially causing harm to human lives and the environment. Thus, a comprehensive understanding of the phenomena is essential.

External Pressure vs. Internal Pressure:

Most pressure vessels are primarily designed to contain fluids under high pressure, i.e., they are designed to handle more significant internal than external pressures. This structural focus sometimes overshadows the importance of ensuring the vessel’s safety against the potential of external pressure, which, though less common, is equally crucial.

Mechanics of External Pressure:

The physical mechanics of external pressure failure is somewhat different from that of internal pressure. When a pressure vessel experiences excessive internal pressure, the primary failure mode is typically tensile fracture. The vessel might rupture, causing the contained fluid to escape.

However, under external pressure, the failure mode is often compressive buckling. This is particularly pronounced in vessels with longer, cylindrical forms or those with larger diameter-to-thickness ratios. Compressive buckling can result in a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the vessel, which can be dangerous, especially if the vessel is situated within a complex facility with other sensitive equipment or infrastructure around it.

Real-life Implications:

In industries where pressure vessels are cooled or heated as part of their operation, the risk of external pressure failure becomes pronounced. For instance:

  • Petrochemical Industries: Processes often involve the heating of vessels followed by cooling sequences. If this sequence is mismanaged, or if there’s an unexpected interruption, the rapid cooling can cause a significant internal vacuum to develop.
  • Food and Beverage: In processes that involve pasteurization or cooling, a rapid temperature drop without proper venting or pressure equalization can lead to vessel collapse.

Design Enhancements:

Given the potential risks associated with external pressure failure, many enhancements and safeguards can be incorporated:

  1. Vacuum Breakers: These devices allow air or an inert gas to enter the vessel if a vacuum condition starts developing, thereby equalizing the pressure.
  2. Design for Minimum Diameter-to-Thickness Ratio: Reducing this ratio can help in improving the vessel’s resistance to buckling.
  3. Using Conical or Domed Heads: Compared to flat heads, conical or domed heads are less prone to external pressure-induced buckling.
  4. Safety Protocols: Operators should be trained to recognize the early signs of vacuum conditions and should know the immediate steps to counteract such scenarios.

Concluding Remarks:

While external pressure failures are less common than internal pressure-related failures, the potential damage they can cause necessitates a comprehensive strategy to address them. This involves a combination of robust design, safety features, and well-trained operators. By understanding the risks and taking preemptive measures, pressure vessel manufacturers and operators can ensure safer and more efficient operations. The lessons learned from past incidents and near-misses should serve as a foundation upon which continuous improvements in design and operational practices are built.


In the realm of industrial solutions, Red River emerges as a pioneer, offering a diverse range of custom-engineered products and facilities. Among our specialties is the design and production of Custom/OEM Pressure Vessels, meticulously crafted to meet individual client requirements, ensuring performance under various pressure conditions. Our expertise extends to the domain of prefabrication, where Red River leads with distinction.

The company excels in creating prefabricated facilities, modules, and packages, reinforcing its stance as a forerunner in innovation and quality. This proficiency is further mirrored in their Modular Skids offering, where they provide an array of Modular Fabricated Skid Packages and Packaged equipment. Each piece is tailored to client specifications, underlining their commitment to delivering precision and excellence in every project they undertake.

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