What is the Difference Between Safety Valves and Relief Valves

What is the Difference Between Safety Valves and Relief Valves

In the process industry, safety valves and relief valves are critical safety devices, typically manifesting as valves or cylinders, designed to protect individuals, property, and the environment. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they serve similar yet distinct roles in process safety systems, with their primary differences lying in their mechanisms of operation.

Purpose of Relief Valves

A relief valve, also known as a pressure relief valve (PRV), is a safety device that guards pressurized equipment against overpressure. It is essential to regularly inspect and maintain these valves to prevent damage caused by backpressure. Set to activate at predetermined pressure levels, relief valves are indispensable for preventing system failures. They are designed to open and release pressure once a system's pressure exceeds a setpoint, thereby maintaining safe operating conditions.

Functioning of Safety Valves

Safety valves are utilized across various industries, including power, petrochemical, boiler, oil and gas, and pharmaceutical sectors, to prevent accidents and mitigate the risk of harm to people, property, and processes. When pressure within a system or vessel rises above a preset threshold, safety valves automatically activate to release excess pressure, either to the atmosphere or back into the system, to prevent damage. The operation of a safety valve is triggered by a slight pressure increase beyond the desired limit, causing the valve to lift and open.

Relief Valves vs. Safety Valves

While both types of valves relieve excess pressure, their purposes diverge in their application and function. Relief valves are designed to dynamically control system pressure, maintaining it within a specific range. In contrast, safety valves are set to a maximum allowable pressure and release fluids or gases when this threshold is exceeded, thus preventing system damage. Safety valves are vital in control systems to avoid pressure fluctuations that could result in property damage, loss of life, and environmental harm.

Hydraulic and Pneumatic System Applications

In hydraulic and pneumatic systems, relief and safety valves play a crucial role in regulating operating pressures. By venting excess pressure through a relief port or return line, these valves prevent overpressure when the system's pressure reaches a predefined limit, ensuring the safe and efficient operation of the system.

Setpoint Definition

A setpoint is the designated pressure level at which a relief or safety valve is triggered to vent excess pressure. It is distinct from the system's working pressure and is set below the maximum pressure the system can handle to prevent overpressure. The valve opens once the pressure surpasses this setpoint, with safety valves typically set 3% above working pressures and relief valves set 10% above.

Choosing Between Safety and Relief Valves

The selection between a safety valve and a relief valve depends on the specific requirements of pressure control within a system. While both valves release excess pressure, safety valves are generally used for venting steam or vapor and are sensitive to pressure changes, whereas relief valves are employed for regulating fluid and gas pressures in more gradual and dynamic manners.

Advantages of Electronic Relief Valves

For applications requiring dynamic setpoints and variable pressure limits, electronic relief valves offer a sophisticated solution. These valves can receive control signals to adjust the relief pressure setpoint in real-time, eliminating the need for manual adjustments and pressure gauge readings. Devices like the Kelly Pneumatics Electronic Relief Valve allow for rapid and safe command of dynamic maximum pressures based on system feedback, with an optional feedback signal to monitor current pressures, enabling responsive control under varying conditions.


Understanding the distinctions between relief valves and safety valves is crucial for maintaining the integrity and safety of process industries. Each serves a vital role in managing pressure and preventing potential hazards to equipment, personnel, and the environment. Whether selecting based on pressure dynamics, operational requirements, or technological advancements like electronic relief valves, implementing the appropriate valve ensures optimal system performance and safety compliance in diverse industrial settings.


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