Recently completed field experiments using an instrumented string and test well have verified that the presence of annulus water in injection well annuli introduces a real and economically important heat loss mechanism--wellbore refluxing--for surface-generated steam. Measured boiling heat transfer rates at local hot spots are sufficient to maintain steady refluxing over a realistic range of injection conditions and overburden properties. It is shown that with the wellbore wet, the thermal properties of the cement and overburden, not those of the insulated tubulars, control the magnitude of the wellbore heat loss.

Steady refluxing without venting at the wellhead has been observed; hence, oil field operators should not automatically assume that a nonventing annulus is dry. Insulated couplings have been demonstrated to reduce coupling heat loss by up to 35% in a dry well, and in wet wellbores to prevent significant boiling at the couplings, typically the primary source of refluxing.

Heat loss estimates for refluxing or flooded wellbores indicate large incremental economic penalties, of the order of $100 million annually in the U.S. alone. The successful demonstration of simple, easily implemented, insulated coupling designs, and the confirmation that wellbore heat loss in refluxing annuli scales with annulus pressure in a predictable manner, suggests that much of this loss is preventable.

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