Tips For Boiler System Safety

If you haven’t inspected and tested the boiler and boiler controls lately, you’re rolling some dangerous dice.

Use of working boiler controls and adherence to proven ASME code maintenance standards are absolutely essential to ensure the safe, reliable operation of both steam and hot water boilers.

The last National Board of Boiler and Vessel Inspectors’ Boiler Incident Report highlighted an injury-to-accident of one injury for every 27 incident and a report we recently read said that 81 percent of boiler incidents are caused by low water conditions, operator error, or poor maintenance. This means they are preventable.

Although building owners and facility managers generally know boiler systems require ongoing inspection, testing, and service, they unfortunately sometimes don’t follow local recommendations or ordinances regarding proper maintenance.

Yes, having qualified staff or a contractor come to the facility to work on a boiler costs money, but it’s a lot less expensive than dealing with damage from explosions, fires, injuries and deaths.  So, what types of things should you be looking for during the inspection of your boiler?

In addition to regular wear and tear, examine a number of potential warning signs, including:

  • The age of the control, which can be determined by checking the date code stamped onto each individual control
  • Records of the unit under inspection. Sometimes a log of past inspections and findings will be affixed to the boiler or attached in a packet. The inspector will focus on frequency and specific maintenance performed
  • Sediment buildup
  • Erratically-functioning boiler controls
  • Overall boiler and boiler control performance and operation
  • Other signs of poor maintenance

In some cases, boiler system failure results from a deliberate bypass of boiler controls. All steam boilers must operate with low-water cutoffs, and so should hot water boilers. Most state law requires that all steam boilers, hot water boilers and direct-fired storage water heaters have code relief valves.

Low volume finned copper tube boilers (not designed for steam operation) usually have no provision for a low-water cutoff, so they usually rely on a flow switch. The boiler can’t be fired unless there is flow through – and water in – the boiler.

All steam boilers must have some make-up water. With this water comes newly- dissolved solids and oxygen. If the precipitated solids and the oxidized metal sludge is not removed, these substances will clog operating and boiler controls. The more make-up water used, the more often the control must be blown down or taken apart and cleaned.

So, even though hot water boilers can be operated with little or no make-up water to reduce potential clogging, the boiler controls still should be inspected and tested periodically.  Attending a Steam Design & Application Seminar at the ITT Bell & Gossett Little Red Schoolhouse is also advantageous as it provides ‘Best Practices’ which can be useful for those who operate and maintain a steam system because it may help explain why something is not working properly.

Poorly sized, installed, or maintained controls are the most frequent causes of boiler accidents. – Those are what the accident reports will say. But the cause of the causes, so to speak, is lack of owner commitment to maintaining a regular boiler inspection and safety program. This commitment includes adequate budgets for testing, service, and operator training, as well as enforcing policies and quality of work.

And, oh, by the way, boilers that are regularly tuned and inspected run cleaner and more efficiently, so they’ll save energy, water, and pollution and their associated costs.

What questions do you have about steam?