Are You in Hot Water?

James (Jim) F. Wainwright |

An inspector’s report I once read described a drycleaner’s boiler room as a “showplace” of good maintenance with up-to-date service logs. But an unforeseen problem caused cracks in the larger of the two boilers, requiring its replacement at a cost of $33,150.
Drycleaners who pay less attention to their equipment have an even bigger chance of paying a lot when equipment breaks down. Boiler breakdowns can result in thousands of dollars in repairs, as well as additional property damage, downtime and loss of business income.
In conducting jurisdictional examinations of boilers and pressure vessels, insurance inspectors see a range of conditions. Even the best drycleaners are subject to breakdowns, but inspectors often see things that indicate trouble may be ahead, and a “red flag” goes up.
Routine, annual inspections of the drycleaning industry’s boilers have revealed many serious conditions, such as a cracked fire tube, an 80% blockage in a feed-water inlet connection, and an almost completely blocked blowdown connection.
Among the main issues among drycleaners is the owners’ lack of fundamental knowledge about boiler operation and maintenance. Specific problems include ineffective or nonexistent water chemistry that results in heavy scale accumulation, wasted fuel consumption and eventually, overheating. Controls are not always tested or repaired routinely, so they break down and cause significant damage.
Ignoring problems can be costly, dirty and dangerous. Leaking water-level gauge glasses and improper isolation valves can give false indications of boiler conditions and expose plant staffers to hazardous steam leaks. Safety valves can be sized, installed or tested improperly during boiler operation, leaving inadequate overpressure protection.
Uninsulated steam piping allows “wet” steam to lower drycleaning quality, increase fuel costs and add to greenhouse emissions. Dilapidated boiler jackets and exhaust flues can result from contact with drycleaning chemicals and permit flue gases — carbon monoxide — to leak, creating a safety hazard.
The general condition of a boiler room often gives an indication of potential problems with boiler operation. The following are a few of the red flags inspectors look for when visiting a drycleaning plant. You can learn to recognize these conditions, too.
Where Are The Lights? Just getting to the boiler may be a hazard—when the boiler room is badly lit or not lit at all, how can you expect to take care of the equipment? You need to be able to see clearly to examine and service the boiler regularly, so install adequate lighting and replace burned-out and missing bulbs promptly. Make sure that the light switch is easy to see and reach.Boiler Room, Not Storeroom. When a boiler room becomes the storage area, it’s doubtful that routine visual examination and regular service will occur. Boilers and their supporting machinery, controls, piping and valves need to be checked and maintained regularly. If you can’t get to the equipment, how can you perform maintenance?
Keep the boiler and its components readily accessible and don’t store anything nearby. Also, never keep gas, oil, chemicals, wood, clothing, paper or any combustible materials within 10 feet of the boiler.Where’s the Certificate? As a general rule, jurisdictional boiler-operation certificates need to be posted near the equipment, much like the certificates you see in most elevators. Boiler-operation certificates let people know that your equipment has been inspected and that the certificate is current.
If it has expired, call your insurance agent for assistance—your insurance provider’s boiler inspector might be able to look at your boiler for no additional fee. There may be a state fee for issuing the certificate, however, and not all insurance companies include inspections in their coverage.
If you don’t post an operating certificate, fire department and other municipal code-enforcement officials may be prompted to take a closer look at other areas of compliance. Inspectors from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) might get in on the act, too.Open Control Panels. An indication that something may not be quite right is to see an open boiler control panel, a removed boiler-access panel, a missing electrical junction-box cover or circuit wiring in disarray.
There may be an explanation for these conditions, but the fact is that service work wasn’t completed professionally, and some tasks were left undone. Open covers, missing panels and messy wires pose worker hazards and can result in boiler breakdowns.
Maintenance people must put control and access panels back in place when the job is done. And all electrical work needs to meet applicable National Electrical Code (NEC) guidelines and should be performed by authorized, licensed personnel.Wet Floors. Water on the floor may be due to stormwater runoff or a drain backup, not a system leak, but significant accumulation must be addressed. Floor drains and sump pumps should clear water from the area quickly; otherwise, high moisture levels will result in mold, mildew, corrosion and deterioration, reducing the boiler’s anticipated service life. The drier the area, the more likely someone will care for the boiler.
In severe cases, several inches of water can cover the floor and pose a potential risk of injury or even death from electrocution. High water levels can also compromise the boiler’s combustion components.Cobwebs Everywhere. There are often instances where there are so many cobwebs and so much dust on and around the boiler that you know instinctively that no one has looked at the equipment recently. Poorly maintained boilers can’t be expected to provide the type of service you expect. Besides, who wants to work on a boiler in such unpleasant conditions? Keep the boiler and all surrounding system components clean.Discarded Parts. Old relief valves, discarded water-level controls and empty cans of boiler chemicals may be lying around on the floor or on top of the boiler. To inspectors, this offers clues to ongoing problems such as poor-quality make-up water, dirty or rusty heating piping, system leaks, and less-than-adequate maintenance practices.
Has whatever problem the discarded parts indicate been corrected, or is it going to result in another, perhaps more serious repair in the future? A professional technician would remove nonfunctioning parts and repair debris after finishing the job, and put away new or reusable spare parts.Sensing Trouble. Use all five of your senses when you check for red flags. Does the boiler sound different lately? Are there any unusual odors in the boiler room? Is the atmosphere unusually dry or moist? Is the machinery vibrating excessively? Your senses will tell you that something’s different than normal and requires immediate attention. Contact service professionals to investigate any problems you notice and take corrective action when necessary. Maintain Boiler Records. The person who tends your boiler should have a good understanding of boiler operation and safety devices. He should perform maintenance and testing, and record the results in a log on a regular basis. An equipment breakdown insurer should be able to provide you with boiler log sheets for this purpose.
Visit your boiler room often, and take a close look—it can help you understand the proper care of your equipment and how to recognize things that aren’t quite right. Look for the red flags, and call a qualified, professional service technician when necessary.

About the author

James (Jim) F. Wainwright

Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance Co. (HSB)


James (Jim) F. Wainwright is an inspector with Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance Co. (HSB). He has served in engineering loss-control support capacities for more than 30 years with HSB and currently resides in Altoona, Pa.


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