When it comes to safety in public places, “out of sight, out of mind” pretty much describes the concern most people have for their own well-being. But what people don’t know can hurt them, particularly when it comes to boilers and pressure vessels.

The fact is, boilers and pressure vessels are everywhere and they are often located within close proximity of every person, every day.

Schools are no exception. Numerous serious incidents over the past decade have occurred across America in public schools from Spencer, OK (1982) and Gallup, NM (1984), to North Haven, CT (1999) and Chicopee, MA (1999). These incidents not only resulted in considerable economic loss, but more importantly, in death and severe injury to students and school personnel alike.

“School districts are likely to have several hundred pressure retaining items...each posing a potential explosion hazard,” says Lee Doran, National Board governmental affairs and international representative and training course instructor. “School administrators rarely make the connection between their tight budgets and the adverse affect on reliability, safety, and operation of the affected equipment. Consequently, school boilers and related devices get a low priority in the budgeting process.”

The Importance of Training

Better communication between the personnel involved in pressure equipment operation and the “front office” would potentially change many of the unsatisfactory attitudes, and promote an understanding of what support is really needed for safety. Smaller investments on boiler maintenance and operator training now can prevent larger costs and possible accidents from occurring later. Something as simple as better staff training could make a huge, positive impact on the threat of an accident or malfunction.

Very few school districts provide the opportunity for adequate training of the staff that operates or performs seemingly small repairs to pressure equipment. As Doran observes, “It has been my experience while conducting National Board boiler safety seminars across the country, that many boiler operation and maintenance personnel have never received any training on boilers or other fuel burning apparatus for which they are responsible.” It is ironic that in most school districts — where education and training is the goal — the training of boiler maintenance personnel does not serve as a critical function.

However, even in districts where good maintenance programs and training are scheduled, problems can occur. In the Gallup-McKinley school district in New Mexico, Joe De La O, former director of maintenance for the district, recalls the boiler-furnace explosion that resulted from an unfortunate combination of events. Over a period of several months, an inexperienced and untrained electrician tried to keep a failing hot water heating boiler operating. On one cold winter afternoon in January 1984, the worker tampered with the burner programmers and relays, repeatedly, until a suspected malfunction of the programmer led to the ignition of a large accumulation of natural gas. The result was a violent explosion. Although no one was killed, three workers were injured. The boiler and building sustained significant damage, according to Brad Hoover, one of the workers who still provides boiler maintenance for the district.

“The accident occurred at a critical time. It was around 3 p.m., about the time children were being sent home for the day,” explained Hoover. “We were very thankful that students and teachers escaped injury. I believe because the boiler was located in the basement of the school building, in a room with concrete walls, many people were saved from possibly very serious injury.”

The obvious conclusion from Doran, who viewed the accident scene after the fact was clear: “...to prevent reoccurrence of an accident of this nature is to fully indoctrinate boiler maintenance personnel on the operation of the burner flame safeguard control (FSG) and relays. If a malfunction of an FSG is suspected, it should be tested on a tester built for this purpose. Never bypass controls and limits; this almost always guarantees an accident.”

The damage was very extensive and required replacement of the entire boiler, controls, and stack. The incident was not a boiler explosion (failure of the boiler pressure parts due to overpressure), but a furnace explosion. The explosion consisted of the ignition of a large accumulation of natural gas fuel in the combustion chamber, which caused the pressure boundary to be broken.

Don Jenkins, chief boiler inspector for Kansas, supports the National Board official’s views on school preparedness or lack thereof. “The biggest problem is unqualified operators and maintenance personnel.” Jenkins points out that “most educators don’t think as much about mechanical systems as they do about topics directly linked to the educational process. Further, it’s sometimes very difficult to find qualified (maintenance) people for small districts. Traditionally, many boiler operators were former boiler technicians who had received training in the U.S. Navy. But now that the Navy has converted most of its ships propulsion systems from steam to gas turbines or diesel electric, it is harder to find trained operators.”

Ensuring Safety

Several routes help ensure safety for all fuel and pressure items in school settings. First, it is important to purchase equipment built to the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code, and that the equipment be installed according to manufacturer’s instructions and jurisdictional requirements.

Second, care must be taken when ordering replacement parts. Many jurisdiction regulations enforce codes such as Controls and Safety Devices for Automatically Fired Boilers (ASME CSD-1) which require controls and safety devices to be accepted and listed by a nationally recognized testing agency such as Underwriters Laboratory (UL), Factory Mutual (FM), or the American Gas Association (AGA). This code also does not allow the use of rebuilt or altered controls.

Third, ensure that adequate training is provided for all personnel who might operate or repair a boiler or other fuel-burning device. The chief boiler inspector for each jurisdiction can assist in identifying available training. The National Board also offers seminars developed specifically for boiler operators.

Fourth, establish routine safety inspection and testing (i.e. in accordance with manufacturers’ recommendations and jurisdictional requirements) for all boilers, pressure vessels, fuel burning equipment, and other devices that pose potential danger. Such inspections must be accomplished by qualified personnel in accordance with National Board and ASME standards. According to Doran, “The start of the heating season is accident season. Equipment brought online without proper safety checks of control and safety devices promote a dangerous situation. Prior to automatic operation, all controls and safety devices must be checked for proper operation. The operator must observe at least three normal cycles prior to independent operation to ensure the boiler is running properly.”

Finally, if repairs are needed, use a competent repair organization. Welding, if needed, should be performed by a repair organization that complies with the National Board Inspection Code (NBIC), and preferably an organization that possesses a National Board “R” Certificate of Authorization for Repairs and Alterations. Preventive maintenance is probably the most important strategy. This includes reporting all accidents, even small ones that seem insignificant, to the local chief boiler inspector. A small accident is annoying, but usually it is a signal of bigger things to come.

Take the example of a 300 hp boiler valued at about $100,000. After a maintenance worker noticed water dripping from the steam valve, the boiler was shut down for inspection. During the inspection, insulation was removed. The worker concluded that water had been leaking into the insulation for so long that corrosion had developed completely around the boiler. The inspector could actually penetrate the boiler with a pocketknife. The boiler was a total loss, yet less than $5 worth of packing, applied at the right time, would have saved the boiler. Good preventive maintenance is a cost savings. It’s usually much less expensive than corrective maintenance, where the entire piece of equipment may need to be replaced. In many jurisdictions, the chief boiler inspector or his or her colleague, will give informational talks on safety at school board meetings. By communicating the need for proper maintenance and safety procedures, information can be directed to those who can impact the operation and safety of boilers, pressure vessels, and other fuel-burning equipment.

Remember, training is the key to safety. Most accidents involving this equipment can be directly attributed to untrained and unqualified boiler operators and maintenance personnel. Proper training and good maintenance programs cannot be over emphasized. Don’t let another careless incident happen before these issues go unresolved. ES

Sidebar Recommendations for a safe boiler room

1. Keep the boiler room clean and clear of all unnecessary items. The boiler room should not be considered an all-purpose storage area. The burner requires proper air circulation in order to prevent incomplete fuel combustion and the production of carbon monoxide. The boiler room is for the boiler!

2. Ensure that all personnel who operate or maintain the boiler room are properly trained on all equipment, controls, safety devices, and up-to-date operating procedures.

3. Before start-up, ensure that the boiler room is free of all potentially dangerous situations, like flammable materials, mechanical, or physical damage to the boiler or related equipment. Clear intakes and exhaust vents; check for deterioration and possible leaks.

4. Ensure a thorough inspection by a properly qualified inspector, such as one who holds a National Board commission.

5. After any extensive repair or new installation of equipment, make sure a qualified boiler inspector re-inspects the entire system.

6. Monitor all new equipment closely until the safety and efficiency are demonstrated.

7. Use boiler operating log sheets, maintenance records, and manufacturer’s recommendations to establish a preventive maintenance schedule based on operating conditions, past maintenance, repair, and replacement that were performed on the equipment.

8. Establish a checklist for proper startup and shutdown of boilers and all related equipment according to manufacturer’s recommendations.

9. Observe equipment extensively before allowing an automating operation system to be used with minimal supervision.

10. Establish a periodic preventive maintenance and safety testing program that follows CSD-1-1998 Part CM and the manufacturer’s recommendations.