Proper Boiler Commissioning and Boiler Inspections Keep the Public Safe



There is a potential hidden danger that may be lying in wait in your neighborhood’s hospital, your kid’s school, your town shopping center or even your apartment complex. High pressure boilers deliver hot steam under pressure to be used in comfort heating and manufacturing processes. They are commonly used in hospitals, laundromats, dry cleaners, hotels, and schools; but a poorly maintained or improperly operated boiler has the potential to explode. The bigger the boiler… or the more pressure… the bigger the explosion.  A faulty or defective boiler is essentially a small bomb. Some boiler explosions cause substantial property damage. Some are much, much worse. Thankfully, there are regulations in place to protect the public from a catastrophic boiler failure. These regulations vary from state to state, however many of them incorporate some form of periodic boiler inspection as an integral requirement.

Proper boiler commissioning and regular boiler inspections are an important part of the boiler maintenance programs in the best facility maintenance handbooks followed throughout the world.

Why is Routine Boiler Inspection So Important?

Over the past 150 years, boilers and pressure vessels have become routine equipment in the modern civilized world and as such, just about every person that exists in the modern world comes within proximity of pressure equipment several times each day. According to Wikipedia, “the rupture of a typical 30-gallon home hot-water tank generates the equivalent of 0.16 pounds of nitroglycerin. Translated, that is enough force to send the average car (weighing 2,500 pounds) to a height of nearly 125 feet – or more than the elevation of a 14-story apartment building starting with a lift-off velocity of 85 miles per hour. When a similar hot-water tank explodes, its volume expands approximately 1,600 times. That is comparable to taking a 5-gallon trash can and causing it to fill a 12′ x 11′ living room with an 8-foot ceiling in a split second. A large industrial boiler has the capacity to level an entire city block.”

As recently as this past June, at least one person was purportedly injured when a boiler exploded at the Veolia Energy Schuylkill Station; a combined heat and power plant in Philadelphia. The person allegedly reported to be injured was not a member of the Veolia’s plant staff but rather a bystander across the street who was struck by flying glass.

On November 16th, 2016 in Jackson County, Kentucky, two men were injured in a boiler explosion at Sand Gap Elementary School while doing routine maintenance. Both men were rushed to the hospital with severe burns, and the school was evacuated.

There are dozens of high pressure boiler explosions of varying degrees of severity that happen throughout the United States every year. Some make the news, while others may go unreported. Dozens of incidents may sound like a lot, but that number has been dramatically reduced from the nearly two centuries that came before.

The History of Routine Boiler Inspections in Public Safety

The Industrial Revolution brought with it innovation and power. During the late 1700s and into the 1800s, manufacturing moved out of people’s homes and small shops and into larger factories and warehouses. Things that were once made by hand were now being made by machine. As the steam engine gained popularity and universal adoption during this time, there were thousands of boiler explosions throughout Britain and the United States. In the United States, the trend of unsafe boiler operation and spotty boiler maintenance practices went on mostly unregulated right up to the 20th century.

Finally, in a call for public safety, in 1915 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) published the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code; the document that would someday become the national standard that now governs the design, production and inspection of boilers and pressure vessels. The first version of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code (BPVC) was a book that contained 114 pages dedicated to standardizing the way that boilers should be built and operated so as to best protect those engineers operating them.

At first, even though the BPVC was adopted by local and state jurisdictions, there was still no consistency in its application. While the code provided solid direction on construction and operation standards, there was still had no authority in place to regulate and govern their implementation. On December 2, 1919, Ohio Chief Inspector Carl Myers met with chief inspectors from other jurisdictions to discuss creation of a board of inspector representatives from each of the existing jurisdictions. This became the origin of The National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors.

Today the National Board administers three accreditation programs for organizations performing repairs and alterations. Accreditation involves a thorough evaluation of the organization’s quality system manual including a demonstration of its ability to implement the system. Authorized repair organizations are issued symbol stamps for application to equipment nameplates signifying the integrity of work performed. In addition to providing training and accreditation, the National Board also provides third-party certification to the manufactures of boiler and pressure vessels. Registering a pressure-retaining item with the National Board requires that certain uniform quality standards including compliance with the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code be achieved thereby certifying the manufacturing, testing, and inspection process. This certification acknowledges to owners, users, and public safety jurisdictional authorities registered items have been inspected by National Board-commissioned inspectors and built to required standards.

To this day, the National Board membership oversees adherence to laws, rules, and regulations relating to boilers and pressure vessels. The National Board Members are the chief Boiler Inspectors representing 48 of the United States. National Board registration, but the goal is still the same as it was in 1921: provide assurance that a pressure-retaining item was constructed in accordance with the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code and that it was inspected by a qualified National Board Commissioned Inspector.

The Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code continues to be the ASME’s biggest standard; it is over 16 thousand pages long contained in over 30 individual books and it covers everything from boiler water treatment to nuclear power plant safety and design. The Code continues to be updated and maintained by hundreds of volunteers throughout various ASME committees covering disciplines that range from mechanical engineering and physics to water treatment and chemistry.

Now over one hundred years old, there is no way to determine the number of lives that have been saved due to the implementation of the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code over the past century.

What is Boiler Commissioning?

All property owners are responsible for ensuring that their boilers operate safely and are in compliance with their local and state Building Codes and all related safety regulations. Commissioning a new Boiler usually includes initial functional testing and then complete start up testing. Once a boiler has passed all tests and receives a certificate of operation is considered “commissioned.” Boiler Commissioning requirements vary for jurisdiction to jurisdiction; however, they may include the following events:

  1. Air leakage test.
  2. Hydrostatic test.
  3. Readiness of Boiler auxiliaries.
  4. Gas distribution test.
  5. Boiler light up test.
  6. Alkali boil-out and first stage passivation.
  7. Acid cleaning and second stage passivation.
  8. Steam pressure test of critical piping.
  9. Safety valve floating.
  10. In the case of a coal fired boiler system, a coal firing test may be performed.

Is Boiler Water Treatment Important for Boiler Safety?

Proper boiler water treatment and pre-treatment help ensure that a boiler runs at peak efficiency and optimal performance standards. A poorly treated boiler can suffer from serious corrosion or scale issues which could lead breakdowns or, in some cases, catastrophic failure. It is always a good idea to consult with your water treatment company on matters of finding the most appropriate boiler water treatment practices for your system.

There are many new products on the market today, including film-forming amines like cetamine and advanced polymer blends designed for specific high pressure boiler requirements. Products like Clarity’s EcoSHIELD are transforming the way that we think about traditional boiler water chemistry.

Why does a Boiler Need to Be Cleaned Before Startup?

Any competent technician from any of the best water treatment companies can tell you that a newly installed boiler will operate better throughout its service life if it was properly cleaned and passivated before its initial startup. The primary reasons for chemical cleaning of boilers are to prevent tube failures and improve heat transfer efficiency. During the manufacturing, fabrication and installation process, mill oils and welding slag transfer to the internal metal surfaces of a boiler. These oils tend to “bake” into the metal surface cause “hot spots.” Even a small quantity of oil deposition can cause problems in high pressure boilers. Unless a boiler is constructed with stainless steel or aluminum heat transfer surfaces, an alkaline boil out must be performed to remove these oils, greases and other protective coatings (i.e. cosmoline) from the waterside heat transfer surfaces.  (IMPORTANT NOTE: Alkaline products should NOT be used in boilers containing either stainless steel or aluminum. High alkalinity in can destroy aluminum and cause stainless steel to become brittle and develop stress fractures. Specialized products must be used to commission these types of boilers.)

Alkaline boil out chemicals are highly corrosive and do present a hazard of their own. It is important to leave the process of performing an alkaline boil out to a competent water treatment specialist who will have the appropriate products and be trained on the appropriate procedures needed to perform this highly specialized service. Due to its potential hazards, not all water treatment companies will provide the actual hands-on service required to properly conduct a boil out procedure.

What are the Requirements for Boiler Inspection After It Has Been Installed?

Almost every state has a Chief Inspector that upholds the individual state laws governing the manufacture, repair and operation of boiler and pressure vessels. While the requirement for boiler inspection do vary from state to state there are many similarities.

A boiler inspection falls into two major categories: An external inspection and an internal inspection. An external inspection is made while the boiler is in operation. An internal inspection is much more involved since the boiler must be shut down and opened. The following outline provides guidance on preparing a boiler for an internal inspection. These guidelines will vary depending on your actual jurisdictional requirements and the type of boiler that is to be inspected. Again, this is just an outline for demonstration purposes and should not be used as a replacement for your actual jurisdictional requirements. It is good practice to consult with your appointed Boiler Inspector to determine if there is any further preparation required. If a boiler has not been properly prepared for an internal inspection, your Boiler Inspector may refuse to perform the inspection until your boiler has been suitably prepared.

Typical boiler inspection preparation is as follows:

  1. Boiler must be shut down using the appropriate procedures as required by your boiler manufacturer’s operating instructions.
  2. As a safety precaution, it is appropriate to lockout and tag all steam, water, and fuel valves, as well as the boiler ignition system and electrical disconnects.
  3. The boiler should be allowed to cool completely. The time required to do this will depend on the style, size and operational schedule of the boiler.
  4. The boiler should be completely drained and all drain and vent lines should be left in the open position.
  5. The inspection plugs in water column connectors should be removed.
  6. All manhole and handhole cover plates on the boiler should be removed.
  7. All washout plugs should be removed.
  8. All low-water fuel cutout device float chambers should be opened.
  9. All low-water fuel cutout device cross tee piping plugs should be opened.
  10. All sludge and loose scale should be flushed from boiler interior. However, you should check with your Boiler Inspector before performing this task, due to some inspectors preferring to witness any scale and sludge that has developed in the boiler during inspection.
  11. Blow off valves should be closed, locked out and tagged after draining and flushing the boiler.
  12. All front and rear fireside access panels/doors should be in the open position.
  13. All soot and ash from boiler furnace surfaces and grates should be removed. In this case, you should also check with your Boiler Inspector before performing this task to see if they prefer to examine these areas before cleaning.
  14. Lastly, make sure that there are new gaskets ready for closing up the boiler after inspection. It is important not to reuse old or previously used gaskets.

Boiler Maintenance Best Practices

There are simple, commonsense tasks that you can put into practice today that will pave the way for a high functioning, easy to maintain boiler room. Here is a list of things that you can do today:

  1. Keeping your boiler room free of debris so that your operations team can focus on the proper operation maintenance of your boiler should be a priority. Have your staff make sure that the boiler room is free of all possibly dangerous situations, including flammable materials, physical damage to the boiler or boiler system related equipment.
  2. Intakes and exhaust vents should be clear of all blockages or hindrances and they should be checked for deterioration and possible leaks.
  3. Make sure your boilers are inspected by a qualified person on a regular basis and that you are following the inspection guidelines that are required in your city and/or state.
  4. It is good idea to have your system re-inspected after any extensive repair or new installation of equipment even if you are not necessarily due for an inspection. A qualified boiler inspector can help ensure that you are operating a safe system.
  5. Your operations team should develop and stick to a regular maintenance schedule. Boiler operating log sheets should be filled in during shifts. A preventive maintenance schedule should be developed based on manufacturers’ recommendations and operating conditions, as well as on past maintenance, repairs, and replacements performed on the equipment.
  6. Teach your operations staff to do basic boiler water testing. Early detection of boiler water quality that is out of optimal range can save your boilers from unnecessary shut downs and high maintenance costs.
  7. Establish a checklist for proper startup and shutdown of boilers according to your boiler manufacturer’s recommendations. Consult with your boiler water treatment service provider to make sure that you are performing the proper boiler lay up during months of downtime.

What are My States Requirements for Boiler Inspection?

Boiler commissioning and inspection laws and requirement vary from state-to-state. It is fairly easy to find your state’s boiler inspection requirements online.

Want more?

If you would like to know more about the common issues and pitfalls associated with boiler maintenance, please download our free eBook: Ten Huge Mistakes Facilities Make in Boiler Operation and How to Avoid Them below.

As always, thanks for reading!

About Clarity Water Technologies

Clarity Water Technologies is the leading industrial and commercial water treatment company, providing expert consulting and cutting-edge chemistry for your facility’s heating, cooling, potable and process applications.

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About the Clarity Blog

Clarity’s Water Treatment blog is written to provide tips and helpful information to anyone who is involved in managing a water treatment application at a facility. 

Our water treatment experts are here to help, no matter what your facility’s heating, cooling, potable or process application may be.  Check our blog for articles on topics like boiler and cooling water, cooling tower cleaning, legionella prevention and remediation, and environmentally-friendly water treatment options.

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