Boiler breakdowns can cost thousands of dollars for equipment repairs as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for additional property damage and business income losses.

Regular inspection of boilers is the law, most often governed by the state, but in some cases governed by the municipality. Boilers are inspected by certified inspectors, while they are typically maintained and serviced by building engineers and maintenance personnel, plant and facility maintenance managers, and building managers and superintendents.

Boilers and pressure vessels are potentially dangerous. Each year, many accidents occur involving boilers in businesses, public buildings and other facilities. The majority of these incidents are caused by malfunctioning low water cutoffs, operator error, poor maintenance and/or corrosion. Properly functioning control or safety devices are absolutely essential for any boiler. Yet, the only way you can be confident they are present and will work when necessary is to regularly perform required maintenance, testing and inspection.

Safety issues and building damage

Boiler accidents cause loss of life and major structural damage to buildings. Failure of a boiler interrupts service to a facility, the building's occupants and their operations, and can result in significant damage to the building, other equipment and contents. If a boiler fails during the peak of the heating season, the cost of repairing damage to a facility, its systems and its contents often exceeds the cost of repairing or replacing a boiler. Proper and regular boiler inspections can, in many instances, help prevent situations like this.

Regular boiler inspections, however, are also important for optimal function and energy efficiency. Boilers are high energy users — typically second only to HVAC systems in annual energy use. Inefficient operation means wasted energy and increased operating costs. Regular inspections can also extend the life of the pressure vessel. This is especially crucial when you consider that boilers are a major investment, costing upwards of $200,000 for large industrial models.

While boiler safety devices are designed to prevent dangerous conditions from turning into disasters, only proper maintenance of equipment prevents the development of dangerous operating conditions in the first place. Although maintenance requirements vary by boiler specifications and applications, all boilers require common maintenance activities.

It is also important to remember that most problems don't occur suddenly, instead they develop slowly over a long period of time. So slowly, in fact, that maintenance personnel grow accustomed to the change without realizing it has taken place — corrosion slowly building up in the safety valve or sediment collecting in the float chamber on the connection lines of the low water fuel cutoff device.

Laws getting stricter

Boiler laws are slowly becoming more strict over time. For example, effective July 1, 2008, New York City changed its laws to require owners of boilers to correct defects found during a low pressure boiler inspection and provide written confirmation to the city of corrections within 45 days. Penalties for failing to comply with these new requirements can include fines of up to $1,000 per boiler per year.

Some important issues related to NYC's boiler inspection law changes are:

  • If you own a boiler that has defects found during a jurisdictional inspection, you must have the defects repaired by a licensed boiler repair contractor.

  • The boiler must then be re-inspected by an approved inspector to confirm the defect has been repaired.

  • Once the re-inspection is complete, you must submit an Affirmation of Correction (BO-13) to the city that has been signed by the approved inspector attesting to the compliance of the boiler.

Maintaining a boiler is much like maintaining a car; do it regularly to optimize efficiency and performance, and so it doesn't break down. In addition to mandated inspections, it is important that you regularly observe and check on the status of a variety of components of the boiler. Some basic and general tips include:

  • Test the proper functioning of all boiler controls, including the pressure gauge, low water cutoff devices, thermometers, temperature controls, gauge glass and pressure relief valve.

  • Confirm that there are no signs of overheating, corrosion or erosion.

  • Test all drains and blow-offs to ensure that they are functioning properly.

  • Check the fuel system for leaks, and ensure that all fuel filters and strainers have been replaced.

  • Ensure that all shut-off valves are leak tight. If unsure, perform a leak tightness test.

  • Ensure that all valves in instrument lines are functioning as they should.

  • Open the boiler vent valve or top cock to vent air, and fill the boiler with treated water to its proper level. Check that the expansion tank is properly filled.

  • Verify that the vent valve on gas-fired boilers is operating as required and the vent is not clogged.

  • Verify that the flame scanner or sensors are properly connected and functioning.

  • Check all instruments and safety devices for the proper setting. Ensure that the water pressure regulator functions as required.

  • Ensure the re-circulation pump works as required.

  • Check that all heating system isolation valves are functioning properly.

  • Verify that there are no leaks from any part of boiler or piping external to the boiler. Have any cracked surfaces repaired immediately by a qualified repair company. Bulges or other deformities indicate defective controls, safety devices or improper burner operation.

  • Test safety valves periodically. Replace leaking safety valves. Test safety or relief valves by lifting the test lever at least once a year.

  • Verify that the low water fuel cutoff control shuts off the fuel supply to the boiler as required. Inspect low water fuel cutoff control for proper sequence and operation.

Keep a boiler log. Boiler logs are the best method to assure that a boiler is getting proper maintenance, and they provide a continuous record of the boiler's operation, maintenance and testing. Because a boiler's operating conditions change slowly over time, a log is the best way to detect significant changes that may otherwise go unnoticed. Maintenance and testing should be performed and recorded in the log on a regularly scheduled basis.

Ask your boiler inspector questions. Their extensive knowledge and practical experience can help you learn everyday procedures to ensure a lengthy lifespan and safe operation of a boiler.

Stephen Kleva is president of Insparisk, the parent company of City Spec Inc. City Spec was founded in 1992 to perform inspections on low-pressure boilers within the City of New York. Additional information is available at www.insparisk.com.