Common Steam Boiler Problems & How to Troubleshoot Repairs
The efficiency of your steam boiler is crucial to the operation of your building. Unfortunately, problems can occur when you need your boiler most. Part of knowing how to recognize the most common issues with boilers starts with understanding how the steam generating system works.
How a Steam Boiler Works
Steam boilers use a contained heat system to generate steam. The steam travels through pipes in the building’s walls where they emerge at radiators in heating systems. The radiators warm from the steam’s heat. As the steam gives off its heat, it condenses back to liquid water and returns to the tank. A boiler system of this type that does not allow outside water sources is a closed system and is highly efficient for using all the condensed water. An open network may be required in operations where the steam or water gets contaminated in such a way that it cannot return to the boiler for reuse.
While this system has a straightforward operation, problems can arise in the steam delivery system or the tank. Understanding the fundamental processes of the system can give you an idea of where to investigate when a problem with the system arises.
Common Steam Boiler Problems
Common boiler problems range from blockages to missing insulation. Some issues will produce visible signs, while other items will require more investigation to pinpoint the cause. When dealing with boiler problems, if you have any concerns about the system that you cannot immediately address, call in an expert for repairs. Boiler issues do not fix themselves, and the effects can worsen over time.
Here are seven common steam boiler problems:
1. Infrequent or Irregular Maintenance
Irregular maintenance often is the heart of problems with boilers. Your boiler needs regular maintenance based on how often it’s used. Not inspecting it often enough can lead to minor issues being missed, which can lead to major issues later and possibly injury.
Not checking a boiler system could have catastrophic results in the form of a boiler explosion. Fuel may explode due to unfound problems. The high temperatures generated by the boiler can also cause problems if the water level drops too low and the trip switch fails. Regular inspections can identify and correct faults in the safety systems that are designed to prevent accidents.
When it comes to regular maintenance, the cost of the inspections and repairs will be dramatically lower than the loss of time and profit from a broken boiler that requires replacing. Don’t let maintenance fall by the wayside. Schedule it at even intervals throughout the year.
2. Slow Pressure Build or Loss of Pressure
Problems with a lack of pressure typically indicate a leak somewhere in the system. If a steam pipe leaks, the system will not build up the necessary force inside. You will need to inspect the boiler for leaks. Start your examination with a thorough check of all valves because these spots are most likely to experience small, unseen holes that can affect pressure.
The tank exterior is another place where leaks can prevent a rise in pressure. With open system boilers that use fresh water in the tank, the water can boil away at the water line, causing a hole in a cast iron jacket. If you cannot see a hole visually, the next test will require shutting down the system and filling the tank to the piping. This step will require an expert to shut down the system and check for the hole. You will also need a professional to fix the gap.
Another problem your system may experience with pressure occurs when the tank has an on-off type water feed. When new water enters the tank, though heated, it’s still colder than the boiler water. This temperature difference creates a reduction in steam production until the fresh water warms up. Lower production of steam can drop the pressure temporarily. A continuous feedwater system may help alleviate this problem.
Another cause of low pressure is an undersized heating element. A heat source that cannot adequately boil the water in the tank will fail to generate enough steam. Suspect this problem if you recently had parts in your boiler replaced or if the boiler system was not designed or installed by a professional.
3. Water Leaks
Water leaks can occur anywhere in the steam system. Look for dripping around the tank or its pipes, but leaks may also occur away from the tank. Water can also leave the system through the air vents. These hidden leaks make identifying a problem much more difficult. Using a water meter will tell you if a closed system is losing water, even from a hidden hole. If you don’t have this type of gauge on your system, consider having one installed.
A water leak in a closed system will eventually drop the water level available for the system low enough that it will cause the system to shut down. If the water level does not decrease significantly but the system leaks, atmospheric moisture may be getting into the system. This untreated water in your tank can cause premature wear. In open-loop systems, an increase in the water delivered into the tank indicates an excessive loss of water somewhere in the system.
Due to the labor required to remove leaking parts of your boiler system, replacing multiple elements at once may be more cost effective than having the leaks fixed piecemeal. This price savings is especially true if you have numerous holes in pipes inside the walls or other hard-to-reach places. Don’t attempt to change the pipes or other parts yourself. Leave that labor-intensive task to a professional.
4. Blockages or Scale Buildup
Poor water quality can severely damage your boiler system. Minerals, like calcium and others, in the water can accumulate in the boiler and pipes as scale deposits. These deposits can slow the passage of steam through the system or block it entirely.
If you don’t already have a water treatment system for your boiler, you need one immediately. To prevent buildup and other problems from minerals in the water, you must use treated water. Deposits in your system will increase the amount of fuel required for the same output. Over time, you’ll waste money on fuel costs. In fact, scale is the most significant contributor to efficiency loss in your steam boiler system.
5. Insulation Missing
Missing insulation reduces the system’s efficiency. Insulation helps hold heat in the system, and when the heat can dissipate, more fuel is needed to maintain proper temperature and pressure.
Since missing insulation may not be visible, the best way to detect it is with a thermal imager. If you don’t have a thermal imager as a part of your building’s operations, a plumber or other professional likely will carry one. If your energy costs have increased without a rise in the amount you use the boiler, suspect missing insulation and call to have the system inspected with a thermal imager.
6. Water and Safety Probes Break
Probes submerged in the water can also become encrusted with scale, just like the pipes. This coating on probes is another reason to have your tank water treated. If the probes cannot correctly measure the water temperature or pressure, the boiler may automatically shut off.
Safety controls and sensors that fail also could prevent the boiler from shutting off in a dangerous situation, such as the buildup of too much pressure. Because these safety controls prevent the system from running in dangerous conditions, regular inspections are critical for the operation of the tank and the safety of those who work around it.
Low water cutoff valves shut off the boiler if the water level drops too low. Checking the operation of these should be a part of the job of someone in the building. Drain the tank for a few seconds to test the float chamber whenever it’s not in a firing sequence. The low water control system should kick in immediately. This brief drainage examines the system while also allowing heavy sediments to flow out of the system.
7. System Turns Off Randomly
The heating component will automatically turn itself off if one of the safety systems detects a problem. If the system shuts itself down for a safety reason, never attempt to restart it on your own. Doing so could result in catastrophes such as injury or death for you and those nearby. Call in a professional to have the system thoroughly inspected before restarting it to ensure everything is safe for operation.
How to Troubleshoot Steam Boiler Problems
As a facilities supervisor, you need to walk the fine line between reducing disruptions to the building’s activities by fixing minor problems yourself and knowing when to call in a professional. Expert repairs can take longer, but trying to fix the issue without knowledge of how to do it or the proper tools could cause even more harm.
Check the Pressure
There are certainly some problems you may be able to fix yourself. For instance, you can likely make minor adjustments to the controls such as the pressure or temperature. If pressure is too high, problems may occur. The proper setting will depend on the boiler’s use and the system. Check the requirements for the system and verify it is set to the correct pressure.
Check the Gauge
Another issue could be with the gauge itself. If you have a boiler used for heating the building and the pressure gauge is reading low, but the building is warm, consider replacing the gauge. The existing gauge may not measure the low pressure amounts most modern systems put out. You will need professional installation and calibration of the new pressure gauge, but you will at least know what you need.
Call the Professionals
If you suspect the problem stems from poor water quality, call us at Chardon Labs to have a water treatment system installed. You should never operate a boiler without untreated water because the damage can appear with few symptoms over time until the pipes become clogged, or the system gets corroded. These situations will often require expensive repairs. Our systems help you stay free of scale at a consistent, reasonable price.
For other problems with your steam system, call in a professional. You may not have the tools necessary to find issues, such as a thermal imager to identify areas of missing insulation. Experts will carry the proper equipment for solving problems with your boiler, and they know how to quickly and effectively identify and repair the issues. Don’t waste your time or money trying to fix the problem yourself. If you make a mistake during the attempted repairs, you’ll end up needing to have the original problem and the additional damage fixed.
Know Your Course of Action for Problems
If your facility experiences boiler problems, don’t delay in getting them repaired. Even if you don’t know the exact issue, calling in experts to help will reduce the time your boiler is down. In an industrial facility, a steam boiler that stops working could drastically reduce productivity. For buildings that use boilers for their HVAC system, a nonfunctional boiler could result in uncomfortable temperatures for the building’s occupants.
Once you have your boiler operating again, become more vigilant in maintaining it. Because the water is such an essential part of your steam boiler’s operation, water treatment is critical for the system’s longevity. With treated water, you can avoid problems such as scale buildup or blockages in the system. Use water treatment as a part of an entire system of regular maintenance for your boiler system. Keeping up with it will ensure your boiler continues to function appropriately, and problems can be addressed before they cause disruptions.
Trust Chardon Labs for Your Steam Boiler’s Water Treatments
At Chardon Labs, we do water treatment for boilers in a variety of applications. Everything from health care facilities to HVAC systems to industrial plants may use boilers that need water treatment. It does not matter if the system is open or closed — scale can build up over time in either. We will install a customized solution to prevent problems with your tank and steam system that stem from its water.
We’ve been treating water since 1965. In that time, we’ve become the place businesses turn to for results from their water treatment. Contact us to schedule a treatment for your boiler or if you have any questions about your boiler’s water. Our results and expertise have made us a leader in the water treatment industry, and we are here to help your business.