What are the hardest types of problems to solve in a boiler room? If you’ve ever been in charge of boiler maintenance at a facility, the answer is easy: intermittent failures. When an intermittent issue arises, it’s not typically because a part is broken, but because parts aren’t functioning at 100%. To fix an intermittent problem it’s important to have a troubleshooting game plan. Here’s a general outline that everyone should follow when trying to resolve those pesky intermittent boiler failures:
- Assess the situation. Take a walk around the boiler room. Use all of your senses to investigate the room. Do you hear an unfamiliar noise? Is there a burning smell like motor windings or flue gas leaks? Remember that the issues may not be directly on the boiler. Taking a step back before diving into an electrical cabinet can help eliminate troubleshooting tunnel vision.
- Keep an open mind. On the way to the jobsite, we tend to start thinking of solutions based on how the problem has been described, before ever looking at the boiler for ourselves. This can cause tunnel vision when troubleshooting. “So and so said it was this, so I’m going to look there and nowhere else.” Inexperienced troubleshooters will assume that the part in front of them (though it appears to function normally) must be bad because nothing else could cause the issue. They change the part, leave the site, and three hours later the customer calls saying the boiler failed again. Avoid the tunnel vision by not skipping step one.
- Identify what the problem is and the most likely causes. If the boiler is failing on pilot, the programmer having an intermittent electrical malfunction is probably not the first most likely cause. If it helps, write down the issue and some of the things that you think can cause it, then check them off as you investigate.
- Don’t assume that because it’s working now, everything must be working correctly. With most intermittent issues, the boiler can run and cycle 80% of the time but will fail on the 20%. If you go to a site that has intermittent problems but you can’t get the boiler to fail, not fixing anything and walking away because it’s running will most likely leave the boiler to fail again. Go over everything that you identified in step three and if you didn’t find anything, keep searching. You would be surprised how many parts on a boiler can be slightly malfunctioning and contribute to a larger issue.
- Remember that the problem may not be with the boiler. It’s important to keep an open mind and not skip the previous steps. If you don’t look at the whole system, you may miss the real issue. It’s very easy for a plant to add steam load that now exceeds the boiler steaming rate, causing carryover and intermittent low water trips. The feedwater and low water systems in the boiler room are working perfectly, but when that instantaneous load is turned on, it lifts the water in the boiler just enough to cause a low water trip. We have found many issues like this where the real problem is not in the boiler room, but only manifests itself in the boiler room.
- Use the people around you. It’s easy to think you don’t need any help—you got this! But the people around you, especially if you’re younger, have valuable experience. They may have seen this issue before and may be able to help guide you on what they think the problem is. It’s still important to not skip the previous steps—considering one person’s opinion on its own can cause tunnel vision. Take a note on what they think it is and investigate it, but don’t assume that this has to be the issue and change a functioning part.
These steps are a brief overview of best practices for troubleshooting intermittent problems. You can always modify the steps, as everyone works differently, but the most important thing to remember is to have steps and a defined process. It will be very difficult to resolve issues if you jump around or look at the problem with tunnel vision. Maintaining an open and clear mind is key to finding those pesky issues that are initially less-than-obvious. These are the types of problems that are most rewarding to solve.