Invisible Boiler-Busters, Part 1: Hard Water


The steam boiler is at the foundation of what keeps your facility operational, which is why every maintenance and facility manager wants to avoid a busted boiler at all costs. So, do you know how to anticipate serious problems before they happen? If things appear to be running smoothly on the surface, does this necessarily mean that all is well in the boiler room? 

If It Seems Okay, Is It?

In this ongoing series, we’ll cover the most common “invisible boiler-busters;” that is, problems that can happen gradually and subtly beneath the surface of a boiler. Becoming familiar with these unseen dangers will equip you to properly monitor and maintain your boiler room with confidence and peace of mind. The first and most commonly overlooked boiler-buster we encounter is hard water. 

How Hard Water Can Cause Large-Scale Problems (Pun Intended) 

Imagine this scenario: A steam boiler is operating around the clock at a manufacturing plant to keep production steady and money rolling in. The maintenance crew is short-staffed and constantly putting out fires to sustain production, and then it happens. Someone notices a small drip coming from the fireside door; a drip that seems to get worse when the boiler is in low fire. Maintenance shuts down the boiler to investigate where the water is coming from. They open the door to find a crack between the Morrison tube and the tubesheet. Opening up the waterside of the boiler, suddenly potato chips of scale come pouring out the hand holes. They call their local boiler repair company and confirm that they have indeed filled their boiler with scale, overheating and cracking the tubesheet. 

As the boiler is now down for weeks for repair, production is slowed and management cannot figure out what happened. The boiler was just working! Now it’s not, and that’s the funny thing about steam boilers.  

The Most Overlooked Area of Boiler Maintenance 

Clean treated water is one of the most overlooked maintenance items for a boiler because it can’t be seen without testing. The boiler doesn’t alarm that the tubes are pitting from oxygen, or that the bottom of the boiler is heavier due to excess scale buildup. It just keeps firing away, doing everything it can to produce steam which gives the appearance that all is well…until it isn’t. 

Water softeners require salt to make brine, which is then used to recharge the bed of the water softener so that it can continue to remove the hardness from the water. Some brine tanks are automatic on larger systems, but most smaller systems have manualfill brine tanks, requiring someone to cut open salt bags and dump them into the tank. In our experience, people often forget about this, (understandably, as things get busy and the boiler is still producing steam just like the day before). However, if the boiler system requires a lot of makeup water and that water is not soft, the boiler is dying a slow death that can become very expensive very quickly. 

Easy Ways to Avoid Hard Water 

Check the brine tank for your water softener on a daily basis, and log whenever someone adds salt. Next, contact your local boiler water treatment company and have them send you a soft water test kit that can be used to check your soft water daily. The kits are easy to use, making it possible to train multiple employees to test the water. It’s always a good idea to check that the softener is actually making soft water—never simply assume it’s working even with salt in the brine tank. This way if the softeners start passing hard water, the issue can be addressed immediately and not months later after the boiler is damaged from scale buildup. 

Need a soft water test kit to get started? Just contact us or call (216)251-5151. 

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