You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong if given the opportunity. And the place with the most opportunities for things to go wrong is, of course, the boiler room. Whether a boiler is providing heat for a building or producing a product in a process environment, there’s a cornucopia of complications that could potentially foil functionality.
When should you address these potential problems? The wise facility manager addresses them while they’re still potential rather than actual problems. This way when the bad happens (and it will), he’ll be prepared. So how should you address potential problems?
Redundancy is the key to avoiding boiler shutdowns and loss of heat and/or production. This can look different at every facility, but it must be addressed before it’s too late. We’ll focus on redundancy of 1) fuel, 2) equipment, and 3) parts.
In almost every hospital boiler room, burners are dual-fuel because a hospital is a 24/7 operation and cannot be shut down due to the nature of the critical care it provides humans. Similarly, other facilities can have essential operations, such as chemical plants where the loss of steam could cause tanks to freeze, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in disposal fees and lost product.
To avoid relying on one single fuel (the most common in the USA being natural gas), burners can fire a second fuel in case the primary fuel is lost. But how is a facility supposed to be prepared to fire the backup fuel if the system is not tested? Firing the backup fuel at least once a year to ensure everything works is the bare minimum. A lot can happen in a year, and the frequency of testing needs to be in direct relation to how critical the boilers are; the more critical, the more it should be tested.
A common backup fuel is #2 fuel oil. It requires special nozzles, piping, and pumps that will naturally develop issues over time if not regularly tested. Remember that the switch to a backup fuel will most likely be unplanned, so by testing the fuel and writing a specific procedure for the switch, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of a serious problem.
Many production lines rely on a boiler to make steam. If there is no steam, there is no product. This means that the boiler should be treated with high importance on the chain of maintenance items. However, no matter how much maintenance one does, a boiler will eventually have a part fail and will stop working. Money is now being lost for every hour it is down, and so this is where backup boilers are critical.
You’d be surprised how many facilities we come across that have “critical cannot shut down for anything no matter what” processes, and yet they’re relying on the bare minimum number of boilers— usually just one. Why take such a risk? Get backup boilers. Yes, it’s a bigger initial investment, but it will smooth out issues when they develop and save money in the long run. It’s easy to bring on another boiler when it’s there—it’s much harder to hook up a rental boiler and rentals are not cheap. If your facility’s processes are critical, then do an assessment of the cost benefits of backup boilers before a crisis happens. When it does, you will be glad that extra boiler is there.
The final element to consider is your spare parts inventory. Every boiler room is just made up of a bunch of pieces and parts. If you were to write out a list of every one of them, there would be two categories: parts that are critical to keep the boilers running, and parts that are just nice to have. The list of critical parts could include spare blower motors, burner flame safeguards, and feedwater pumps.
The key to making an effective spare parts list is to have one of everything that is special order and has long lead times (such as pumps and motors) and then work down the list from there. The easier it is to get the part; the less essential it may be to have on the shelf. Spare part inventories are nice to have but are a major cost that need to be balanced. Like the other two items on this list, in a facility where maintaining steam production is more important than cost, then having a larger parts inventory would be beneficial. If a facility has extra boilers and has less critical steam, then having an essentials spare parts list is still beneficial, but that facility may choose to save costs by skipping out on some of the bigger ticket items that could still be sourced relatively quickly when needed.
Being prepared for the worst and ready to avoid down time and loss of production is all about having a plan. Don’t let a smooth sailing boiler room blind you from what could happen. The good news is that your boiler service provider can help guide you to making educated decisions. They can help provide and source a spare parts list while also analyzing weaknesses with your boilers, such as obsolete parts that can cause extended down time. A boiler expert can also help develop a plan and test backup fuels as necessary to ensure that everything is ready to go when needed. Plan for the worst and when it happens, the situation will most likely be a minor event instead of something far worse.
For more on spare parts, check out this video: