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Dead Men Tales: The $37 Million Steam Trap

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HeatingHelp
HeatingHelp Administrator Posts: 653
edited January 2022 in THE MAIN WALL



The $37 Million Steam Trap

Ignoring preventative maintenance can have disastrous consequences. Take this story, for instance.

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Comments

  • delcrossv
    delcrossv Member Posts: 781
    edited January 2022
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    To paraphrase Gladstone: "Maintenance delayed is maintenance denied." 😒
    Trying to squeeze the best out of a Weil-McLain JB-5 running a 1912 1 pipe system.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,635
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    I don't want to single a specific Ivy League college out, but... I've had some contact some of the graduates, engineering or otherwise, that they produce, and their grasp on reality is tenuous at best.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    PC7060delcrossvratiojim s_2
  • retiredguy
    retiredguy Member Posts: 930
    edited January 2022
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    In my early years in the steam business I never imagined how expensive poor maintenance could be. After I learned just how steam reacts and just how dangerous it can be I was always hesitant to go into a boiler room that I knew was not serviced on a regular basis by myself or a service tech that I knew. You never knew the condition of that boiler was in when it was shut down. You always had to be on high alert for the unknown.

    In my 40+ years, I saw both cast iron and steel boilers melt, steam explosions and fuel explosions all due to poor or non existent maintenance. I even walked away from a few jobs where the customer would refuse to spend the money needed to make that system safe to operate. Here is an example; a 500HP (20,000,000BTU) high pressure water tube boiler operating at 100PSIG with a single General Controls Diaphram gas valve. The gas valve wore out so the chief engineer removed the valves internals. To shut off the gas supply, when the boiler reached it's operating pressure, the stationery engineer, (yes, they had to have a license), had to close the manual cock and open it again after the pilot lit for the next cycle. By the way, the chief engineer was killed in that same boiler room shortly thereafter due to his own incompetance.
    CLambwmgeorgePammyhammyjim s_2
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 3,696
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    The gas valve wore out so the chief engineer removed the valves internals. To shut off the gas supply, when the boiler reached it's operating pressure, the stationery engineer, (yes, they had to have a license), had to close the manual cock and open it again after the pilot lit for the next cycle.

    Boy, that's scary.
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    @Jamie Hall, our daughter, Kelly, graduated from Notre Dame in 2000. Her roommate, Kathy, also graduated that year, and with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She had no idea that N.D. had its own power plant that made electricity and steam for the campus. She didn't know she had steam heat in her dorm. I learned this at graduation. You would think that sometime during those four years, some professor would have taken his class on a field trip to the other side of the lake.
    Retired and loving it.
    mattmia2CLamb
  • flyboy
    flyboy Member Posts: 1
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    I forwarded the link to the story to my local university facilities supervisor. The university has a large central steam heating system recently rebuilt. I presume if he is unaware of your website or your books and expertise, this article will be a good incentive to tune in.
    Erin Holohan HaskellPammyhammy
  • LDT
    LDT Member Posts: 3
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    When studying steam systems 40 years ago at UMass-Amherst, I asked my thermo professor if we couldn't visit the steam plant that served the campus. His response was, "Oh no, too many pipes, you will be confused!"

    This is the same campus where they replaced that old plant with an $8M new steam plant up the hill - which never worked because by the time the steam reached the campus, it had all condensed...They mothballed that plant and eventually sold most of it off for scrap, later building ANOTHER steam plant closer to campus.
    delcrossvMarkMurfPammyhammyjim s_2
  • MarkMurf
    MarkMurf Member Posts: 35
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    Having started 'sucking soot' as a 12-13 year old at the family heating oil company back in old Bayonne N.J. some 50 years ago, this story hits home. The old man, life-long heating man; concise,(WW2-submariner), honest and caring to his thousands of customers; residential, commercial, institutional, industrial NEVER left any stone unturned."We do a job great or small, we do it well or not at all."."Leave it better and cleaner than you found it."."Make it look like someone was there." Hence, the multi-generational families of customers whose great grandparents purchased coal and ice from my grandfather back in 1917. Well, with that family history, and then being a 'Building Equipment Mechanic' at the old Bell Telephone Co. for some 15 years, and being 'in the heating trade' still, I've got a niche with "with the old stuff" at my heating business out here on the frontier in Montana.
    Having retro-fit too many steam jobs to count, I try to continue the honest, concise and caring legacy of the old submariner.
    I Installed a well known brand, serviceable, efficient(first time anyone did a heat survey on the joint) in the oldest building in town. As with Con Ed, this building back in the day supplied steam to a chunk of the down town area of this town. One of the old Kewanee boilers still sits next to it's modern cousin in the boiler room(two stories below grade). A few years back, when redoing the streets, the city engineers came upon an oversized tank under the front wall of the place."What the hell is that?" Standing there scratching their collective heads."Call Murf, he'll know." said the building maintenance engineer. Explaining to them that it was a steam condensate collector tank for the long abandoned system, back in the days before pumps and electricity, when the condensate had to run downhill back to the lowest point in the system, hence the boiler room two stories below grade. Worried about the small amount of "liquid" in the bottom of said tank,"It's just water." Says I. The EPA and DEQ concurred, after the job was shut down awaiting their analysis . Ei Yei Yei.
    At any rate, having installed the new boiler, sizing it properly, cutting the fuel bill ~50% and maintaining the boiler for some 20 years, a new 'bean counter' came on board. We couldn't see eye to eye, I guess. She wore thick glasses. I think she didn't like my lingering Jersey City accent. There was an inverted bell trap still in the system "in a real spot". Not piped for any sort of proper maintenance, I knew it was the source of condensate 'hanging up' in the system and causing a bit of havoc with the boiler water level. I explained it to the maintenance engineer. And he being the daily man on site was able to make daily adjustments accordingly.(I stopped in twice a month). He retired. She stopped using me. Hired a new maintenance guy with no steam experience. 87M failed, due to lack of maintenance. A beauty of an installation lasted twenty years instead of 100. She got fired. He got fired. I lost the bid to Humungst Plumbing and Heating(who I used to work for)by $900.00.A $36,000.00 install.They in turn hired me to oversee their men's installation. I picked up the maintenance account again .
    "Don't tell yer siblings. But I think you the smartest. Wanna be an astronaut ? Wanna be a doctor or lawyer ? I'll help you do whichever. But learn what I teach you and you'll always have work." I do. Ask my chiropractor ! Love ya dad !❤
    delcrossvLarry WeingartenratioPammyhammy
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,944
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    Here is an example; a 500HP (20,000,000BTU) high pressure water tube boiler operating at 100PSIG with a single General Controls Diaphram gas valve. The gas valve wore out so the chief engineer removed the valves internals. To shut off the gas supply, when the boiler reached it's operating pressure, the stationery engineer, (yes, they had to have a license), had to close the manual cock and open it again after the pilot lit for the next cycle. By the way, the chief engineer was killed in that same boiler room shortly thereafter due to his own incompetance.

    This brings up the question of at what point it becomes your responsibility to report the situation to some sort of AHJ.

    @Jamie Hall, our daughter, Kelly, graduated from Notre Dame in 2000. Her roommate, Kathy, also graduated that year, and with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. She had no idea that N.D. had its own power plant that made electricity and steam for the campus. She didn't know she had steam heat in her dorm. I learned this at graduation. You would think that sometime during those four years, some professor would have taken his class on a field trip to the other side of the lake.

    Or maybe have absorbed how to identify different types of emitters and controls from her father. Maybe I'm the only one that looks at how radiators are set up on TV.

    Where I work, the University of Michigan, had a web page with details about and pictures of the cogeneration plant that powers the district steam system but most of that disappeared after 9/11.
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    Thanks for the great stories, guys!

    And as for looking at radiators on TV. They had a nice steam one on The Black List episode we were watching last night. The only problem was the action was taking place in Cuba. 
    Retired and loving it.
    PammyhammyPC7060
  • retiredguy
    retiredguy Member Posts: 930
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    @Mattmia2; i never finished the story cause I was just giving an example of things I saw. I reported this to my boss who knew the State/Hartford Boiler inspector (1 man, 2 titles). He visited the job the next day and pulled their insurance license so they had to shut the plant down until repairs were made to his satisfaction.
    mattmia2Pammyhammy
  • Steamfighter49
    Steamfighter49 Member Posts: 21
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    In response to Jamie’s comment I’ll add this. The mechanical contracting company I retired from takes on interns from local universities and colleges who have engineering degree courses. Having had over 40 years of experience starting as a Fitter and moving on up the ladder to the Service Div, estimating, PM and design, they sometimes asked what they can do to be better engineers. My response is, you’re doing it. Get out of the classroom and into the real world to see how your work will be done and how to care for it.
    delcrossvPammyhammyjim s_2
  • wmgeorge
    wmgeorge Member Posts: 222
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    So the only place to buy Dans books are at Amazon?
    Old retired Commercial HVAC/R guy in Iowa. Master electrician.
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    Or at HeatingHelp.com. 
    Retired and loving it.
  • wmgeorge
    wmgeorge Member Posts: 222
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    Where? Did not find here?
    Old retired Commercial HVAC/R guy in Iowa. Master electrician.
  • Larry Weingarten
    Larry Weingarten Member Posts: 3,387
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  • wmgeorge
    wmgeorge Member Posts: 222
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    Got it ordered. thanks again.
    Old retired Commercial HVAC/R guy in Iowa. Master electrician.
    Larry Weingarten
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    Thanks!
    Retired and loving it.
  • wmgeorge
    wmgeorge Member Posts: 222
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    Even as I am retired from the trade I am still interested in learning even in my late 70's. Very little LPS out here in corn county but IF I did have a service call on one my rule was do not change anything unless you know what your doing!! I wish I had your book back then!!
    Old retired Commercial HVAC/R guy in Iowa. Master electrician.
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    Thanks!
    Retired and loving it.
  • Labenaqui
    Labenaqui Member Posts: 72
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    Our New England Town was centered around a steam-heated Neo-Classic Library for over a century. No issues to note.
    A doubling expansion two decades ago left us with four air handlers driven by the now undersized, hot water converted boiler with a sinful oil bill. Recognizing the latter prompted us as taxpayers to replace at cost with a Duplexed W/M WGO-6 MBS with ODS & REDLink. Problem solved? Not completely.
    The four air handlers have leaking, partial and non-functional humidifiers, poorly accessed and a maintenance issue. We have respectfully suggested conversions to steam humidifiers to stabilize book & records deterioration, now approaching a crisis point. Hopefully action will now result.
    In retrospect, did we "throw the baby out with the bath water", i.e. that old Steamer and its natural humidification?
    CLamb
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 2,331
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    In defense of engineering schools students need to learn so many subjects that there's not enough time to learn any as well as we'd like.
    CLamb
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    Sarah, the other N.D. roommate. Five-year program. She never heard of hydronic radiant heating. 😳
    Retired and loving it.
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 2,331
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    Sarah, the other N.D. roommate. Five-year program. She never heard of hydronic radiant heating. 😳

    Mechanical Engineering curriculum probably includes heat transfer, fluid mechanics, control theory, thermodynamics. Enough fundamentals? HHW & steam heat for comfort are uncommon specialities in US.

    Cities grade stationary engineers by size rather than pressure. Sound cuckoo to me.
    CLamb
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,565
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    Sarah graduated with a degree in Architecture.
    Retired and loving it.
  • CLamb
    CLamb Member Posts: 298
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    My Father had the best of both worlds. He started out as a commercial refrigeration tech in the days of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide refrigerants. He then became a sheet metal worker but one day hurt his back lifting some lead sheets. Advised by a doctor to find a different line of work he attended Newark College of Engineering where he earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. He eventually wound up at Tenney Eng. where he designed high vacuum space simulation chambers--including the one used for the Mercury program. As a child I remember climbing the scaffold to see that test chamber in person out behind the shop before it shipped.
    wmgeorge
  • retiredguy
    retiredguy Member Posts: 930
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    When I went to a tech school in Pittsburgh, Pa in the 1967-68 for their refrigeration, air conditioning and heating degree they were still teaching about low and high side floats used on refrigeration. What is that you say, who knows, I never saw one in the field. I learned more off the "old guys" than I could ever learn in tech school. I say, read everything you can on your selected profession, take classes on the same and ask as many questions as you can. The more you know the better your pay check will be. Remember, you can never learn it all as you will find out as you read all the posts here on heatinghelp.com. I know, I have been learning a lot even in retirement.
    Vegas
  • OuterCapeOilguy
    OuterCapeOilguy Member Posts: 46
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    These stories certainly resonate. The greater portion of my work is on commercial food service equipment, in addition to oil-fired heating systems. Even at age 71 (yes, I've been trying to retire for 3 years now...) I'm constantly amazed at the incredibly poor, serviceperson-unfriendly junk sold to the public. I've been heard to say more than once, that if I were the dean of an engineering school, I would refuse a diploma to anyone who had not put in at least a year in the field, working on the kind of equipment that he/she might one day find him/herself designing.

    Even some of the otherwise well-conceived items we routinely encounter all too often fail to take into consideration real-world conditions. A good example is a popular brand of oil boiler control/low-water safety combination (I'll assume that I should refrain from mentioning brand names). I installed such a control on the W/M WGO-5 boiler I put in my own home. This control had a series of small slots in the top of the housing, presumably for some kind of ventilation purpose(?). A couple of years ago, a horizontal plumbing line above the boiler developed, unbeknownst to me, a very slow leak at a fitting; the occasional drops landed on the boiler and apparently splashed into the (unnecessary) openings on top of the control. Result: one day, while having lunch in my kitchen above the utility room, I heard a roaring noise, and went downstairs to investigate. Opening the utility room door I confronted a cloud of steam damn near obscuring the boiler less than 2 feet in front of me, gushing from the safety valve; the burner was still running, and the temperature gauge read 270ºF. The little splashes of water had shorted out something on the circuit board, and there was no built-in redundancy. I shut off the burner and turned off the water supply to the boiler (as well as the supply and return ball valves), and waited until it had cooled to room temperature before attempting to refill the system. Fortunately, the boiler survived the event, needing only a new relief valve and a new control. The one I had in stock also had the "vents," so I placed tape over them. I also contacted the manufacturer, related the story to one of the engineers, and I understand that they now manufacture them without the "vent" slots.