Are Your Boilers Safe and Compliant?
When your custodial team or food service staff needs hot water, they simply turn on the faucet and get on with their busy day. Behind all that on-demand H2O is a boiler connected to a sprawling network of pipes they may have never seen. If you keep your boilers in good condition, they typically work seamlessly. Neglected boilers, however, have the power to destroy property and harm people.
The inspiration behind Texas’ boiler safety laws dates back to March 18, 1937, at approximately 3:05 p.m. in New London, Texas. The post-Depression oil resurgence transformed New London into one of the country’s wealthiest rural school districts. To power the high school’s 72 gas heaters, administrators decided to tap into a local oil and gas company’s lines, a common practice in those days.
Just minutes before the final bell rang, a shop teacher powered up an electric sander. The resulting spark ignited odorless natural gas that had leaked into the school undetected. The violent explosion claimed about 320 lives. The Texas Legislature wasted little time addressing what went down as the worst school disaster in U.S. history.
Within two months, legislators had passed a law requiring refiners to add a scent called mercaptan to natural gas. Most boilers at that time were gas-powered. The Legislature’s efforts to prevent another New London-scale tragedy also lead to Texas Health and Safety Code, Chapter 755 and the Texas Boiler Administrative Rules.
Fund members’ responsibilities under the law include ensuring boilers are inspected and registered with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) before they are used. The owner must submit a Boiler Installation Report to TDLR. Follow-up inspections are required annually, biennially, or triennially, depending on the type of boiler.
Boiler inspections are similar to vehicle inspections. They give trained professionals the opportunity to examine your boilers and verify they are operating safely and efficiently. Like your white and yellow fleets, however, boilers also need attention in-between inspections.
The Hartford Steam Boiler (HSB) website tells the story of a middle school boiler that did not have enough water. Excess heat melted the boiler's electrical controls, wiring, and pipe insulation. The boiler had to be replaced at a cost of $140,000. The price tag was hefty, but the fallout could have been far more serious.
Inadequate water and leaky fuel valves are common causes of boiler meltdowns and explosions. The TDLR says excessive pressure typically drives the most lethal boiler accidents. Even in small boilers, pressure buildup has shown the power to crumble buildings and put lives at risk.
Ready to do your part?
The Fund collaborates with HSB to provide boiler inspections, at no additional cost, to members with Property coverage. Members can do their part throughout the year to ensure their boilers operate safely and compliantly.
Comply with new carbon monoxide safety requirement
A recent addition to boiler laws is designed to reduce the risk associated with carbon monoxide, another odorless, potentially deadly gas. Boilers installed on or after September 1, 2020, must include a carbon monoxide detector with a manual reset and interlock system. The interlock system is a safety feature that disables burners when carbon monoxide exceeds a designated threshold.
After installing a CO detector, the vendor must reset and calibrate the system. Each boiler should include a sticker or other documentation indicating that it is calibrated per the required limit.
Stay on top of maintenance
Trained maintenance staff should use a boiler log to track operating levels, check safety equipment, and perform other routine maintenance. More-complex maintenance issues are best left to authorized inspection agencies. Examples include leaking safety valves, dripping condensate, and safety devices that constantly need to be reset.
Use your senses
Your eyes, ears, and nose are among your most important tools when it comes to identifying when boilers need attention. Knocking sounds coming from the pipes, the feel of excessive equipment vibration, and unusual odors in the boiler room are examples of red flags that could indicate the system needs professional attention.
Practice good housekeeping
Boilers need ventilation, so boiler rooms should not double as storage areas. Keep trash, recycling, supplies, and other items away from your boilers. It is especially important to keep combustible materials and gas-powered equipment out of boiler rooms.
Prevent burst pipes
Complying with inspection requirements and staying on top of maintenance year-round will go a long way toward keeping your boilers in good operating condition. Before temperatures dip too far, reduce the risk of flooding by insulating your pipes, especially along exterior walls. Before you leave for holiday break, set thermometers to at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit if possible.
Need an inspection?
The Fund works with HSB to provide Property program members with boiler inspections at no additional charge. Members can request an inspection online or contact HSB at NSCInsp_Hotline@hsb.com or 800-333-4677. HSB inspectors are committed to doing their jobs without disrupting your operations. They will contact you before visiting your facilities. Help them use their time and yours efficiently by preparing your equipment for inspection.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in November 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
David Wylie serves as content developer on the risk solutions team. He brings more than 20 years' experience writing educational content that helps employers protect against workplace accidents, property damage, cybercrime, and other losses.