“If you look at manufacturing processes as the human body, the boiler is the heart,” says Jeff Byrne, aftercare and business develop- ment manager at boiler manufacturer Fulton UK.
If this is the case, then many process engineering companies could be heading for cardiac arrest.
“The condition of boilers we visit ranges from immaculate – where you could eat off the floor in the boiler house – spiralling down to those where we walk in through a door and say an installation is illegal,” warns Byrne. “It is a major concern.”
Despite their critical function, boilers can be forgotten about when process plant managers are thinking about keeping their lines safe and efficient.
“We’ve seen boilers installed in toilets or inside a laundry with no partition,” says Byrne.
It might seem funny, but the conse- quences could be catastrophic. There are a number of important factors when siting a boiler, including keeping temperatures under control.
“You also have to have enough air coming in and out through ventilation at low and high levels. Without that oxygen, the boiler will burn rich and create more carbon monoxide – the silent killer.”
Beyond simple positioning mistakes, manufacturers need to consider fire risk – for oil-fired burners, for example, a fuseable link can be used to shut off the oil supply in case of high temperatures.
You have to have enough air coming in and out through ventilation at low and high levels. Without that oxygen, the boiler will burn rich and create more carbon monoxide – the silent killer
Jeff Byrne, aftercare and business development manager, Fulton UK
Often companies inherit buildings with boilers already sited, yet that doesn’t guarantee the installation is safe and legal. And even if it is, there is a lot of work to be done to keep it that way.
“A big concern for me is someone operating a boiler with no formal training,” says Byrne. “Often they’ve just been told where the on/off button is. The potential for danger and damage is astronomical.
“If you buy a £40,000 Mercedes, insure it, tax it, get an MOT – would you then grab a guy off the street with no driving licence and give him the keys? That’s what sometimes happens with steam boilers, which are pressure vessels and can explode.”
Safety of staff working near the boiler and in the wider plant is of course paramount, but the argument for paying more attention to the “heart” of the operation doesn’t stop there. In these difficult times, with record drops in economic activity forecast, ensuring the energy efficiency of boilers – and avoiding costly downtime – are of accentuated importance to manufacturers.
Fulton UK carries out technical boiler house risk assessments, creating documents that can run to 50 pages long. Byrne often acts as though he’s a Health and Safety Executive inspector for a day to highlight to companies where they’re going wrong.
“We uncover lots that’s not done right,” he says. “For a start I ask for certain documents to be to hand when I come in: service records, training, insurance and so on. A month later when I attend, they can only find two out of eight – and these are out of date.”
One key piece of paperwork for process plant chiefs is a dedicated log book showing the activity that has been carried out on a boiler. Daily maintenance is critical not just for safety reasons but to get the most out of the asset – which is also potentially a threat to the business.
“Without water checks, for instance, you can get scale build-up that can act as an insulator,” warns Byrne. “So water in the boiler loses its cooling properties. You could end up losing thousands of pounds a year.”
Businesses could reduce their operational costs by monitoring the energy performance of their boiler house
Darren Silverthorn, national controls and metering specialist, Spirax Sarco
In these times, unnecessary costs are seriously bad news. But having a boiler failure and losing steam to a key part of a production line could be a disaster.
“You need to carry out procedures such as side glass blow-down – opening the valves to allow steam and water to exit – otherwise debris builds up and you start to get a false reading. You may not have as much water in the boiler as you think and you risk boiler meltdown.”
Fulton UK offers a range of aftercare services, which it believes are even more important in the light of the pandemic. It also advises process engineers to be careful when stopping and restarting boilers due to lockdowns and trading conditions.
“We have in the past had customers say they’ve shutdown their boiler when they mean they’ve turned it off. You need to do it properly – flood the vessel with chemical treatment or empty it and withdraw inspection covers – if it’s completely dry or completely flooded it won’t rust.”
When restarting, thermal shocking is a risk. “Large horizontal boilers have a lot of steel and the furnace can warm up a lot quicker than the pressure vessel. This thermal differential can cause thermal shock leading to microcracking and boiler failure.”
Fellow boiler manufacturer Bosch warns that even those boilers that did stay active throughout lockdowns this year could have been run without constant supervision. In these cases, a thorough check of the entire system should be run as people return to the boiler house, the company urges, to ensure everything is working correctly and safely.
Of course, even when the Coronavirus has passed, an even bigger challenge awaits the world in the form of global warming. Bosch has published a planning guide to help manufacturers create efficient process heat systems that protect the environment and valuable resources.
This looks at a huge number of factors including water hardness, type of fuel, temperature, humidity, load levels and more to guide decision making on boilers.
The firm is also using technology to boost the never-more-important crusade for boiler efficiency in manufacturing.
Bosch assisted Octapharma – a company specialising in human proteins made from blood plasma and human cell lines – in modernising the energy supply at its site in Vienna.
The modernisation process included the integration of the digital efficiency assistant MEC Optimize as well as automation equipment for water analysis. Smart data analysis helps hone production processes and boost energy efficiency, while recommendations for action are generated with the aid of artificial intelligence.
The digital assistant makes predictions regarding the remaining service life of all-important components and helps with maintenance scheduling. The boiler log book is kept up to date digitally, with water values recorded automatically and interpreted into warnings or modifications.
Octapharma is achieving further energy efficiency as a result of additional heat recovery modules. The recovery of thermal energy from exhaust vapours and desalting water is saving more than €20,000 per year, while CO2 emissions are down 150 tonnes annually.
Octapharma says MEC Optimize will help it to identify areas of action and potential for improvement much more quickly.
In a similar vein, Darren Silverthorn, national controls and metering specialist at Spirax Sarco, has written a guide highlighting where improvements could be made to enhance boiler efficiency and reduce money spent on energy.
A Guide to Identifying the True Efficiency of your Boiler House identifies several issues with traditional boiler house energy measurement and lists eight potential areas for improvement that process managers could be missing out on.
There is often limited means of energy monitoring in boiler houses, according to the company, and therefore finite knowledge of boiler house performance.
“Businesses have suffered from weakened competitiveness owing to rising energy costs and an uncertain economic environment,” says Silverthorn. “[They] could reduce their operational costs by monitoring the energy performance of their boiler house.”