Maintaining a Building's Infrastructure The Health of Your Boiler System

In many ways, a building’s boiler is like the heart is to the body: it provides heat and circulation; it works unseen; and if properly maintained, it will function well for decades without a problem. Maintaining the heat source of the community is as important and as specific as the care people take in watching their weight and their cholesterol levels. And when the weather gets colder and a building’s boiler is taxed harder, it is crucial for the boiler to be maintained well, and for it to be running at optimal efficiency. Failing to do so will inevitably put added strain on the machine and end in a breakdown.

Keeping the boiler system operational is a combination of off-season maintenance and routine checkups. Unless each maintenance step is performed correctly, unnecessary problems could plague a boiler. Failing to keep the boiler in shape also could lead to a complete shutdown of the system. If water levels and pressure limits in a boiler aren’t kept in check, the machine can overheat, crack and fail.

That’s why boiler service companies, superintendents and other people who check on the boiler must be trained professionals who fully understand the tasks they perform. Incorrectly fixing or failing to fix a boiler which needs repair could cost a building’s residents money that’s unnecessarily spent.

Leaks and inefficiencies can mean wasted energy costs, but inept or irregular maintenance can lead to the worst scenario of a boiler breakdown. Not only is it inconvenient to order a new boiler in the chill of winter, but the machines will cost more at that time. While a building is waiting to get the new boiler delivered and installed, residents may have no heat unless a temporary solution is found. Some companies rent boilers to be used temporarily, but costs for the machines start at $8,000 per month. These temporary boilers also require installation, which costs $15,000 or more.

Shaping Up

Maintaining this basement-dwelling, warmth-producing behemoth isn’t so complex. Boilers operate constantly when they are needed most, and like any machines, they will have problems. But regular maintenance can prevent many unnecessary repairs. Not cleaned properly and a boiler will accumulate soot and other dirty residue. Tests that have been conducted by municipalities, heating plant engineers and boiler manufacturers have proven that even a small amount of soot (1/8" to 1/16") will drain boiler efficiency by as much as 25 percent depending on the system. This amount of wasted fuel translates into wasted dollars to any multi-family building. A boiler system must be completely clean on the water and fire side. A clean heating surface results in maximum heat transfer and less heat (dollars) up the stack.

To prevent excessive soot from building up in the boiler, a building’s superintendent can open the boiler’s blow-down valve for a few seconds each day. This cleans out the sooty residue in the valve. Also as part of its routine maintenance, a boiler’s motors should be cleaned and lubricated once a month.

Some companies might only do an annual checkup on a building’s boiler, but others recommend a few checkups on a boiler throughout the year. American Boiler Company, in Hillside, performs three two-hour servicing calls on their clients’ boilers each year. These boiler checkups are done in September or October; sometime from November to mid-January; and in mid-March to mid-April, says Iris Frank, American Boiler Co.’s director of business development.

During each of these thrice-yearly service calls, American Boiler Company’s employees check the boiler’s operation; check the boiler controls, safety controls and the valves; and they also check the boiler’s fittings, pumps, and expansion storage tanks. The smokestack is then inspected, followed by inspection of the piping insulation, steam traps and strainers. Next, a combustion analysis/boiler efficiency test is performed, and the burner and boiler controls are adjusted as needed. Lastly, the boiler company submits a preventative maintenance report to the property manager or owner.

“We always follow up with a written proposal. Sometimes just a little valve needs to be replaced,” Frank says. “The point of preventative maintenance is preventing things like corrosion and calcium-calcified piping.”

Between service calls, the building superintendent and the building’s property manager should be checking on the boiler regularly. For the super, that means once a day and for the property manager, once a week. These quick inspections will often catch developing problems before they cause a breakdown.

Given proper maintenance, a typical residential boiler can last 30 years or more. Because these machines use water, which contains many potentially corrosive agents and which also is corrosive to the apparatus, boilers must be regularly scrutinized for potential leaks or malfunctions. The superintendent and the boiler servicing company should work together to keep an eye on all of the system’s parts, including the radiators in the apartments.

“The superintendent should be cognizant of the boiler running efficiently or not,” says Bill Jebaily, owner of Aggressive Energy & Mechanical Group in Brooklyn.

One way to monitor the efficiency of the system is to check the thermometer on the smokestack. The temperature on the thermometer should never exceed 550 degrees, Jebaily says. “The higher the stack temperature, the more soot there is in the boiler. That leads to lower efficiency. So if the temperature exceeds 550 degrees, an oil burner repair company should be called,” he says.

Needless to say, major fixes on a boiler should always be left to boiler servicing company professionals.

Annual Checkups

At least once a year, a boiler should be cleaned by a professional to ensure optimal performance. This annual cleaning should start with a thorough brushing out, vacuuming and cleaning of the boiler. The smoke pipe and chimney should be cleaned at the time, and the device should be inspected for signs of leaks. Any leaks that are found should be repaired and worn parts should be replaced during an overhaul of the burner. Finally, the burner should be fired off and tested to verify that it is working properly.

Annual servicing of a boiler should be done before the cold weather season. The average annual maintenance call to service a boiler takes about one to two work days, and should be done by a service company, not by the superintendent.

State law in New Jersey requires all steam and hot water boilers having a heat input of 40,000 BTU per hour or more, or rated at more than 10 kW, to be inspected annually. Boilers having a heat input of less than 10 kilowatts or less than 40,000 BTU per hour are exempt. Buildings with less than six family units are also exempt.

In New Jersey, boiler inspections can only be performed by certified inspectors employed by the state of New Jersey or employed by an insurance company. These inspectors must also hold a current New Jersey Certificate of Competency issued by the Bureau of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Compliance.

Boiler inspections are an absolute necessity, to ensure the safety of the residents.

“Regardless of their size or type, boilers are dangerous, causing loss of life and property damage if not inspected and maintained properly,” says John Monahan, the assistant commissioner of Labor Standards and Safety Enforcement for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development “While there are safety devices on boilers that are designed to prevent dangerous boiler operating conditions, the only way you can be confident the control or safety devices are functioning properly is by the yearly boiler inspection.”

The penalty for not having a residential building’s boiler inspected is a fine of not less than $500 and not more than $10,000 for each first offense. Each subsequent offense can receive a penalty of not less than $500 and not more than $25,000.

Boilers also should be regularly treated chemically, to neutralize any corrosive agents that are coming into the system. The boiler’s water should be tested and chemically treated at least six times per year, depending upon the type of boiler. These chemical treatments are essential because they neutralize the oxygen content in the system. This neutralization is important because oxygen is a corrosive agent to a boiler, and excess oxygen in the system means faster corrosion of the equipment. While the frequency of these treatments is partly dependent upon the type of boiler, the need for the treatments depends also upon how heavily the boiler is used. Generally, the more a boiler is operated, the more chemical treatments it will need.

In addition to daily or weekly flushing out of the system via the boiler’s lower cutoff valve, a superintendent also should clean an oil-burning system’s oil strainer once a week while the boiler is in operation. If this task is not done regularly, dirt will eventually clog the strainer and shut down the system. During winter, the super or building maintenance personnel should visually inspect the boiler at least once a week, though many industry professionals suggest checking it daily. When checking the boiler, the super should inspect the bolts on the pump, check the water level, and always check for oil leaks or water leaks.

Those involved with maintaining the building can plan for any wintertime boiler emergencies that might happen, says James Cervelli, a property manager for Cervelli Management Company in North Bergen. “Some of these boilers work off of circulator pumps. In some larger buildings, we keep a spare pump on-site—it makes the job less time-consuming and annoying,” he says.

For some of its clients, Cervelli Management Company also keeps extra valves and gauges for the boiler on-site, in the event of a failure and a need for one or more of the parts. That way, no time is wasted in ordering and installing the part.

“If a boiler is running on one pump and it breaks, your down time will be a few hours, and possibly a couple days,” Cervelli says.

So don’t get caught out in the cold this winter, or any other. Keep on top of your boiler, and it’ll do its job for generations to come.

Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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