First Set of Boiler Rounds – What You Should Look At

taking over a boiler operator shift

A Cleaver-Brooks boiler.

You can call it getting turn over from the previous stationary engineer, or taking over a boiler operator shift, here, let’s just say you are doing your first set of boiler rounds for the day.

If you are a building or stationary engineer, or boiler operator, one of the very first things you should do when getting to work is tour the boiler room. This is one of the first places I go through. By walking through here first, if I happen to notice anything I can ask the off going stationary engineer about it. Or, I can observe plant conditions and they can tell me why they have the plant operating that way.

What should you look at and check on the boilers? Is there anything you should be testing the operation of? There are a few things you should check as you take over the operation of the boilers for your shift, there are also a couple things to test as well. These don’t necessarily need to be performed during your first set of rounds but rather sometime during your shift at least.

There are tasks that should be performed hourly like checking the operation of the feed pumps; there are also tasks that should be performed every 20 minutes like checking the water level inside the boiler. Let’s not focus right now on the time requirements but just the task. This post started out with just a handful of items to look at. Even now, typing this, it has grown.

Out of this entire list I’ve scratched out on a post-it note, I would say there are 2 more important than the others. Can you name them without reading ahead? I bet you could name at least one.

To Check on Your Boilers

Again, these might be every 20 minutes, hour, shift, or day. Use the operating procedures for your plant to determine what needs to be checked and tested, and how often. Every plant is different and the procedures for each should reflect the differences as well.

The list below are things a boiler operator, stationary engineer, or building engineer should be checking, especially on the first set of your rounds, readings, or logs.

Boiler Water Level

checking boiler water level

See the boiler water level at the arrow?

This should be the first thing you do when taking over control of the boilers – check the water level inside. Boiler water level should be somewhere within the acceptable range in the gauge glass and water column if operating.

If the boiler is shut down or secured, there might not be a water level visible. See? This is one of those things you can take note of and ask the off going engineer about. “Hey, why is there no water level in #3 boiler?” “Because we have it drained for maintenance.”

Check, listen, or feel which boilers are operating and then glance at the gauge glass and make sure the boiler water level is within the proper range.

Flame Condition

Checking the condition of the flame is important as well.

The color and shape can sort of tell you what is going on, it gives you a decent indicator from the outside of the combustion conditions going on inside the boiler.

Your plant will have its own criteria for what it considers to be a “good” flame, it’s impossible to come up with one awesome flame condition that covers all boilers.

In a gas combustion flame, this document says a blue, slightly streaked or invisible flame is desired. In an oil fired boiler, you want to see a short, bright, crisp, and turbulent flame. This is the condition we typically see on the Cleaver-Brooks boilers here. A bright, crisp, swirling and turbulent orange.

You also want to sort of check the stability of the flame. Is it nice and strong or does it kind of peter out for a second, re-ignite, and repeat?

Sometimes you might look in the peephole and see a perfect looking flame. Be careful though, this may be simply because combustion is occurring in an oxygen rich environment. Ideally, you’d want the perfect flame using the minimum amount of oxygen necessary to achieve perfect combustion. You don’t want a perfect flame as a result of adding and adding excess oxygen.

Steam Header Pressure

This one is straightforward.

As you walk through the boiler room, take a look at your steam header pressures. Check your main steam header pressure as well as any branch lines like one going to your low pressure steam header.

Looking at this pressure will also give you an idea of steam demand from the building or facility.

Steam Demand or Load

cleaver brook boiler flame scanner

Looking down the peephole at the flame. Wish I could get a better pic.

Check the fire rate of your boilers.

By looking at the boiler fire rates, you can determine how much demand is being placed on the boilers. Are they all at 100% load? Does one boiler handle the load? Are your other boilers running at 0.1%?

Checking steam demand along with header pressure can give you an indication of what is going within the plant as well as what may be coming up.


Check conductivity of the boilers.

Maybe you have a water treatment controller that gives a simple read out of what current boiler conductivity is. If you’re like the majority of us, you’ll have to draw a sample, let it cool, and then use a meter to measure conductivity.

By measuring this you’ll get an indication of if you need to blow down or not. Use this in conjunction with your plant procedures to determine if you will perform a bottom.

For instance, despite being classically (lol) trained in boiler operations (taught to conduct at least 1 bottom blow down per day,) currently we have been instructed to not conduct them until further notice because our conductivity is too low.

These are things we should be checking, looking, at inspecting. Next we are going to go over some things you should be doing on your first set (or sometime during your shift.)

To Test/Do on Your Boilers

If you’ve gotten your boiler operator or steam engineer license, you know there are some things that are supposed to be done at least every day, and sometimes each shift. Personally, I like to do all of the boiler related tasks below during my first walk through of the shift. It kind of puts me in tune with them. Plus you get the required stuff over with right away. Not much worse than getting slammed at work and not being able to conduct your mandatory checks or tests.

Bottom Blowdown

Just above here, we talked about measuring conductivity. That reading helps determine if we perform bottom blowdowns every shift, every day, or never.

Coming up through the ranks, it was an accepted practice to bottom blow at least once per day regardless of conductivity in order to remove sludge and solids from the mud drum.

Water Column & Gauge Glass Blowdown

These two pieces of equipment, the column and gauge or sight glass, are blown down at least once per shift to ensure we are getting an accurate indication of boiler water level.

The water column is what signals the feed pump to come on or shut off, it also can signal the boiler to shut down if water level is too low. For this reason, just like a bottom blow on a boiler, we want to blow down the water column and sight glass to get rid of any garbage or sediment that may impact its operation.

Low Water Cutoff

boiler low water cutoff check

A low water (LWCO) on a boiler. Works like a float in a toilet tank.

This is probably the most important safety feature on a boiler. It is crucial that you test this. Often. This is the safety feature that completely shuts down the boiler if it senses a low water condition inside. It secures all fuel to the boiler almost instantly.

Currently the low water cutoff (LWCO) is tested once per shift.

A low water condition means that not enough water is inside the boiler to support full combustion or boiler operations.

You might have combustion taking place with no water. What happens when all of a sudden you throw water onto a scorching hot surface?


Alternate Low Water Cutoff

This is the almost the same as above. It is essentially a back-up to the primary LWCO. This should also be tested once per shift.

By testing them, you are also in essence, almost blowing these down as well, getting rid of sediment and sludge.

Flame Scanner

how often should you test boiler flame scanner

A flame scanner removed.

The flame scanner is scary ha ha. Testing it is anyways.

This device should be tested at least once per day to ensure proper operation. It too shuts down the boiler but not on a low water condition. It shouts down the boiler when it doesn’t “see” a flame present. Within a few seconds of not seeing it, it will secure the boiler and shut off the fuel.

It’s important that this device functions properly so if something goes wrong, the boiler combustion chamber just doesn’t fill up and up with un-burned fuel, like a barbeque grill you know?

It scans the area inside the combustion chamber looking for particulate and/or light. If it doesn’t sense it, shut down.

You test it by removing it WHILE the boiler is firing and cover the lens with something. It should secure the boiler.


boiler flame scanner check

The flame scanner installed. You can almost see one of the peepholes where you check flame condition too.

This list of what to check or do on your boilers may seem like a lot but it really isn’t.

At first you may feel overwhelmed with everything you need to be doing in order to stay in compliance of operating your boilers. Soon though, you’ll develop a routine that allows you to knock out all of these checks and tests quickly and efficiently.

It’s important that as a person running the boilers, you take that role seriously. These tests and checks are required for a reason. Your life is on the line as well as everyone else’s. It can be frustrating to feel like maybe you’re the only one doing all this stuff. And that may be the case lol. But don’t you feel better about yourself thinking maybe YOU ARE the ONLY one checking up on the integrity of the boilers?

If you’ve got a question or comment (yeah right) leave it below or shoot me a friendly message. Always open to new ideas.

If you have a bunch of questions, maybe you would like to check out the review of the book Low Pressure Boilers here. It is basically the manual for learning about boilers as well as preparing for that section of your licensing exam.

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