Mine your commercial client list to increase boiler room safety - and your revenue.

Emergency door switches are required in every boiler room to cut off power to the boiler if someoneis in the room when the relief valve opens. (Photo credit: Ray Wohlfarth.)


Russell Conwell, founder of Temple University, would often tell a story about a man named Ali Hafed, a rich farmer. Ali was once visited by a Buddhist priest who regaled him with stories about diamonds and their worth. Ali sold his farm and spent the rest of his life searching for diamonds. The story ended tragically for Ali as he took his own life, broke and in despair. The new owner of Ali’s farm was leading his camel to water and discovered a large, shiny stone in it. He picked it up and kept it in his house.

It was soon discovered that the stone was actually a diamond. Ali Hafed’s farm became one of the richest diamond mines in the world. If Ali had only looked on his own farm, he would have been one of the richest men in the world.

What does this story have to do with boilers? I hear many contractors bemoaning the state of the economy. Many are trying to open their businesses to other avenues. Some are contemplating closing their businesses. If we look on our own farm, we may find our own riches. All it takes is a visit to our commercial clients’ boiler rooms and a copy of the local boiler codes. I would wager that more than half of the boiler rooms in the country do not meet the current boiler codes.

Great opportunities exist to increase the safety of our clients’ buildings and enhance our sales:

  • Gas-train venting. Many of the components in a gas train should be vented to the outside. This would include gas pressure switches, gas pressure regulators and some gas valves. These vents are only connected in about half the boiler rooms that I see. Only a thin rubber membrane separates the gas inside the pipe from a leak into the boiler room.


  • Emergency door switch. ASME CSD1 code calls for door switches to be installed on the exits for every boiler room. The switches shut off the power to the boilers when pushed. If you have ever been inside a boiler room when the relief valve opens, you will realize the value of this switch. Within minutes, there is zero visibility in the room. Steam displaces oxygen, so breathing is labored. If you have to shut off the boilers, it is almost impossible to navigate the room. You may walk into a pipe or duct. How many of your clients’ boiler rooms have door switches? They are a great idea and will make boiler rooms safer.


  • Leak-test gas valves. Every gas valve manufacturer provides information about how to leak-test their valves. Many will suggest that it be done as part of normal preventive maintenance. ASME CSD1 code recommends it as well.

    Did you know gas valves have an allowable amount of leakage? It amazes me that we would never tolerate a leaking valve on our sink but gas valves are allowed a certain amount of tolerable leakage. The most common way to leak-test a gas valve is with a bubble test. Honeywell has found that electronic leak detectors will give you a false reading in most instances. If the gas train has a solenoid valve, it has a life expectancy of about 10 years. I would recommend testing the main gas valves, pilot valves and the normally open vent valve.

    The table indicates the amount of permissible leakage in gas valves according to ANSI Z21.21, Section 2.4.2


  • Combustion air. Make sure the boiler room has adequate combustion air. The International Mechanical Code requires two openings in the boiler room. One should be within a foot of the ceiling and one within a foot of the floor. The size of the direct openings should be at least one square inch for every 4,000 Btu/hr. of combined input rating of the fuel-burning appliances drawing combustion and dilution air from the room. This would include the boiler and the water heater.


  • When sizing combustion air louvers, you will need to know the Area Factor of the grills. This is the free area of the louver. A rule of thumb is that metal grills have about 75 percent free area and wooden grills have about 50 percent free area. For example, a 10-inch by 10-inch grill equals 100 square inches. If the grill is metal, we would have about 75 inches of free area. If it is wooden, we would have about 50 inches of free area.

    Assuming our 100-square-inch louver is metal,  enough combustion air would be available for about 300,000 Btu/hr. of fuel-burning equipment. If the heating plant exceeds that, the size of the grill would need to be increased or mechanical ventilation added. When using mechanical ventilation, the code calls for 1 cubic foot per minute for each 2,400 Btu/hr. of fuel-burning equipment in the room. A good idea is to mechanically interlock the fan with the burner. In this way, the burner will not start until the flow of air into the mechanical room is verified.

    When I talk with contractors about this, many say, “Well, the old boiler rooms are ‘grandfathered’ in.” My answer is that most automobiles used asbestos brake shoes at one time. You would be hard-pressed to find those anymore. The client is looking to you as his expert. You have a responsibility to inform him if his equipment does not meet current codes. Believe me, he will appreciate it.

    I like to present a report to the client showing the current status of the equipment as well as any code violations. This piece of paper is like magic. It will not stay on the client’s desk. He will have to either forward it to his superior or authorize the repairs.

    After you have looked at every boiler room in your client base, the next step is to obtain a list of all the boiler rooms installed in your state from the agency that regulates boilers in your locale. Some states, such as Ohio, have their lists online.

    I hope you discover your own acres of diamonds.

    Links