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Historic Steam Boiler Explosions

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Paul David Bates

19/07/09 20:56:57

Being a steam enthusiast and interested in Engineering I have just been reading an article in the Old Glory Magazine. It is an extract from a book by the well known Boilermaker Alan McEwen. Alan has an excellent reputation in the preservation world and has made many contributions to the Old Glory magazine over the years.

The article in the magazine is entitled "Boiler Explosion at Bingley bobbin mill" Alan's description of the events that took place on that day in 1869 are very vivid (anyone would think he was there). The casualties and wreckage were horendous as shown in the accompanying photo's with that Article. Its amazing what happens when things go wrong and a 12 ton Lancashire boiler decides it wants to head for the skies. Must have been terifying for those that whitnessed it.

Here are the details:
Title: Historic Steam Boiler Explosions.
Author: Alan McEwen
Published by: Sledgehammer Engineering Press Ltd.
Available from late August.

I just want to say that I am in no way connected with the Author, publisher, Old Glory, etc. Just interesetd in engineering and when I find something of interest I like to tell people.

Best Regards

Dave Bates

Thomas Sheriff

21/07/09 17:50:52

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I have spent sixty years of my life working with steam starting with marine steam reciprocating engines to large super critical pressure steam turbines, and I think that I can safely say that steam is most definatlely not romantic, although it can be very satisfying, it can also be very hard work. During 1985 I was working at a large coal fired power station in Africa as a mechanical engineer with a firm of consulting engineers. This was a very large station with four 120 MW units and two 220 MW units in course of erection.

It was during the morning in march 1985, after having completed a tour of inspection that on returning to the site office and while talking to a colleague, we heard a long rumbling explosion. We ran to the door of the site office to see a large volume of steam escaping from under the boiler canopy. We all ran over to the station as fast as we could; the unit control room was in darkness and a resonance from the building steelwork could be heard.

The boilers at this station were fired by pulverised fuel and the subsequent investigations revealed that the fire in No 2 boiler had been lost and that the boiler operator had immediately pressed the control button to ignite the oil burners. it is essential that when the flame from a pulverised burner is lost that the furnace is first purged of coal dust by running the boiler fans for at least five minutes before igniting the oil burners. This had not been done, and as a result the boiler furnace was full of a potentially dangerous mixture of pulverised fuel and air; the ignition of the oil burners set of a massive explosion.

The resulting explosion caused the loss of seven lives and seventeen serious injuries and the boiler was so badly damaged that it had to be completely rebuilt. An inspection shortly after the explosion revealed that the right hand corner of the furnace had been torn open for the entire height of the furnace, leaving a space wide enough to drive a double decker bus through. This indicated that the seat of the explosion may have been just above the burners on the rear left hand corner of the furnace. A high vacuum was drawn by this explosion that was sufficient to collapse the furnace roof and bring down the the dead space above it. The furnace water wall tubes were torn open releasing the contents of the boiler at high pressure, which immediately flashed into steam filling the building and trapping those inside.

Best Wishes,

Tom.

Paul David Bates

21/07/09 21:04:00

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Tom,

Thanks for taking the time to post. Very interesting comments

You are right! Steam is a very dangerous medium. Your description of events only 20 or so years ago shows that even today in this Health and Safety mad world things can go wrong. It is an unfortunate fact of life that if people are involved in something there is always a possibilty that something can go wrong. Even when designers try and design people out of the equation things will still go wrong, because all this means is more automation. For me there is far too much automation and control on even the simplist plants now a days. The complications which arise from legislation and an obsession to get rid of people has in some instances made plant and machinery very complex and very expensive. How many of us have been involved in commissioning a machine and thought why do we need all this "hocus pocus" complexity when all you need is an on/off button?? The job that should have been commissioned in a couple of days takes 6 months with the PLC man modifying his programme almost daily to accomodate for all the many numerous instances that can occur. Of course once the Plant is handed over to the operational people they switch the controls to manual because that is the only way that they can get it to work.

Rant over!!!

Best Regards

Dave Bates

Thomas Sheriff

22/07/09 08:39:23

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Dave,

I have had many arguments regarding the use of electronic controls, especially when trying to operate a plant where you are strapped for cash, you can no longer get spares as the equipment is obsolete after about five years. I see nothing wrong with an operator going round once an hour reading gauges and recording the results on a log sheet. It gets them out of the control room and they get to know the plant intimately.

They seem to suffer a lot of explosions in the USA, and one such explosion took place at the Ford Rouge Power Plant, Dearbourn, Michigan; in 1999. The Rouge was a marshland that had originally been developed by Henry Ford as a car factory and engine plant and it was claimed at the time (1921) to be the largest industrial plant in the world. On the 1st February 1999, an explosion at the Rouge Power Plant killed six employees and injured 38 others, 14 of them seriously. It also ignited a fire; the resulting claims and damage to propery resulted in one of the most expensive accidents in the history of the USA.

The No 6 boiler that was involved in the explosion was the newest boiler in the power plant and it had been commissioned in 1965. It was a Stirling two drum bent tube boiler and it was the largest boiler on the site having a maximum continuous rating of 500,000 lb per hour with a design pressure of 1,525 psig, standing about 136 feet from the ground floor to thhe steam drum centreline. As designed the boiler could operate using pulverised fuel, coke oven gas, blast furnace gas or natural gas, being fired by two rows of three burners to the front and rear walls of the boiler furnace. It could be fired using an individual fuel or a combination of fuels. Pulverised fuel was prepared in a separate milling plant and stored in bunkers to the rear and front of the furnace, and fired into the boiler by feeders fitted below the bunkers.

It was during 1987 that this boiler was modified to enable six out of its twelve burners to be fired by natural gas. During the morning of the explosion the boiler was being taken out of service for maintenance, and the station staff had been at work isolating the various services associated with this boiler. The boiler operator had shut down the burners remotely from the control room,to enable the fitters to insert blank flanges into the main gas lines and to purge the burner gas lines and the boiler furnace with nitrogen. The main valves on the gas supply lines would be closed and the isolating valves to the burners would be opened to allow the nitrogen to purge the boiler.

Unfortunately one of the main gas valves had not been closed and gas mixed with air from a forced draught fan that was still running entered the boiler furnace through three of the gas burners. At about 1300 hours No 6 boiler erupted in a violant explosion sending a fireball over 1,200 feet into the sky above the building. Coal dust lying around the boiler house contributed to a second explosion and a major fire was started which took about three days to put out.

With Best Wishes,

Tom.

Paul David Bates

22/07/09 19:41:53

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Tom,

Very informative and very interesting. Having read your comments I am formulating a suggestion in my mind that catastrophic failures of boilers and other critical plant is very much a problem of today not just the nineteenth century and earlier. Its amazing to consider that we think of our selves as being more advanced than our predecessors. Yet major catastrophic failures of the kind you describe are still happening and I don't see anything that will prevent them from happening in the future.


Best Regards

Dave Bates

PS: Tom maybe you should get together with Alan McEwen and write a sequel book to Alan's called "Historic Steam Boiler Explosions 2".

Thomas Sheriff

24/07/09 08:18:33

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Dave,

These notes were taken from a series of articles I wrote for the "The Flywheel", the journal of the Northern Mill Engine Society; when I joined over thirty years ago many of the members were retired mill engineers or had been with engine builders, but now most of the members are enthusiasts with no background in steam engineering so the articles had to be written in such a manner that they could be easily understood. I have actually been writing a book on the developement of the power station industry and I have almost completed ten chapters.

A steam pipe operated as part of a distribution system by the Consolidated Edison of New York exploded on the 18th July 2007 injuring 30 people and causing the death of a woman by a heart attack. The explosion sent a plume of steam reaching higher than the Chrysler Building. A crater was left in the ground over 35 feet wide and 15 feet deep.

This explosion occurred at 1747 hours local time at the junction of East 41st Street and Lexington Avenue. The root cause of the explosion was thought to be due to the age of the pipe, which had been installed in 1924, and could have been caused as a result of cold water collecting around it. The 24 inch bore pipe was part of a network operated by the Consolidated Edison Steam Business Unit to provide steam for heating and air conditioning to 1,800 buildings in Manhattan. There had been heavy rain in New York prior to the explosion, and if this storm water had collected around the steam pipe, it could have caused a "vapour condition" causing steam in the pipe to condense. Eventually the pressure inside the pipe would cause the pipe to explode. Consolidated Edison stated that this pipe had been inspected six weeks prior to the explosion.

The official report relesed by Consolidated Edison on 27th October 2007 listed a number of factors that could have led to the explosion, and accepted deficient repair work undertaken by a contractor that ultimately led to the pipe rupturing. The report stated that excessive sealant previously used to repair a leaking joint migrated to two drain trap valves used to drain excess condensate and clogged tham. The heavy rain of the day of the explosion cooled the pipe causing excessive condensate to collect in the steam pipe. The traps being blocked could not clear it, leading to water hammer that overstressed the pipe to seven times its normal pressure. The company took the precaution of replacing 1,600 traps throughout the system, but did not find any blockages.

There have been over twelve similar explosions on the steam distribution system in New York since 1987: one of the worst was near Gramery Park killing two Consolidated Edison employees and one bystander. A steam pipe exploded in Washington Square in the year 2000 near the New York Bobst Library leaving a fifteen foot crater in the footpath on Washington Square South discharging traces of asbestos into the air.

With Best Wishes,

Tom.

george wood

15/08/09 09:33:29

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Has anyone else kept copies of the old BoT reports on boiler explosions? I still have seven of them, including a Drying Cylinder at a Darwen paper mill with the ominous words "a photograph of part of the end plate", what happened to the rest of it? Another is a steam autoclave at a brick manufacturers near Sutton Coldfield with the autoclave in a field and the factory in the distance.
The worst I ever had, fortunately, was a stop valve failing on a package boiler in an unmanned boilerhouse. Scary, but no injuries.
Kind regards,
George

Jayasundara Samarakoon Mudi Jinasiri Samarakoon

14/11/09 05:22:42

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Dear Gentlymen,
would any one of you please advise me how to test a safety valve which is fitted to a Boiler.
Thanks & B.Regds,
J.Samarakoon

Tom Lack

07/09/12 15:01:33

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George,

That would be very interesting reading. I used have a bit to do with the steam crowd as an inspector with my last company (though only ever accompanying a senior engineer back then) and I often wondered just how catastrophic a failure would be. The stored energy in some of the systems we saw was monumental; greatly aided by the fact that the boilers themselves were often made in "the good 'ol days" and 25-35mm wall thicknesses were the norm. Makes the compressed air systems in most workshops today look decidedly weedy by comparison....

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