Steaming Ahead

The essential boiler is currently sitting unused in many businesses right now and engineers will be very busy dealing with issues when businesses switch everything on again and run into problems. Janice Raycroft talks to the experts about boilers and the sort of actions you can be doing right now to make sure you’re match fit and ready to go as soon as possible.

The work of the UK and Ireland’s steam boiler experts takes them into a multitude of industries, big and small. Whether it’s servicing a water heater in a drycleaning shop or overseeing a significant installation in a healthcare setting, there’s always something new to deal with.

They travel across the country, uphill and down dale, and round and round the M25 when required! They are as essential to keeping our businesses going as the often overlooked and undervalued piece of the equipment they help to keep running. This has always been the hidden story, but with the arrival of COVID-19, their world has changed as much as many of ours has.

We caught up with Richard Darby of Manchester-based Steam Direct as he was crossing the Yorkshire Dales after visiting a farm, and he has some important messages for the laundry and cleaning industry as we start to emerge from the Corona Crisis: you could find yourself in a queue, so make plans to avoid unnecessary call-outs. Just as online supermarket delivery operators have prioritised vulnerable customers and key workers, it’s a similar tale in the world of specialist engineers. “The food industry and healthcare has had to come first for all of us during this,” says Darby.

“We’ve prioritised the likes of dairy farmers who use boilers in the milk pasteurisation process and the UK’s biggest tomato grower, where they have boilers for sterilising.” The following week he was set to be in Scotland where Steam Direct handled a boiler installation for a farmer who is thought to be the UK’s first to have a herd of buffalos producing milk for cheese. This was due to be covered by the BBC.

“Talking to others in my line of work, we’re expecting a lot of calls from returning factories and the likes of drycleaners when they switch on equipment after the lockdown only to discover problems. But we will have to continue to prioritise food and drink businesses and those serving hospitals and the elderly for some time. “The operations in the cleaning sector who won’t need us straight away will mostly be the ones who have their own good maintenance programmes as well as regular servicing contracts and have taken steps to avoid problems during the lockdown.” If your business is currently closed and planning to re-open, Darby hopes you’ve been doing more than just popping in a couple of times a week to pick up the post, flick a couple of switches and look at emails: “Just firing up the boiler for half an hour while you are there is a good move.

But you also shouldn’t leave the boiler full of water for long periods of time. Stagnant water can get in the way of allowing alarm systems to operate correctly and lead to unnecessary call-outs. Making sure the water softener system is working properly is another one to add to the list of checks before full re-opening.” Darby believes preventative maintenance programmes will ensure many are able to operate from day one in the ‘New Normal’. But in the same way that some will discover family cars which haven’t been started for two to three months appear to be ‘dormant’, others will quickly find themselves in trouble, trying to identify where the malfunction has occurred. If a maintenance check or a visit by your regular servicing engineer is on the calendar, make contact and book now to avoid ending up ‘back of the queue’.

Installation time by AGS at Jill’s Wash n Dry in Loughborough where they’ve been able to offer a full laundry service with free collection and delivery throughout COVID-19.

Boilers are definitely considered ‘unsung heroes’ by Essex-based AGS Ltd, where Mary Simons suspects that we ignore the way they effortlessly toil away day after day, week after week, year after year, both at home and in our businesses. Indeed, she says only a minority of people respect their boilers, and those who do ensure they are regularly serviced and in some cases are annually certificated. “Obviously due to the fact that boilers are quite an expensive part of any business set up we expect them to live within our premises for many years,” she points out. “However, we need to remember them, acknowledging that they are there and keep a close eye on them, as without fully working boilers we cannot operate our businesses.”

It’s also worth noting, says Simons, that many insurers and landlords of rented or leased properties require water heater certification, so a failure to carry out regular servicing could well mean that you are not insured. Simons is also aware that timing is everything, and although COVID-19 might have thrown a spanner in the works, those who have already booked maintenance and servicing appointments should avoid the worst ‘queues’.

“It is always best to address boiler work during the spring or summer months. If you leave it any later you will find a queue of people wanting to do the same; this is in the domestic industry, too. You need to service and MOT your vehicles on a regular basis why not your water heater? We find it easier to diarise servicing and certification as time passes very quickly and what you think was only six months ago was actually 18.” The boiler exper ts see everything as they visit premises around the country – both examples of good practice and care for equipment and occasionally some ‘horror stories’ which demand immediate attention. But within this is another group achieving perhaps acceptable but not the most efficient and cost-effective results. Simons says: “Some that we have visited have boilers that are old and so expensive to run but are working adequately. However, you could probably replace it and the savings achieved in running a cost-effective water heater would pay for a new one. Unfortunately, with old water heaters some spare parts are not available anymore and the original installation does not conform to current Gas Safe requirements.”

AGS always recommends that a water heater needs to be supported by a water softener as if you are feeding your boiler with hard water you are reducing its working life. They sell gas and electric water heaters and look after the servicing of others that were not initially sold or installed by the company. In September last year AGS became the exclusive distributors of the ZANI range of water heaters (gas and electric) in the UK and Ireland, having found that these Italian-made water heaters offer maximum efficiency and reliability whatever energy source is chosen. They’ve also became an importer of ATI water heaters, ensuring customers a variety of choice.

For laundries moving premises, often to grow the whole operation or expand a particular sector of their work, the water heating system is of paramount importance. A good example is provided by a Southampton-based laundry facility which moved from a facility which was too small and would have been uneconomical to upgrade. They wanted to futureproof their business throughput by being able to increase capacity as and when required. Protecting their investment was also paramount, so manufacturer-backed aftercare solutions were also key to the long-term plan. The existing premises used a combination of indirect steam from a horizontal steam boiler and steam-heated ironers and dryers during the laundry process. But with the new facility came a new approach and, because the company processes laundry for the healthcare sector amongst others, they instead opted for a heat transfer system that would pre-heat water for the washing machines to a minimum of 72 degrees centigrade by directly injecting steam into the water supply.

A number of steam raising methods and manufacturers were considered in the original tender, but, with a requirement for an energy-efficient boiler with a small footprint, the company subsequently placed an order for a skid-mounted, two x VSRT-60 gas-fired steam boiler solution from heat transfer specialist Fulton, which was packaged with ancillary items including automatic blowdown, water treatment and a TDS energy recovery system. Commenting, the company’s senior engineer says: “The old facility was capable of processing 60,000 to 70,000 items a day but, with Fulton’s skid-mounted VSRT vertical steam boiler solution and the new line in place, we are currently processing approximately 90,000 items with the ability to double throughput as required.” It takes little imagination to see how during the COVID-19 crisis this leap in processed items was vital.

The skid-mounted solution features two 600kW (960kg/h) VSRT-60 steam boilers, which boast ultra-low NOx emissions of less than 20ppm, achieve up to 10:1 turndown capabilities and industry-leading performance of 86 per cent gross thermal efficiency and 99.75 per cent steam quality at eight bar. It features a multi-award-design design that is durable, long-lasting, enhances heat transfer rates and improves steam quality. Additionally, for applications where contaminated air can reduce boiler uptime – such as laundry and drycleaning facilities – the VSRT’s cyclonic air filter effectively separates debris and damaging particles from the combustion air and, because it won’t clog over time, eliminates the need for replacement filters.

To protect its investment and ensure the steam boiler installation continues to operate efficiently, the laundry operator also opted for a number of solutions from Fulton’s aftercare portfolio, including a service contract, water treatment package and boiler operator training, a requirement of the company’s insurance provider. Jeff Byrne, Fulton’s aftercare and business development manager says: “Considerable investment has gone into this new super-laundry and the customer is keen to ensure that their return-on-investment is improved as much as possible, hence supporting the installation with manufacturer-backed service contracts and training.”

The service contract consists of two service visits per boiler per year, with one visit coinciding with the annual insurance inspection. As well as providing discounts on any spares and the regular chemicals orders, the contract also ensures 24h phone-based technical assistance from a dedicated boiler/ service engineer and a 48h call-out response where required.

The water treatment package consists of monthly feedwater quality inspections and an annual system inspection and report. The VSRT is the first range to emerge from the Fulton’s new ‘PURE Technology’ approach – the result of a clean-slate design approach that combines new people with new skills bringing a new approach to the design and optimisation of heat transfer solutions. Fulton believe it’s the most radical change to vertical steam boiler design since they pioneered the vertical tubeless boiler in 1949 and, for the right application, a worthy successor to the company’s renowned J Series. Fulton’s Leigh Bryan says: “To meet ever-more stringent industry and environmental standards, our PURE Technology approach looks to enhance heat transfer, provide class-leading efficiencies, improve steam quality and reduce NOx emissions. So rather than improve existing products to achieve these goals, PURE Technology radically challenges conventional boiler design by engineering solutions that are fit-for-purpose and applications.”

With over 15 patents pending in three continents, the VSRT’s spiral-rib heat exchanger is a world first. It attains industry-leading heat transfer rates thanks to its unique spiral design, which achieves low stack temperatures by passing the flue gases through a spiral-wound heat exchanger that is fully immersed in water. The groundbreaking spiral rib heat exchanger design not only allows Fulton to improve boiler efficiency but, with virtually zero thermal stress, a thick-walled construction and featuring vertical tubeless design architecture, the VSRT is set to be one of the most durable steam boilers available.

The tubeless design has enabled Fulton to create a compact boiler with minimal footprint. No refractory also means significantly lower weight (compared to traditional vertical steam boilers) for ease of installation and easy maintenance and operation. For applications where contaminated air can reduce boiler uptime – such as laundry and drycleaning – the VSRT’s cyclonic air filter effectively separates debris and damaging particles from the combustion air and, because it won’t clog over time, eliminates the need for replacement filters. Fulton’s one-day boiler operator training courses – accredited by the globally-recognised City & Guilds of London – has satisfied the boiler operational training requirements of hundreds of clients and bridges the gap between straightforward ‘toolbox’ training and the more expensive courses that can cost thousands per employee. Carried out onsite and supporting both BG01 (SAFed) and INDG-436 (HSE) guidelines, the course looks at the practical operation of controls and test equipment using a customer’s own boiler, introduces the principles of steam and boiler operation in the form of a presentation and includes both theory and practical assessments.

A look inside Fulton’s VSRT steam boiler with its spiral-rib heat exchanger.

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