A boiler, also known as a steam generator, is a closed compartment in which water, or sometimes another fluid, is heated. The heat is used to produce steam, which in turn is used to power an engine or for heating applications. Historically, boilers have been known to cause devastating explosions, and although modern boilers are designed and assembled with caution regarding worker safety, sadly, catastrophic explosions may still occur if a boiler fails.
Older-model boilers often have a lack of structural integrity that can cause explosions. If a boiler is made of a brittle, thin metal shell, it can rupture. If seams are poorly riveted or welded, they may come apart. If a tube collapses or becomes dislodged, dangerous steam and smoke can spray out and injure anyone in the near vicinity. Or, if the water drains from a boiler and new water is added, the new water may evaporate on contact with the hot shell and cause and explosion. Failures in large boilers that offer a large amount of energy to operate factories can destroy entire buildings.
General reasons for boiler failure include:
- An excess of pressure within the boiler
- A lack of water inside the boiler, causing the vessel to overheat
- Defective construction or lack of maintenance, causing pressure vessel failure
Why Boilers are Dangerous
Many people underestimate the dangers of boilers, thinking that water and steam can only do so much damage. However, the boiling water inside of a boiler has enough energy to power entire engines, machines, and even large factories. A failed boiler can cause devastating injuries, loss of life, and loss of property.
Some basic boilers contain pressurized water held at a temperature of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. If somehow the boiler looses pressure suddenly, all of the water would instantly evaporate into steam. Water in its gaseous state takes up around 1,600 times as much space as water in liquid form. If a leak occurs in a boiler, this evaporation and expansion of water into steam can take place less than one second, producing a giant explosion.
Modern boilers contain many safety features to reduce the risk of explosions, including:
- Safety valves, which can be adjusted to release steam before a buildup of pressure
- Fusible plugs, which may overheat, melt, and produce a whistling noise to warn workers when a problem occurs
- Ties, also known as stays, which attach the boiler casing to its exterior compartment and prevent warping.