Published: August 13, 2015 - by Ray Wohlfarth

Categories: Commercial Heating

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A series of anomalies occurred in the boiler room one evening. The steel compression tank for the hydronic loop flooded, leaving no room for expansion. Water will expand at 3% of its volume when heated from room temperature to 180° F.

When the burner fired, the expansion of the water increased the system pressure within the boiler. The malfunctioning operating control did not shut off the burner at the set point, which caused the relief valve to open. The brass relief valve discharge was installed with copper tubing piped solid to a 90° ell on the floor and the tubing further extended to the floor drain.

The combination of hot water and steam from the boiler caused the discharge copper tubing to expand, using the relief valve as a fulcrum. The expansion of the copper discharge tubing pressing against the floor was enough to crack the brass relief valve, flooding the boiler room. The damage was not discovered until the next morning, several hours after the leak occurred. Thousands of dollars in damage was sustained but luckily no one was injured.

Each boiler requires some sort of pressure-relieving device. They are referred to as either a safety, relief or safety relief valve. While these names are often thought of as interchangeable, there are subtle differences between them. According to the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, the following are the definitions of each:

  • Safety valve This device is typically used for steam or vapor service. It operates automatically with a full-opening pop action and recloses when the pressure drops to a value consistent with the blowdown requirements prescribed by the applicable governing code or standard.
  •  Relief valve This device is used for liquid service. It operates automatically by opening farther as the pressure increases beyond the initial opening pressure and recloses when the pressure drops below the opening pressure.
  • Safety-relief valve This device includes the operating characteristics of both a safety valve and a relief valve and may be used in either application.
  • Temperature and pressure safety relief valve This device is typically used on potable water heaters. In addition to its pressure-relief function, it also includes a temperature-sensing element which causes the device to open at a predetermined temperature regardless of pressure. The set temperature on these devices is usually 210°.

Common mistakes

Here's a list of common mistakes with boiler-safety-relief valve installations:

  1. Relief valve piping. In one application, the boiler contractor installed a bushing on the outlet of the safety relief valve. Instead of 1 1/2-in. pipe, the installer used 3/4-in. pipe. When asked about it, he answered that he did not have any 1 1/2-in. pipe but had plenty of 3/4-in. pipe. I explained and then had to show the disbelieving contractor the code that states that the relief valve discharge piping has to be the same diameter as the relief valve outlet (see 2012 International Mechanical Code, 1006.6).By reducing the discharge pipe size, the relieving capacity of the safety valve may not be adequate to properly relieve the pressure inside the boiler, causing a dangerous situation.The code also states that the discharge material shall be of rigid pipe that is approved for the temperature of the system. The inlet pipe size shall be full diameter of the pipe inlet for the relief valve. Some manufacturers suggest using black iron pipe rather than copper tubing. If using copper, it should have an air space that allows expansion should the relief valve open to avoid the accident that I referenced above.  The discharge piping has to be supported and the weight of the piping should not be on the safety relief valve. Valves are not permitted in the inlet piping to or discharge piping from the relief valve. If you are using copper tubing on discharge piping, verify that there is room for expansion
  2. Installation.  Read the manufacturer’s installation manual as each may have different requirements. For instance, Conbraco requires that the discharge piping must terminate with a plain end and use a material that can handle temperatures of 375° or greater. This will preclude PVC or CPVC pipe for the discharge piping. The instruction manual for their model 12-14 steam relief valve stipulates that you cannot use a pipe wrench to install it. That would be good to know. I once visited Boiler Utopia as the floor was clean and waxed. All the pipe was covered and exposed pipe was painted. There were large stickers detailing what was inside each pipe as well as directional arrows. Nothing was stacked next to the boilers. Yellow caution lines were painted on the floor around each boiler. I was in heaven. As I walked around the rear of the boiler, something clicked and triggered a warning bell. The discharge of the relief valve piping was about 6 in. from the floor but instead of a plain or angled cut end, the pipe had a threaded pipe cap on the termination. I asked the maintenance person about it and he said that the valve was leaking all over his newly waxed floor and this was the only way he could stop it. When I said that the discharge pipe should not have been threaded, he explained that it was not threaded and had to take it to the local hardware store to thread it. I informed him that the cap had to be removed. We cut the pipe on an angle to prevent this.
  3. Steam boiler. Most manufacturers recommend a drip pan ell on the discharge of the steam boiler relief valve to eliminate the weight of the discharge piping on the relief valve. Some codes require the discharge to be vented outdoors.
  4. Testing. I ask the attendees in my classes, “How often do you test the relief valves?” Most do not make eye contact and when I follow up with, “Why are they not tested?” I often hear that opening the relief valve will cause it to leak. I suggest that you refer to each manufacturer’s directions for testing. For instance, one will recommend once a year while another recommends twice a year. One manufacturer says, “Safety/relief valves should be operated only often enough to assure they are in good working order.” I am not sure what that even means. You also want to verify the proper test procedure as some will only want the relief valve tested when the boiler is at 75% of the rated pressure or higher of the relief valve.

Be kind to the safety relief valves as they may save a life some day, and that life may be yours.

Want to learn more? Check out my books, Lessons Learned in a Boiler RoomLessons Learned: Connecting New Boilers to Old PipesLessons Learned: Servicing Boilers, and Lessons Learned: Brewing with Steam.