By Drew Robb

The servicing of boilers in the field can be highly variable. Sometimes, everything runs smoothly according to routine. At other times, unforeseen challenges can rear their head and place project timelines in jeopardy. Shawn Brewer, Director of Business Development and Field Services at Rentech Boiler Systems, a company that has serviced hundreds of boilers, offered an example concerning boiler re-tubing.

A customer requests the repair of one or two leaky tubes. By all accounts, this should be a straightforward project. All that needs to be done is to shut down the unit, let it cool off, access the drum and execute the repair by rolling the tubes i.e., a rotating tool is placed into the tube end that expands the tube and tightens the seal between the tube and the drum. This kind of tube repair happens all the time. But it can happen that you arrive onsite to execute the repair and discover that the tubes are shot. They need to be completely replaced. That is a whole different ball game in terms of complexity and scope. In such a case, the boiler must be taken apart in the middle of the facility, noted Brewer. If the parts and manpower aren’t onsite, there will be a scramble to get them there immediately. Days can be lost.

To avoid such occurrences, here are best practices gleaned from long experience in servicing boilers.

Planning and coordination

There are many facets involved in the planning and coordination of a boiler servicing project. These include:


Know-how is difficult to fake. Even if you manage it, you will eventually be found out. A best practice is to use an experienced technician as your initial point of contact, someone with deep experience in the field.  Such a person will ask the right questions, evaluate the job and figure out what it will take to fix the problem. This person must be able to establish how many people may be needed for a project, what other experts might be required on site and what type of testing should be done (such as for water quality). An inexperienced person in this role will be unable to differentiate straightforward projects from the trickier tasks that might require more time and labor. They may miss warning signs of trouble that lies ahead and allocate insufficient manpower, materials, tools and components. An experienced hand minimizes the chances of completely misestimating the potential scope of a new project.


Don’t rely only on the work of one expert based on what the customer thinks might be wrong. Send someone onsite in advance to verify what is already known and find any unknowns that might interfere with a smooth in-and-out visit. Talk to the customer on the ground, have them walk you through the job, and show you what they think is wrong. Then investigate it yourself to determine what it will take to complete the job.

Contingency planning

No matter how good your first point of contact is or how well you scope things out on the ground, there is still a need for contingency planning. It is best to arrive on site with replacement components in hand and to be ready to deal with any other eventualities.

“Once physically inside a unit, you may find there is a lot more wrong than suspected,” advised Brewer. “An action plan in place and some kind of a contingency plan to tackle issues in a timely manner.”

On-the-ground coordination

Project coordination on the ground is just as important as advance planning. The field service team, plant management and maintenance personnel must work in concert to take the project to swift resolution. Brewer stressed that a key aspect of this is liaison with plant safety personnel to understand their safety protocols and align these with how you intend to operate while onsite.

Equipment access

Carefully measure entrances, sharp turns, headway clearances and the area around the boiler to isolate any areas of difficulty. You want to avoid problems such as semis with large boiler parts being unable to turn into a facility or unable to deposit the components close to where the work needs to be done due to congestion within the facility.

Work spaces

Workers on site often need a trailer set up nearby, an area where systems and components can be laid down and enough room to remove parts of the boiler and place them somewhere near. Make sure these spaces are not used by moving vehicles. On the other side of the coin, don’t obstruct areas of the plant where personnel need to have right of way. Having enough space to work near the boiler is another key point of coordination.


In most cases, a short window is available for maintenance and repairs during an outage. During this period, be aware that other work may be ongoing and that these other projects may sometimes collide with your own. Those maintaining or commissioning a turbine, for example, may want the boiler fired up at the same point that you want it offline. Go over these points carefully in advance. Preparation is the way to avoid conflict, said Brewer. Make sure you can do the work needed on the boiler in the time apportioned by preparing well for whatever needs to be done.


Due to retirements, cutbacks and lack of training of the new generation in industrial operations, there is a shrinking pool of skilled resources. Finding boiler expertise can be difficult.

“Be sure the company you bring in possesses trained and experienced resources to do the job and has others on hand in the case of unforeseen circumstances,” said Brewer.

Failure to do so could mean exceeding the planned outage window.

Provider selection

An industrial boiler is generally a custom piece of equipment operating as part of a specific process. Those servicing them must understand how the boiler integrates with other equipment in the plant. In a refinery, for instance, the boiler plays a role in most workflows. The output from crackers and other refinery equipment can grind to a halt without a working boiler. Thus, boiler errors in the field can prove very expensive.

“It is usually best to align with a reputable service team that is part of an established boiler manufacturer,” said Brewer. “Manufacturers possess the deepest knowledge of how boilers work and what it takes to put them together. Their service groups can call upon this knowledge to successfully repair units and overcome any challenges that may crop up.”  

Boilers are under tremendous strain and are integral to so many processes within the facility. They deal with high temperatures, big changes from hot to cold, pressurized steam, fuel combustion, humidity and condensation. Everything may not be as it seems from the outside. A small problem can quickly escalate due to the pressure extremes they operate under. Anytime there is even a small issue, it is best to act. Call your local service company and get somebody in to look at it before something more serious occurs.

Author: Drew Robb has been working as a full-time freelance writer in engineering and technology for the last 25 years. For more information, contact

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