The first step in steam boiler repair is to learn how they work so you can easily maintain them. This Fix-It Guide on steam boiler repair tells how a steam boiler works, what often goes wrong, how to identify a steam boiler problem, and what parts and tools you will need to fix it. It then gives instructions for how to maintain a smooth running steam boiler system and how to flush a steam boiler. Also see the Hot-Water Boiler Fix-It Guide. See gas furnace repair or oil furnace repair to learn more about a furnace burner system.
How Does a Steam Boiler Work?
A steam heating system consists of a boiler to heat steam, a network of pipes that distribute the steam, and radiators that heat various rooms. A gas or oil burner heats water to the boiling point and sends hot steam to radiators in the residence. Modern boilers circulate water around the heat source through a series of passages or tubes. Boiler operation is regulated by a pressure gauge, regulator, pressure-relief valve, and low-water cutoff monitor. Most steam boilers include an automatic feed that supplies more water when it’s needed.
What Can Go Wrong with a Steam Boiler?
Regular maintenance will help keep repairs to a minimum. The system may produce no heat or poor heat, water may be chronically low, the glass gauge may be clouded, and pipes may be noisy.
For safety and efficiency, make sure that there is a clear path around each radiator to allow air to circulate freely.
How Can I Identify a Steam Boiler Problem?
- If your system is running smoothly, a few regular maintenance measures will keep the system doing so (see below).
- If there is no heat, check the thermostat, switches, fuses or breakers, and water level. A steam boiler burner is very similar to that of a gas furnace or an oil furnace.
- If there is not enough heat, the boiler may need to be flushed (see below).
- If the water level is frequently low, look for leaks in the return lines or the boiler itself. In either case, have a plumber or boiler service professional take a look.
- If pipes are noisy, check the pitch of all returns; they must slope back toward the steam boiler. Adjust the slant, if necessary, with new pipe hangers.
- If a room radiator inlet valve leaks, tighten the packing nut. If necessary, repack the valve as you would a faucet .
- If a radiator won’t heat, clean the air vent orifice with a fine wire. If the vent is permanently plugged, replace the vent.
Most modern steam boilers have an owner’s manual that describes operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting. If you can’t find one for your unit, contact the manufacturer; the name will be somewhere on or near the controls.
What Do I Need for Steam Boiler Repair?
Replacement parts for a steam boiler should come from the manufacturer or an aftermarket supplier such as a local plumbing and heating supply retailer. Basic tools for maintaining and repairing your steam boiler include these:
- Fine wire
What Are the Steps to Steam Boiler Repair?
Monthly maintenance for a smooth running steam boiler:
- Verify gauge accuracy by comparing the actual water level with the reading on the gauge. The owner’s manual will have more specific instructions on how to make this comparison.
- Test the relief valve by carefully lifting the lever to check operation while the boiler is running. The valve should release steam, then stop. If it continues to release steam, have the relief valve replaced.
- Check the pressure gauge to make sure that steam pressure doesn’t exceed the gauge’s limit mark. If it does, contact a professional steam boiler service.
- Open the low-water cutoff valve to flush sediment, allowing the water to run until it is clear. Caution: The water will be hot!
Flush a steam boiler:
- Shut off the power and the automatic feed.
- Attach hoses to the boiler drain and return drain.
- Open the boiler drain and return drain to allow water to run out into a household drain.
- Once the tank is empty, shut the drains.
- Refill the boiler, and drain it again.
- Repeat the flushing process until the water in the gauge is clear.
If the gauge glass is dirty, you can clean it. First turn off the boiler and let it cool down; then drain the system to below the gauge level. Loosen fasteners holding the glass in place and remove it. Clean the glass, replace it, refill as needed, and turn the boiler back on.