Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Respect the Steam Plant

If you have never read the poem by Robert Kipling "The Secret of the Machines," you should. Steam is essentially a 19th Century technology. About the only items on a last-generation naval warship's steam plant that would astonish an engineer from a century earlier would be the turbine-powered equipment, the wide use of electrical motors and the automatic combustion control system. He would be amazed at the very high operating temperatures and pressures, but the principles would be familiar and it would take him not a lot of time to become wholly familiar with the plant.

Steam is a powerful force and it is fearsome. You probably know that if you were in Denver, water boils at a lower temperature and it takes longer to cook things by boiling. It works the other way; if you have a boiler under pressure, the boiling point of water is higher. In a 1,200psi steam plant, the boiling point of water is 575degF or so. The steam in the main line has been superheated to 975degF for 400degF of superheat.

If you have an older steam heating system in your home, it is a saturated steam system running at about 1/2-1psi. Home systems do not run higher because a steam leak at a higher temperature becomes not serious,but deadly. On a warship, the steam line for heating hot water, to the galleys and to the HVAC system was a 50# saturated steam system; as you can see here, the temperature of the steam was almost 300degF (that web page is in absolute pressure,not atmospheric, so add 14.7psi). If you put your body in front of a steam leak at that temperature, you will be seriously hurt.

Unlike saturated or "wet" steam, where a leak is visible, a leak of superheated or "dry" steam is invisible. All you can do is hear the shriek of the leak itself, you cannot see it. If you were foolish enough to use your hand to try to feel a superheated steam leak, you will lose your fingers or your entire hand, for the steam jet will cut it right off. The only safe method was to take a broomstick and use that to find the leak; watching for then the broomstick became scorched or was sliced through.

Steam is a powerful force and those who do not respect its power, those who are not in awe of it, will pay the price.

But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!

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