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Lack of Combustion-System Training Puts Facility Managers in the Hot Seat

Large and complex fuel-fired equipment necessitates special training.

Given the thousands of boilers, furnaces and ovens currently in use worldwide, the potential of a combustion system malfunctioning is ever-present, especially as these systems grow in scale and complexity. Add to this a single-point failure, and an unqualified operator could inadvertently render a critical fuel system inoperable. Combustion training and education can minimize malfunctions, enhance employee safety, increase equipment uptime and raise the overall competitiveness of companies.

The Importance of Codes
Statistics for fuel-fired equipment incidents show that nearly 40% of all problems are caused by operator error. Training for the productive operation, troubleshooting, inspection and maintenance of fuel-fired equipment begins and ends with a thorough understanding of the national codes governing combustion systems, specifically those outlined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that address combustor hardware and controls, as well as procedures and training for maintenance and operations staff.
Since the NFPA continues to update its combustion safety guidelines, most insurance carriers accept them outright or use them as a core around which to build their own specialized rules. Training is such a critical part of safety that the NFPA 86 standard dedicates several sections to the topic, going on to state that all personnel who operate, maintain or supervise receive regularly scheduled retraining and testing. The standard goes on to clarify the need for annual testing and to demonstrate understanding of the equipment. NFPA 85, section 4.4.3, identifies similar requirements for boiler operator and maintenance training.

In all, the NFPA publishes several prescriptive sets of standards to help keep combustion equipment in peak operating condition, and each of these standards stresses the value of employee training.
• NFPA 54: National Fuel Gas Code
• NFPA 85: Boiler and Combustion Systems Hazards (> 12.5 MMBtu)
• NFPA 86: Standard for Ovens and Furnaces
• NFPA 87: Standard for Fluid Heaters

The NFPA has hundreds of pages covering the requirements for design, installation, operations and maintenance of the respective equipment. This article gives a cursory overview of NFPA 54, 85 and 86 a nd provides guidelines to obtain training. Alas, the NFPA does not provide precise direction regarding training other than to say it is required and that it should be done annually. One thing that is certain is that training isn’t something that “just happens” on the job organically. Rather, the NFPA dictates that training is to be a formal process conducted by “qualified persons” who are from either inside or outside the organization. While generalized training can be part of the process, a facility’s training program must address the specific hardware and characteristics of each combustor inside its operations, including schematic piping and wiring diagrams, start-up procedures, shutdown procedures, emergency procedures and hardware maintenance procedures.

Get to Know the Codes – NFPA 54: National Fuel Gas Code
Also known as ANSI Z223.1, the NFPA 54 standard details minimum safety requirements for the installation of gas-burning piping systems, appliances and equipment supplied with LP-gas, natural gas or manufactured gas.
Basically, NFPA 54 addresses the hows and whys of:
• Piping system design, materials and components
• Pipe sizing
• Installing pipes, outlets inside concealed spaces
• Inspection, testing and purging procedures
• Installation and venting of appliances

NFPA 54 is specific. It does not apply to natural-gas systems operating at pressures above 125 psi, propane systems operating over 50 psi, gas/air mixes within the flammable range at pressures over 10 psi and several other types of systems common in industrial environments.

NFPA 85: Boiler and Combustion Systems Hazards
NFPA 85 gives those involved with large boiler installations and combustion systems the information they need for fire-safety compliance — from system design and installation to inspection. Specifically, the standard addresses single-burner boilers, multiple-burner boilers, stokers and atmospheric fluidized-bed boilers with a fuel input rating of 12.5 million BTU/hour or greater. It also covers pulverized fuel systems at any heat input rate, fired or unfired steam generators, and other combustion turbine-exhaust systems.

NFPA 85 offers guidelines as to the strength of a structure; operation and maintenance procedures; combustion and draft-control equipment; safety interlocks; alarms; trips; and other related controls that are essential to safe equipment operation.

NFPA 86: Standard for Ovens and Furnaces
NFPA 86 outlines the operation of Class A, Class B, Class C and Class D ovens, dryers and furnaces, thermal oxidizers and any other heated enclosure used for processing materials. NFPA 86 guidelines set standards as to how industrial heating equipment should be built in order to promote safety, with each grouped into one of four main categories: structural, service, heating and cooling.
NFPA 86 specifically states that personnel who operate, maintain or supervise an oven or furnace shall be thoroughly instructed and trained in their job functions, demonstrate an understanding of safe operation procedures, be kept current with changes in the equipment and operating procedures, and receive regular refresher training.

How to Train Your Staff
Training your staff to understand and comply with NFPA 54, 85 and 86 standards will minimize the risk of an event. In addition, training enhances overall productivity and helps cut costs. For example, having in-house staff with the skills to recognize defects will lead to better fuel efficiency, fewer interruptions and the avoidance of outages and downtime. And, of course, training is a legal requirement that must be completed on an annual basis.

There are four ways for your staff to obtain training, all of which can meet requirements to varying degrees. Before picking one of these four ways, however, it is important to conduct a “gap analysis” to identify the state of knowledge and skills regarding your operations and staff. Are they beginners? Are they old pros that just need some brushing up? Determine what level of training they need to make it worthwhile. Most training companies will tailor a workshop specifically for the determined level of knowledge.
1. Combustion Workshop: Doing a workshop will offer a more in-depth experience for your staff since workshops typically include hands-on training and face-to-face instruction. Also, you will be able to network with experienced combustion engineers during breaks and lunches. Workshops normally award attendees with the documentation needed to supply proof of completion. They are held on-site at a training facility, or the instructor may go to the customer’s site to train staff on the plant’s fuel-fired systems and discuss what ancillary equipment is required to support its operation.
2. Remote Training: In this age of COVID-19, online or remote training programs are a smart choice. Prerecorded webinars are available 24/7, so attendees can learn at their own pace and convenience. Remote live workshops can be broadcast on Zoom, Cisco Webex or other digital platforms, letting attendees interact with the instructor and participate in simulations.
3. OEM Instruction: NFPA 86 requires manufacturers to provide instruction upon installation of new ovens, dryers, thermal oxidizers, furnaces and boilers. That said, OEMs are not required to return to installation sites to educate operators on the newest changes in national and international regulations or in equipment design. While the OEM’s initial training may suffice to get the new equipment up and running, it is not enough to guarantee ongoing safety.
4. Develop a Program: Developing your own program is an endeavor that entails an investment in time, research, continuous improvement and the participation of dedicated team leaders. If you take this path, you will likely need to hire outside experts to ensure that the training curriculum encompasses all NFPA requirements, including general safety, operation of equipment and the latest code protocols.

Special Focus: Gas-Train Operation
At the heart of all combustion processes is a gas train. These devices maintain consistent conditions of gases into furnaces, ovens, dryers and boilers, among others, making understanding how a gas train works crucial in assuring safe ignition, maintenance and shutdown.
Despite being used daily in thousands of industrial facilities, awareness on gas trains may be absent because on-site training is minimal or informal. All of the interlock equipment will not help prevent an incident if your staff does not know better than to attempt to bypass or jumper-out safety controls.

When it comes to fuel-fired equipment operation, ongoing training is instrumental to employee safety and business success. Training prevents production outages that can cost millions of dollars in business interruption, supply-chain delays, lost orders and competitiveness. Many companies only learn the dollar value of combustion-system training after an expensive shutdown has occurred.

1. National Board, Ten years of Incident Reports Underscore Human Error, 2000

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