NEW ORLEANS – There are more than four times as many buildings in the city that run large boilers or pressure vessels than there are licensed engineers to maintain them, according to a WWL-TV review of city records.
That has raised safety concerns, leading City Hall to enforce a part of its building code for the first time in over a decade.
Boilers may seem like artifacts from a bygone era, but in a city of stately hotels and historic structures, monster boilers and pressure vessels like the ones that once powered steam locomotives and ocean liners are still used to heat buildings – 1,600 New Orleans buildings have them, according to a city database.
And officials in City Hall, which runs on two massive boilers of its own, have real fears about safety. Those concerns are heightened now because the Safety and Permits Department has essentially lost track of who is maintaining the equipment and hasn’t enforced the laws governing maintenance since before Hurricane Katrina.
“It’s catastrophic if something were to fail,” said New Orleans Fire Chief Tim McConnell. “They’ve had (boiler explosions) in history and almost every time it’s due to lack of maintenance and improper maintenance of these facilities.”
A string of boiler and pressure vessel explosions in the last 20 years raised major concerns by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
- Central Louisiana in 1998, a gas vessel exploded at a plant in Pitkin, killing four people.
- In Ohio in 2001, a steam tractor exploded at a county fair and killed five.
- In Louisville, Ky., in 2003, after a valve got clogged at a caramel factory. One person died.
- In Houston in 2008, one person was killed at a Goodyear tire factory.
“I call on all states and local governments to adopt the pressure vessel code and related boiler standards. Lives will be saved as a result,” CSB Chairman John Bresland said in 2009.
New Orleans not only adopted the code, it is the only city in the state that goes further than the State Fire Marshal in some of its requirements – most notably in requiring hands-on supervision for the largest boilers and pressure vessels. New Orleans requires building owners to have city-licensed stationary engineers on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whenever the equipment is in operation.
But a city database shows there are only 326 stationary engineers with the proper city license to monitor the boilers and pressure vessels in 1,600 of those buildings.
Safety and Permits Director Jared Munster said that’s clearly a problem. The city finally hired an inspector this year to enforce the stationary engineer requirement for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, he said.
Munster also admits the city’s data are a mess, so his department is essentially starting over. Inspector Peter Emery has had to rebuild the data by checking buildings one-by-one.
Last month, he came to WWL-TV for the station’s first inspection in years and issued a violation because there was no stationary engineer to monitor a number of big air conditioning units, each larger than 5 tons.
The TV station and most other businesses have the option to simply fill out a document called a Building Safety Summary for chillers, air conditioning units and most types of heaters, certifying that they have automatic shut-down systems.
But the law says large boilers and pressure vessels, those exceeding 200 horsepower, 199,000 BTU per hour or 125 psi of pressure, need licensed stationary engineers to monitor them, in real time.
In just a few months, the city has identified 10 buildings that have big boilers but don’t have at least one licensed stationary engineer on site whenever they’re running.
Four of the 10 are Valentino family hotels, where the city discovered the problem when Emery dropped in for an unannounced inspection.
“Half hour, 45 minutes later, the engineer comes in, apologizes that it took him so long, but says he had to come from one of the other hotels,” Munster said. “So from that point the inspector looked into it further and essentially found there was one engineer who monitored four locations.”
Owner Michael Valentino now says he’s working on modifying his equipment so he doesn’t have to hire more engineers to cover each of his hotels, 24-7.
At Le Pavillon Hotel, Emery also found a lack of engineers, along with poorly maintained equipment and flammable items stored in the boiler room. The hotel owners say they’ve worked hard to fix those issues.
But some property owners have been resistant to the new enforcement. The Nazareth Inn on Hayne Boulevard is a large, two-tower residence for low-income elderly and disabled. Inspector Emery identified four boilers, but not a single stationary engineer on site.
The Archdiocese, which runs the property through its Christopher Homes operation, says safety is its top priority, but it appealed the city’s ruling.
In its appeal, the Archdiocese filed a letter from the manufacturer saying the units are not boilers, but residential electric water heaters.
But the city says the law is clear, and the units at the Nazareth Inn clearly meet the definition of boilers.
The city's Board of Building Standards and Appeals denied the Archdiocese's appeal on Thursday, Sept. 15.
McConnell said with stakes this high, there’s no room for leniency.
“These safety inspections to make sure you don’t have a failure aren’t there to be onerous, they’re there to make sure your business continues to thrive and no one -- from my perspective as a first-responder -- that no one gets hurt,” he said.
Note: This story was updated Sept. 15, when the Board of Building Standards and Appeals rejected the appeal of the Nazareth Inn violation by the New Orleans Archdiocese.