The Boiler Room Newsletter

The Parade Float Boiler

The Parade Float Boiler   By Tim Bardell PE (ME, CE)

There is just something about the ambiance of real steam.  September 19, 2009 my life was turned up-side down by a local community ambassador/scholarship pageant.  My daughter was selected as the 60th Miss Sunnyside.  We were warned, “If your daughter wins a position on the court you will get to design and build the community float; transport it to 15 plus parades; set it up and put it away .  Your daughters get to ride it and go to all the royalty functions”.   In Sunnyside, it is a work of love.  Although the scholarship is good, the return per hour makes no sense, less than a $1 per hour, but on the other hand it was worth a fortune in memories and fun.

I had encouraged Joyanna to run for Miss Sunnyside under the premise that I wanted to build a parade float.  She is generally not a competitive type person, but she worked hard on her preparations, and then the pageant.  She Won! My baby woman, Miss Sunnyside!

My first mistake:  I told the four girls on the new court, I am an engineer, I promise that whatever you want for a float, I will try to deliver within the budget, size and time constraints we have.  We will have one shot at this, let’s make it the best!

During our first meeting of the new court families, the week after the pageant, we started theme ideas.  Soon thereafter was born the concept of the stern wheeler “Diamond Queen”.

To the drawing board, what is the largest structure we can practically fit in the float trailer?  What are the key features of a stern wheeler?   We need multiple decks, boxy shape, pilot house, tall stacks, paddle wheel, whistle, and a calliope.

Whistle and calliope means pressurized gas. What are my options?  1. Compressor, problem noisy.   2. Stored pressurized gas, problem, system tightness and resupply.  3. Real Steam, problem, where can we find a small boiler?

I contacted a machinist friend of mine, “I want you to help me build a steam calliope.”  Then he asked the needed question, what are you going to do for a boiler?

I checked E-Bay, nothing!  I Googled miniature boilers, nothing found in the size range.  What if we built one? There has to be a way to build a boiler if you have a steam interest.  We live in America, and this is a legitimate pursuit of happiness thing, right?  As a veteran naval officer, I have sworn to …”defend the constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic…” (including bureaucrats).  ”Damn the Torpedoes …. Full Speed Ahead…”

Sometimes it is easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission.  My conscience is saying, “we really should try to do it right, there are regulations.”  I would hate to be rejected from a parade because I chose to be ignorant.  My daughter would kill me, or worse, she might cry.  Who do you ask about home-built boilers? I Googled and found contact information for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, Section for Boilers and Unfired Pressure Vessels.

I reluctantly called expecting a bureaucratic negative response.  “Hello, I have a problem, I have to build a community float, and the girls want a steam whistle and calliope, I think I want to build a boiler, can you help?” Surprise blessings from heaven were the Hobby Boiler Manual.

I read these rules for hobby boilers, and started design.  I was a kid in a candy store. The rules were not very restrictive from my view.  The first design: start with an existing pressure vessel (an LP Bottle), add fire tubes, and start steaming.  They tried to tell me: but then, I got the shop-born reality check. LP bottles have thin shells, there is no way I can successfully weld 16ga vessel shell without ruining it.

RESET, start again.  Second try: collect available donated materials, and start design from this material list which included: unknown standard of 12” x 10ga pipe, 1” A53 fire tubes, and A572 ¼” structural grade tube sheets from the local structural steel fabricator.  We have momentum, about ready to cut and weld.

Then early December, a call from the head boiler inspector, “Tim -- You are stirring up a hornet’s nest here in Olympia, -- We really never had someone try to build a boiler with these rules, -- I want you to raise your standards”.  “Yes M ‘am -- I can do whatever you want so long as I have a usable boiler by the first parade in April, and on budget.”

Now, these rules are a little more challenging, I will comply with all the material specifications and workmanship standards of ASME BPVC provisions for welded miniature boilers.  We can relax the rules where they are not practical and where the intent is met.

Where can I get donated SA516 plate with pedigrees in Sunnyside? How can I go back to those community members that donated good material, tell them we cannot use it, but can I have some more, please?

Sunnyside has great community spirit and it came together. With a few calls, and we get offers of plate, 12” pipe for boiler shell, pipe for fire tubes, tools, skill, and work space.

Now we have some real momentum, again ready to cut and weld, the Miss Sunnyside Committee gets excited.  My informal attempts to keep them informed failed.  They now understand that we are actually building a boiler for the float and the red flares are up! Stop wait! Is it safe?  What about insurance? How heavy is it? How big is it? What about alternative gas sources? Why not recorded calliope music and a fog machine? Between the lines I read, ”This year’s queen daddy is trouble!” Fortunately, we had material, a design, and a record for contacting the boiler inspector’s office.

Three weeks later, the Miss Sunnyside Committee gave us the OK. After a series of other delays and generous donations of miscellaneous needed parts; we did It. Weighing about 100 pounds, about 13 inches diameter, and 13 inches long, we have a fully assembled vertical- fire- tube pressure vessel, boasting a burst-strength over 20 times the normal operating pressure. With the help of a local boiler service provider, we passed the visual inspection, and pressure test while under the third-party scrutiny of Miss Sunnyside herself.

Meanwhile every Friday night, at the machine shop we are making calliope valves and whistles.  The first valve works well with air, mates well with the whistle, and mates up with linkage for control solenoids. The base manifold for the calliope is welded together by a local farm irrigation fabricator.

Now the next big milestone:  test firing of the boiler and steam testing the calliope. Toot, toot, screech, toot, toot! Wow! What a thrill!  We may actually pull this off!

Friends at the local cheese factory with a really nice source of steam, tuned the whistles, and programmed the computer for playing the calliope.  We installed the “devices” on the float.  Mounted, lagged, and unpainted, she does not look like much from inside the float.  But the polished brass and copper whistles sing with that distinctive sound that stirs passion in the hearts of steam enthusiasts.

Perhaps the best part about a float boiler is the reaction.  You made a boiler?  Or to watch the float safety inspector’s jaw drop, when they ask if there is pressurized gas, and our answer is, “Yes, we have a home-made boiler!” – (pause) – “but it has been inspected by the state; the certificate is inside the float”. Inspectors usually do not know how to respond; “That is not on my checklist, -- I am not going there”.

Despite the little trouble we give the safety inspectors, It seems that most everyone appreciates this extra effort. The Diamond Queen from Sunnyside with its many other special features, can claim to be the Best Community Float in the state for 2010, winning the top awards in all the major parades on its schedule including Wenatchee Apple Blossom, Spokane Lilac, and Seattle Seafair. There is just something about the ambiance of real steam.

Photo of fully assembled Diamond Queen

Fully assembled Diamond Queen, less royalty.  Stacks are shorter than we would have liked, but most parades have a 13-1/2 foot height restriction to clear traffic lights.  Each stack was equipped with a fog machine for smoke.  The paddle wheel turns via a wheel-chair motor.

Photo of Diamond Queen paddle wheel and whistles

Above--Calliope before trimming the whistle stems, playing a stylized version of Proud Mary, “Rolling On the River….”  The calliope is controlled by a Programmable Logic Controller donated, and programmed by a local cheese producer. All the brass castings were done by the Diamond Queen crew, from donated brass scrap using a furnace built for this project.  The tubular whistle barrels are 1-1/2, type K, copper pipe donated by a local plumber. The calliope has been a little cold blooded, meaning, a couple of the valves are sticky during startup. The paddle wheel was made from light weight cold formed steel and Styrofoam paddles. It has been trouble-free the whole season.

Interior photo of the float's boiler and tender's seat

Above is the boiler with tender’s seat. The barrel is the main feedwater tank. We used a phosphate based pH control and sodium bisulfite as an oxygen scavenger.  The boiler was framed in open tubular steel box which enables solid mounting of controls, and piping. We used a hot water heater shell to cover the pressure vessel lagging and fire box. The controls and instruments in front of the tender include: pressure, boiler water level, electric fire ignitor, draft fan, electric and manual feed pumps, propane pressure regulator, and fire box sight glass. All electric items are powered from the float battery for reliability. Valves in reach of the tender include: bottom blow down, steam stop, pressure gage stop, feed water stop, boiler water level sight glass stops, and steam line end vent. The relief valve exits in front of the calliope upward for safety. The feed system was also equipped with a preheating economizer. The inside of the float is well ventilated using an automotive radiator fan pulling in air from the “pilot house” on top of the float.


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