The Boiler Operator
At home, your furnace and AC unit are probably pretty small and compact. And why wouldn’t they be? They only need to keep a single house or apartment a comfortable home.
But in big facilities like office buildings, airports and hospitals, that kind of system just won’t cut it. Large industrial buildings often have a boiler room, where huge boilers heat water and other liquids to make steam and gas. That steam provides heating, cooling and sometimes power to the whole facility.
Factories also use boilers to provide the large amounts of power needed to run heavy machinery every day.
But those boilers aren’t all alike, you know. They come in different sizes and varying levels of complexity. Some operate under high pressure, some low pressure. They can fulfill different functions.
The boiler operator, or boiler technician, is responsible for understanding exactly how all these different pieces of equipment work. Boiler operators keep boilers running and in good condition. Think of the power!
A boiler operator is considered a type of stationary engineer. That’s because he or she works on equipment that stays in the same place — it’s stationary. Along with boilers, a stationary engineer might work on other types of equipment too, like turbines, generators, pumps and compressors… all stuff that would be bolted down to the ground in the engine room.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A BOILER OPERATOR IN GEORGIA
Operating a boiler is a lot more than just flicking an “on/off” switch. Here’s a look at the boiler operator’s tasks and responsibilities.
- Start up and shut down equipment when needed
- Observe meters and gauges that measure how the boiler is functioning
- Use electronic testing equipment to monitor boiler conditions or troubleshoot problems
- Check water levels and measure chemicals and fuel
- Tweak boiler valves that control stuff like water, air and fuel inputs
- Repair or replace any malfunctioning parts – like valves or gaskets
- Replace filters in the boiler
- Fire up coal furnaces if they’re used to power the boiler
- Do cleaning and maintenance to remove corrosion and build-up that could hurt the boiler’s efficiency
- Regularly inspect equipment to make sure everything is working properly and in good shape
- Check for leaks or malfunctions
- Test any safety devices or controls
WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A BOILER OPERATOR
Those in the boiler business who are good at their jobs say you’ll need to be:
- Mechanically skilled. As a boiler operator, you manage machines and work with tools ranging from hand tools to electronic diagnostic equipment. You trouble-shoot and problem-solve. So you should enjoy the challenge of figuring out how things work — and how to make them work better.
- Good with your hands. Boiler operators need a firm grip and steady hands so they can do precision work on controls and repairs.
- Level-headed. Working in a boiler room can be stressful at times. You’re dealing with hot steam and contents under pressure, so you have to know how to stay cool even when things heat up. (See what we did there?)
- Responsible. A lot of people depend on the boiler operator to do a good job and keep this all-important equipment running in best shape from day to day. You must be reliable and dependable, and do excellent work even if no one is checking up on you.
IS THIS YOU?
Here are a few aspects to consider as you decide whether boiler operator jobs are right for you.
- Job stability. Boilers are most often used in large commercial or industrial-type buildings, so a lot of boiler operators work for schools, hospitals and government buildings — institutions that often have good benefits and strong job security. Many others work in plants and factories.
- Advancement opportunities. As you spend more time in the field, you can develop greater expertise to manage bigger, more complex equipment, as well as more machines at a time. You can get certifications and credentials to back up your expanded expertise. That means better jobs and more money.
- Parts of this job can be hazardous. The boiler technician is exposed to the risk of burns, electrical shock or toxic substances. It’s really important to follow all safety procedures to minimize accidents.
- You spend a lot of time on your feet. You’re the one who’s actively managing the boiler room. You might need to crawl into some tight spots to conduct cleaning and maintenance. So the work can be physically demanding.
A FEW DETAILS OF INTEREST
How much does a stationary engineer or boiler operator make?
The average salary for stationary engineers and boiler operators in Georgia is $51,810 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016).
How do you become a boiler operator?
You need a high school diploma (or the equivalent). If you’re in high school now, make sure you sign up for all the math and science classes you can — those will help you a lot in this career. (Chemistry is a big one!) Those shop classes where you can practice your moves with the power tools will help, too.
Most boiler operators still learn on the job, working under experienced pros who can teach them the trade. When you first start out, you perform simple tasks, like checking temperatures. You’ll watch and learn as your boss works until you have the skills to do more complex, more dangerous work with high-pressure boilers.
You can also complete an apprenticeship. A professional organization called the International Union of Operating Engineers sponsors apprenticeships for boiler operators. Each year of the 4-year apprenticeship includes 8,000 hours of hands-on training and 600 hours of technical education. If that seems like a lot of time, remember – there’s a lot at stake in a boiler room.
Because apprenticeships are limited, they’re competitive. But they will definitely improve your job prospects and help you get hired at a good job right away.
Some states require you to have a boiler operator license. There are usually several different “classes” of boiler operator license, representing different levels of expertise.
GET TRAINING AS A BOILER OPERATOR OR STATIONARY ENGINEER
These three 12-week classes from the Georgia State Association of Power Engineers will get you ready to take exams for the stationary engineer license.
OUTLOOK FOR BOILER OPERATORS
The number of jobs for boiler operators is expected to stay about the same between 2014 and 2024. Retiring tradespeople will create new job opportunities for those entering the field. You’ll have the best shot at one of those positions if you have completed an apprenticeship.
REAL BOILER OPERATORS IN REAL LIFE
Check out this article and picture slideshow to find out how six boiler operators at Emory University’s Steam Plant work around the clock to produce up to 200,000 pounds of steam an hour, warming 55 buildings via a six-mile network of pipes.
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
Download this handy PDF for some facts on-the-go.