The use of steam to power machinery dates back to 1689, though it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the technology took off to power the Industrial Revolution. In the 21st century of microchips, steam is still an important source of power; in fact, the marriage of modern computerization with centuries-old steam age technology is powering a new era of technical efficiency.
“Steam is steam, and there isn’t a whole lot in the way of new technology that has changed the basic way a boiler works,” says Bob Forslund, CEO of Vapor Power International, based in Franklin Park, Ill. “What has changed are the controls, which today are computer-based with features such as touch screens instead of push buttons,
with integration into larger automated building systems. And that’s really only come about in the last five years or so; not because the technology wasn’t available, but because most boiler operators just happened to prefer buttons and dials. Now that a more computer savvy generation is coming into the workforce, we’re moving away from ‘pre-historic’ controls that managed to survive because most operators didn’t want to leave their comfort zone.”
Consequently, Forslund says, Vapor Power has partnered with a number of leading manufacturers such as Siemens and Westinghouse to provide state-of-the-art controls for its specialty boilers, steam generators, thermal fluid heaters and super heater systems. As important as this is to integrate boilers into modern building automation systems, what Forslund describes as the “Vapor Advantage” extends beyond how you operate its equipment.
“Our focus is on higher pressure systems of 50 psi (pounds per square inch) and above,” he notes, “and we offer a number of key competitive differentiators from conventional boilers. To begin with, our water tube steam generators are more compact and weigh less than fire tube boilers of the same horsepower. This size and weight differential saves both floor space and installation costs for new construction and frequently avoids the need to tear down and rebuild walls for retrofit and replacement jobs.”
Moreover, in these days of fluctuating fuel costs and availability, Vapor Power oil and gas fired units can literally change fuel sources by turning a selector switch – no need to change any burner component.
Vapor Power systems are over-engineered, by design. While the industry standard is one coil per unit, Vapor Power employs multiple coils, up to four coils in its Modulatic line and six in its Circulatic models. “When there is a damaged mono tube coil, the coil has to be completely replaced. In our multiple coil design only the damaged coil needs to be replaced. This substantially reduces coil replacement costs,” Forslund explains.
The coils are also made for higher temperatures and pressures than the typical application may require. For example, coils in the 300 psi Design Modulatics are actually designed for 1,000 psi and 750ºF and hydro tested to 1,500 psi. The coils for the 150 psi Design Circulatics can withstand 1,275 psi and 750ºF and are hydro tested at 1,915 psi. “Although many people consider this ‘over design,’ we feel that the increased coil thickness leads to much longer life and consequently less repair work in the field,” Forslund says.
Vapor Power systems can also power up in less than 10 minutes. “If you’re running your system 24/7, that’s not going to mean much to you,” Forslund says. “But if you’re only running a single 8 to 5 shift, our rapid start feature saves you money and energy.” The small volume of water contained in the coils allows the unit to achieve rated output in approximately 10 minutes from a cold start, as opposed to conventional fire tube boilers, which may take up to an hour or longer.
The smaller size of water tube boilers holds pre-purge energy losses to a minimum. Pre-purge removes all combustible gases that may remain from previous firings and also cools warm interior surfaces. This energy is lost out the stack during pre-purge. More compact Vapor Power units can pre-purge in a matter of seconds, however, thereby minimizing pre-purge energy losses typical of conventional boilers.
Another energy saver is that lower water volume allows “full modulation” with turndown ratios of 8 to 1 for Circulatics and up to 13 to 1 for Modulatics. These high turndown ratios (maximum output to minimum output) allow a wide range of loads to be handled without excessive on-off cycling at low load conditions. An added benefit, Forslund points out, is that, “Our boilers can’t explode. They don’t have enough water in them. In fact, we’ve been making these types of explosion-proof boilers since the 1930s.”
CENTURY OF EXPERIENCE
Actually, the company itself has been working with steam a lot longer, dating back to 1903 when Egbert H. Gold developed the “Vapor System” for railroad cars, a steam distribution system that eliminated common problems such as bursting lines and uneven heating by using the condensate temperature to regulate the steam supplied to the radiator in each car. This system became the standard for railroads worldwide.
In the 1960s, the company introduced its re-circulating water tube boiler, the Circulatic, still sold today. Water circulates through the coils 3 1/2 times the steaming rate, assuring no steaming takes place in the coils. The high velocity reduces the risk of scale dropping out in the coils; the steam drum provides a stored volume of saturated water for quicker response to system pressure drops. The latest iteration, the Circulatic III, is the first electronic, solidstate boiler on the market!
In the 1970s, Vapor Power worked with the U.S. Navy to design super-heater boilers for supply of high pressure/temperature steam to all major naval shipyards. These packages delivered 40,000 pounds per hour at 1500 psi superheated to 1100º F. These boilers remain in use to the present day, servicing the naval fleet across the country.
Today, with 40 direct employees, Vapor Power covers the world through an international sales representative network. Forslund notes that while some robotic welding is employed in the manufacture of its boiler systems, “there’s still a bit of manual welding and assembly. We have three different production lines, with each line handling about 12 to 14 different sized boilers. Like every manufacturer, we focus on our processes and our vendors to drive as much cost out of the manufacturing process as we can.”
The rising and fluctuating price of steel has been, of course, a large obstacle in controlling manufacturing costs. “We have been able to manage it pretty well,” Forslund says. “Over the last six to seven years we’ve been able to hold our prices in line without any major increases.”
Vapor Power customers are the commercial, industrial and marine industries. Forslund says that one growing new market is food processing. “Our fluid thermal heaters fit nicely into cooker and fryer applications that involve sustained high temperature operation. We’ve just started tapping into that market and we’ve begun to make some inroads.”
As a specialty manufacturer, Forslund says that what Vapor Power does to get the word out about its products is fairly typical. “We do the industry trade shows and advertising. And our reps are always banging on doors. The main thing is for us to get our foot in the door in a particular market segment, and when our application proves its worth, then word of mouth goes into effect.”
As Vapor Power has proven consistently throughout the years, once it works up a head of steam, it’s full speed ahead.