The Power of Steam – Part 4, by A.Y.

For problems on the engine itself, visual inspections are again the best way to look for problems. Loose bolts, loose or worn bearings, signs of overheating, and clanking and knocking sounds can attest to problems. Signs of overheated metal on the engine can include scarring, discoloration, scraping sounds, and emitting lots of heat from a bearing while in operation. Overheating on the engine itself can usually be attributed to not enough lubrication, so it must be determined why oil and grease are not getting to the affected part. Some engines have mechanical and hydrostatic lubricators that drive oil to moving parts, and these must be cleaned and inspected frequently to keep them performing properly. As stated before, adding a little more oil and grease is less expensive and less of a headache than having a part wear out quickly or fail and need repair. Eventually, bearings will wear out no matter how well lubricated they are; they will begin to knock and clank as the metal bangs together. When rods and cranks begin to knock, it is an indication that the bearings need to be disassembled and rebuilt to their proper tolerance. A competent machinist can perform this task.

Last on the subject of repair is a list of common tools needed to work on boilers and steam engines. Different size welders and cutting torches and the knowledge of using them are a must, when working with steel and iron. A good general tool set with wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, et cetera is also needed. Some parts on these engines are large, so keep in mind that large tools will be needed to work on them. Specific boiler tools such as tube (flue) rollers, staybolt reamers and taps, pipe and boiler taps, and dies are also needed when repairing and maintaining a boiler and engine. Access to a machine shop (powered by lineshaft steam of course) with lathes and presses will also be of tremendous help, so that worn parts can be repaired and new ones made. When operating, gloves should always be worn to help protect hands, and heavy clothing should be worn to protect the body. Photographs of farm hands or engineers and firemen will show overalls, long sleeves, gloves, handkerchiefs, boots, and hats to keep the heat and cinders at bay.


Yet one more problem needs to be addressed, and it is one common to preparedness-minded individuals. If hungry, desperate people see smoke or hear noise and assume that where there is fire and activity there are also supplies, warmth, and protection or a community to be exploited, depending on how moral they are. Steam engines will obviously produce smoke, since they burn large amounts of wood, coal, or oil. However, there are tricks to reduce the amount of smoke generated. In general, the hotter the fire is burning inside the firebox, the less smoke will be emitted from the smokestack. This is because the entire amount of material is consumed by the fire, and all that is left is hot clear gases escaping out of the stack. Also, if a careful, even firing is used, a lesser amount of smoke will be emitted, as the constantly hot fire will consume the smoke. However, if a lot of “green” coal or “green” wood (fresh fuel) is loaded onto the fire, it will not burn as well or as hot and will produce a lot of smoke. If you carefully observe a fireman on a steam engine, you can tell when he or she adds a lot of new fuel to the fire by observing the color of the smoke. A good fireman will try to use the least amount of fuel distributed the most even way to maintain even heat and not waste fuel. Good firing can be accomplished by experience, trial and error, and mentoring by an experienced person.

Another big problem with OPSEC, related to using steam engines, is noise. When the hustle and bustle of society stops, noise can be heard over a surprisingly long distance. The most common noises on steam engines are the chuff, whistles, safety valves, and motion of machinery. However, there are also ways to mitigate these issues. Keeping the moving machinery well lubricated and in good repair will reduce the amount of noise it makes, and the safety valve can be prevented from going off by not overfiring the boiler. The safety valve should be “popped” every now and then to insure safe operation, but this can be done when circumstances are deemed appropriate. The chuff on a steam engine is created when steam is forced out of the cylinders and up into the smokebox. It is propelled up the stack by an exhaust nozzle, and it creates essential draft on the fire while being shot out the stack. How much noise it makes is very much dependant on how hard the engine is working. If the engine has a very heavy load, the chuff will be very loud. If the engine has no load, it will be almost silent. If loud noise is a concern, care should be taken to not place extremely heavy loads on the engine. If it is impossible to restrict the load on the engine, then the exhaust steam can be rerouted and exhausted elsewhere to dampen the sound. If this is done however, a form of artificial draft will have to be used to keep the fire burning hot in the firebox. All boilers should already have a device on them called a blower, which shoots steam up the stack and can be varied in strength to accomplish this task without any new fabrication.

The last large problem with OPSEC is the size of the engine and boiler itself and the tracks it will make if it moves. The smallest traction engines can be as small as a tractor, while the largest can be two stories tall! Obviously, size limitation must be an important factor when choosing an engine for your community, if the engine needs to be hidden. Also, being made almost entirely of steel, it will sink into the ground and make tracks wherever it goes. This can be somewhat remedied by placing wide boards underneath the wheels as it moves, to spread out ground pressure. Cleats can be removed from the wheels if practicable, and it will reduce the amount of earth being torn up by the engine. Operation over solid ground instead of soft earth will also help alleviate this problem, and reduce the chance of getting it stuck. For railroad locomotives, however, there is absolutely no possible way to conceal its railroad track. A standard patrol measure could be used for operating the locomotive over distance, with lookouts proceeding ahead of the train and people stationed on the front of the engine to look for track problems, sabotage, or ambushes. The best time to use these engines though is when society brings itself out of the fighting stage and enters the rebuilding stage, when towns and communities want to trade with each other again. A good tactical coordinator or OPSEC manager can also find creative ways of protecting all these engines, and plans should be arranged before the balloon goes up.

While this article has hopefully enlightened you as to the choices and operation of boilers and steam engines, it is by no means a comprehensive study. There are tons of resources out in the world that can help teach and give experience about these wonderful machines. Books, old mechanic magazines, and the Internet make available lots of paper knowledge and can be obtained at shows, on eBay, libraries, and by various other sources. However, the absolute best way to learn about steam engines is to work on them and run them yourself. There are antique boiler shows and farm shows scattered all across the United States and other countries, and most of the people are friendly and are very willing to teach new people about this technology. Railroad museums with steam programs are also excellent places to obtain knowledge and experience, and even if your plan is not to acquire or run a railroad locomotive, the experience gained on them can be translated to their smaller cousins of traction engines and portables. In all, working on and operating these machines can be a very gratifying practice and can contribute a rare, needed skill to the community when society has its reset. Please remember, however, that these are NOT toys to be neglected. It seems like a cliché, but a good piece of advice I was told when I first began to work on traction engines and railroad boilers was to treat them like a fine lady. If you treat her well, she in turn will work her hardest for you and rarely let you down. If you neglect her and treat her poorly, she will make your life miserable and even take it in the most extreme circumstance. To conclude, let us remember that survival is not just about the cataclysmic moment, but it is also the story of the aftermath and the rebuilding of society. Steam built this great nation from the ground up once already, and there is absolutely no doubt that it can do it again when called upon.