Explosion fuels new law for old engines

COLUMBUS – Less than a year after a steam explosion in Medina, Ohio, killed five and injured almost 50, legislation is about to be passed requiring inspection and licensing of steam boilers.

The bill is now on Gov. Bob Taft’s desk waiting to be signed. This is highly probably given his past support of the bill, said Peter Costanza, legislative aide to State Rep. Charles Calvert, R-Medina.

Rep. Calvert’s bill, H.B. 344, was introduced in August, just a month after Cliff Kovacic’s 1918 Case 110 horsepower steam-powered tractor exploded on the Medina County Fairgrounds.

Kovacic, his son, and three others were killed. Ten bystanders were badly burned, and more than 40 others in the vicinity of the explosion were hospitalized.

“I think [the bill] does an excellent job of balancing the state’s need to protect the public and of hobbyists to run their engines,” said David Tschantz, steam enthusiast.

It will also provide insurance companies the reassurance they need to underwrite exhibitions and fairs with steam engines, he said.

The law will require the inspection of tractors powered by historical steam boilers if they are publicly displayed and will established testing requirements and licensing standards for operators of historic steam boilers. A minimum amount of liability insurance will also be established.

Getting it down. Although the bill had already passed the House and then the Senate, it had been sent back to the House for the approval of a Historic Licensing Board, which will establish the standards for steam operation.

The original bill required the Board of Building Standards to establish the licensing guidelines.

The licensing board will be better suited to establish guidelines because it will be comprised of people knowledgeable about steam boilers rather than bureaucrats, Costanza said.

After Taft signs the bill, the board will be appointed and it will begin to look at the specifics. The board will consist of seven members, including several owners and operators of steam boilers, a county fair or exhibition representative, a boiler inspector and an independent mechanical engineer.

License requirements include being at least 16 years old, completing an operator’s course, passing a written or verbal communication exam and having at least 100 hours of operating experience or training.

The license fee will be a one-time fee of $50. The license is valid for a lifetime, unless revoked.

Lax laws. Prior to the steam boiler bill, agricultural-use boilers were exempt from inspection, and no inspection certificates were required from operators at antique exhibits since 1965.

Inspections were done only upon request.

Before the Medina explosion, it had been proposed that all regulation of historic steam boilers be stricken altogether from the Ohio code. The legislation was considered a housekeeping measure, a revision of the law to reflect current practice.

Explosion prevention. Events like those in Medina are not guaranteed to never happen again, however, “[the bill] is certainly going to make it less probable,” Costanza said.

State regulations are never enough to protect people in every situation, Tschantz said. This is as far as the state can go in trying to protect people, and the rest is up to the operators, he said.

In the final report issued by the sheriff’s office, the immediate cause of the Medina explosion was the structural failure of the tractor when the crown shield – the plate between the boiler and the firebox – was not fully covered with water.

The expanding steam that occurred when water hit the heated exposed metal exploded the boiler, shooting the tractor 10 feet into the air.

“Hobbyists are still on probation,” Tschantz said. “If anything like what happened in Medina happens again, it would be a death blow to the hobby.”

Old age. According to the steam boiler study group, there are approximately 200 to 300 tractors in Ohio that participate in public events annually. There are also many steam boilers from other states that participate in Ohio events.

The Historic Steam Boiler Study Group was set up to study the background of steam-powered tractors and then make recommendations regarding what to include in the steam boiler bill.

Part of the hazard of steam-powered tractors is the fact that they have not been manufactured since the 1920s, the study group said. This means that most steam boilers are at least 80 years old and have experienced considerable use.

Recommendations by the study group included inspecting and certifying steam boilers annually, establishing training requirements and licenses for operators, having mandatory liability insurance, adopting minimum uniform safety requirements and establishing a licensing committee to assist the Ohio Board of Building Standards.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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