Lawmakers reconsider rules for old engines


COLUMBUS – The explosion of Cliff Kovacic’s 1918 Case 110 horsepower steam-powered tractor on the Medina County Fairgrounds last July sent a powerful message reverberating through the state.

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

Even though there had not been a major accident involving steam engines for many years – some hobbyists said the 1950s – the potential danger of steam engines rushed back into clear view.

Almost as soon as the hot oil and shrapnel that the explosion at Medina sent spewing 400 feet into the fairgrounds crowd had subsided, speculation and debate on the future of historic steam engines and their exhibition and demonstration began.

Inspection law. Rep. Chuck Calvert, who represents Medina in the Ohio House of Representatives, began immediately to draft a law to require the inspection and licensing of all steam tractors and their operators if they were to be displayed in public.

And Calvert has met little resistance from other lawmakers. His bill (H.B. 344), introduced in August and passed by the House at the end of October, was introduced into the Senate in November.

If passed, it would require the state Board of Building Standards, charged with adopting rules and standards under the Ohio Boilers Inspection Law, to adopt standards for the operation of tractors powered by historical steam boilers, require the inspection of such boilers if they are to be publicly displayed, and to establish testing requirements and licensing standards for operators of historic steam boilers.

Senate hearings. As the General Assembly session gets under way following its end-of-the-year break, Calvert’s proposed legislation is one of the first items on the agenda of the Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee chaired by Sen. Scott Nein.

Hearings on the bill began Jan. 8, when Rep. Calvert introduced the bill to the committee.

At a second hearing Jan. 15, John Bender, chief of policy and regulatory affairs for the Department of Commerce, who headed the state’s Historic Steam Boiler Study Group, testified on the study group’s report and recommendation.

The report was submitted to Gov. Bob Taft in December and forwarded Calvert Jan. 7, with the suggestion that Calvert consider including the study group’s recommendations in his bill.

Stricken from code. Before the Medina explosion, the regulation of historic steam boilers of riveted construction had just been stricken altogether from the Ohio code.

Historical steam boilers “preserved, restored, or maintained for hobby or demonstration” were exempt from boiler inspection requirements under the original boilers law rules written in 1965. But the boilers law did require they be “equipped with such appliances, to insure safety of operation.”

Last year, at the request of the Department of Commerce, the General Assembly approved legislation that struck historical steam boilers out of the law entirely. The legislation was considered a housekeeping measure, a revision of the law to reflect current practice.

Under the provision, which allowed for voluntary inspection upon request for boilers covered under the law, the inspection bureau had been making only about 50 or so such inspections a year.

After the explosion. But that was before the Medina County Fair.

As Kovacic backed his newly restored steam tractor into a space under a tree on the fairgrounds last July 29, getting ready to show the rare Case model in the antique farm machinery exhibit area, all that was suddenly about to change.

In the final report on the accident issued by Medina County Sheriff Neal Hassinger, the immediate cause of the explosion was assigned to 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, sending the tractor 10 feet into the air.

Hassinger’s report also put major responsibility on the lack of experience and proper competency of the operator.

Study group report. The study group, convened by Gov. Taft from the departments of commerce and agriculture, concluded that historic, antique and hobby boilers and pressure vessels used to power tractors and other equipment operated and demonstrated at public events should be inspected and certified on an annual basis.

It also specified in its report that the inspections should be performed by state boiler inspectors, and that a certificate of inspection should be required.

The report pointed out that several steam power clubs and associations have their own safety committees and perform inspections prior to participation in public events. While these measures are commendable and provide competent inspection of some equipment, the report stated, other groups have no such requirements.

Uniform system. “There is a need for a uniform inspection system, based on uniform standards and staffed by trained inspectors,” concluded the study report.

The suggested legislation drafted by the study group included a yearly inspection of smoke box, barrel, wrapper sheet, dome, water column and water glass, firebox, external plumbing, fusible plug, pressure relief valve and pressure gauge; a hydrostatic test at 11/4 of maximum allowable working pressure every three years, and an ultrasonic test for structural degradation every five years.

It also recommended that operators be required to complete an operator’s training course, complete a written or verbal examination, and have an established number of hours of experience before they could receive a license from the state that would be required so operate a steam boiler at any public exhibition.

Anyone under 18 could be apprenticed to a state licensed operator to get the required experience.

Liability insurance. The study group also recommended that operators be required to carry liability insurance, and that the board of building standards adopt minimum uniform safety requirements for the operation or demonstration of steam tractors or engines at public events.

The group estimated there are now about 300 steam tractors owned in the state of Ohio that would fall under these regulations.

According to Peter Costanza, legislative aide to Rep. Calvert, representatives of the insurance industry testified that if steam tractors were inspected regularly they could probably be insured for $1 million liability at about $100 a year.

He said he expected the insurance requirement to be added to the bill by the Senate committee.

The details of inspection and licensing, he said, would be drawn up by the Board of Building Standards in its rule-making capacity after the bill has been passed.

The rules would then come back before a joint committee to be approved by the General Assembly.

The inspection and training programs would be administered by the industrial compliance division of the department of commerce. The current fee for a voluntary inspection of a historical steam-powered tractor or engine is $45.

(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at


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