Fire-tube boiler

Fire-tube boiler

A fire-tube boiler is a type of boiler in which hot gases from the fire pass through one or more tubes within the boiler. It is one of the two major types of boilers, the other being the water-tube boiler. A fire tube boiler can be either horizontal or vertical. A fire-tube boiler is sometimes called a "smoke-tube boiler" or "shell boiler" or sometimes just "fire pipe".

This type of boiler was used on virtually all steam locomotives in the horizontal "locomotive" form. It is also typical of early marine applications and small vessels, such as the small riverboat used in the movie The African Queen. Small fire-tube boilers used for various auxiliary services were often called "donkey boilers". Today, they find extensive use in the stationary engineering field, typically for low pressure steam use such as heating a building.

Types of fire-tube boiler

Cornish boiler

Cornish boiler has a single large flue containing the fire.

Lancashire boiler

Lancashire boiler has two large flues containing the fires

cotch marine boiler

This is similar to a Lancashire boiler but the flues lead into combustion chambers where the hot gases are reversed to flow through a large number of horizontal fire tubes located within the boiler shell above the flues [ [ General Ship Layout ] ] .

Locomotive boiler

Locomotive boiler has a double-walled firebox and a large number of small flue-tubes. Larger flue-tubes carry the superheater elements, where present. Forced draught is provided in the locomotive boiler by injecting exhausted steam back into the exhaust via a blast pipe.

Vertical Firetube boiler

Vertical Firetube boiler (VFT) has a vertical cylindrical shell, containing several vertical flue tubes

Horizontal Return Tubular boiler

Horizontal Return Tubular boiler (HRT) has a horizontal cylindrical shell, containing several horizontal flue tubes, with the fire located directly below the boiler's shell, usually within a brickwork setting


Water tubes

Fire-tube boilers sometimes have water-tubes as well, to increase the heating surface. A Cornish boiler may have several water-tubes across the diameter of the flue (this is common in steam launches). A locomotive boiler with a wide firebox may have arch tubes or thermic syphons. These both increase the heating surface and give additional support to the brick arch. Not all shell boilers raise steam; some are designed specifically for heating pressurised water.

Reverse flame

In homage to the Lancashire design, modern shell boilers can come with a twin furnace (aka twin flue) design. A more recent development has been the reverse flame design where the burner fires into a blind furnace and the combustion gasses double back on themselves. This generally results in a more compact design and can do away with a whole pass of tubes.

Package boiler

Another type is the "package" boiler. This comes from the practice which evolved in the early to mid 20th century when the units were delivered to site with insulation, electrical panels, valves and gauges already fitted. This was in contrast to earlier practice where little more than the pressure part was delivered and the ancillary components were fitted on site.

Taper boiler

Locomotive boilers are often tapered from a large diameter at the firebox end to a smaller diameter at the smokebox end. This reduces weight and improves water circulation.


to produce hot combustion gases. The firebox is surrounded by a cooling jacket of water connected to the long, cylindrical boiler tube. The hot gases are directed along a series of "fire tubes", or "flues", that penetrate the boiler and heat the water thereby generating saturated steam. The steam rises to the highest point of the boiler, the "steam dome", where it is collected. The dome is the site of the "regulator" that controls the exit of steam from the boiler.

In the locomotive boiler, the saturated steam is very often passed into a "superheater", back through the larger flues at the top of the boiler, to dry the steam and heat it to "superheated steam". The superheated steam is directed to the steam engine's cylinders or very rarely to a turbine to produce mechanical work. Exhaust gases are fed out through a chimney, and may be used to pre-heat the feed water to increase the efficiency of the boiler.

Draught for firetube boilers, particularly in marine applications, is usually provided by a tall smokestack. In all steam locomotives, since Stephenson's "Rocket", additional draught was supplied by directing exhaust steam from the cylinders into the smokestack through a blastpipe, to provide a partial vacuum. Modern industrial boilers use fans to provide forced or induced draughting of the boiler.

Another major advance in the "Rocket" was large numbers of small diameter firetubes instead of a single large flue (a "multi-tubular boiler"). This greatly increased the surface area for heat transfer, allowing steam to be produced at a much higher rate. Without this, steam locomotives could never have developed effectively as powerful prime movers.

afety considerations

Because the fire-flume boiler itself is the pressure vessel, it requires a number of safety features to prevent mechanical failure. Boiler explosion, which is a type of BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion), can be devastating.

* Safety valves release steam before a dangerous pressure can be built up

* Fusible plugs over the firebox melt at a temperature lower than that of the firebox plates, thereby warning the operators by the noisy escape of steam if the water level is too low to cool the firebox crown safely.

* Stays, or ties, physically link the firebox and boiler casing, preventing them from warping. Since any corrosion is hidden, the stays may have longitudinal holes, called "tell-tales", drilled in them which leak before they become unsafe.

The fire-tube type boiler that was used in the Stanley Steamer automobile had several hundred tubes which were weaker than the outer shell of the boiler, making an explosion virtually impossible as the tubes would fail and leak long before the boiler exploded. In nearly 100 years since the Stanleys were first produced, no Stanley boiler has ever exploded.


An intensive schedule of maintenance is needed to keep a boiler in safe condition. A typical regime will involve regular external inspections (including the inside of the firebox), "washouts" (with an internal inspection), periodic detailed examination and a general overhaul.

Daily inspection

The tube plates, the fusible plug and the heads of the firebox stays should be checked for leaks. The correct operation of the boiler fittings, especially the water gauges and water feed mechanisms, should be confirmed. Steam pressure should be raised to the level at which the safety valves lift and compared with the indication of the pressure gauge.


The working life of a locomotive boiler is considerably extended if it is spared from a constant cycle of cooling and heating. Historically, a locomotive would be kept “in steam” continuously for a period of about eight to ten days, and then allowed to cool sufficiently for a hot-water boiler washout. The schedule for express engines was based on mileage.Bell, A M (1957): "Locomotives, seventh edition", Virtue and Company, London.] Today's preserved locomotives are not usually kept continuously in steam and the recommended washout interval is now fifteen to thirty days, but anything up to 180 days is possible. Unknown authors (2005):"The management of steam locomotive boilers."
Health and Safety Executive, Sudbury, Suffolk, England.]

The process starts with a “blowdown” while some pressure remains in the boiler, then the draining away of all the boiler water through the “mudholes” at the base of the firebox and the removal of all the “washout plugs”. Scale is then jetted or scraped from the interior surfaces using a high pressure water jet and rods of soft metal, such as copper. Areas particularly susceptible to scale buildup, such as the firebox crown and narrow water spaces around the firebox, are given special attention. The inside of the boiler is inspected by sighting through the plug holes, with a particular check paid to the integrity of the firetubes, firebox crown and stays and absence of pitting or cracking of the boiler plates. The gauge glass cocks and tubes and fusible plug should be cleared of scale; if the core of the fusible plug shows signs of calcination the item should be replaced.

On reassembly care should be taken that the threaded plugs are replaced in their original holes: the tapers can vary as a result of rethreading. The mudhole door gaskets, if of asbestos, should be renewed but those made of lead may be reused; special instructions are in force for the disposal of these harmful materials. At large maintenance facilities the boiler would have been both washed and refilled with very hot water from an external supply to bring the locomotive back to service more quickly.

Periodic examination

Typically an annual inspection, this would require the removal and check of external fittings, such as the injectors, safety valves and pressure gauge. High-pressure copper pipework can suffer from work hardening in use and become dangerously brittle: it may be necessary to treat these by annealing before refitting. A hydraulic pressure test on the boiler and pipework may also be called for.

General overhaul

In the UK the specified maximum interval between full overhauls is ten years. To enable a full inspection the boiler is lifted from the locomotive frame and the lagging removed. All firetubes are removed for checking or replacement. All fittings are removed for overhaul. Before returning to use a qualified examiner will check the boiler’s fitness for service and issue a safety certificate valid for ten years.

External links

* [ A locomotive boiler]
* [ A "hot" boiler washout in pictures]
* [ Picture gallery showing boiler internal features and defects.]
* [ BS EN 12953 is the relevant contemporary standard, which supersedes BS2790.]


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • fire-tube boiler — dūmavamzdžių katilas statusas T sritis Energetika apibrėžtis Katilas, kuriame dūmai, degimo produktai teka vamzdžiais, o vanduo – išorine vamzdžių puse. atitikmenys: angl. fire tube boiler; smoke tube boiler vok. Rauchrohrkessel, m rus.… …   Aiškinamasis šiluminės ir branduolinės technikos terminų žodynas

  • fire-tube boiler — noun : a boiler in which water surrounds the tubes through which hot gases pass from the furnace to the stack * * * /fuyeur toohb , tyoohb / any boiler for generating steam by passing hot gases and other combustible products through tubes (fire… …   Useful english dictionary

  • fire-tube boiler — /fuyeur toohb , tyoohb / any boiler for generating steam by passing hot gases and other combustible products through tubes (fire tubes) immersed in water to a chimney or uptake. Cf. water tube boiler. * * * …   Universalium

  • fire-tube boiler — /ˈfaɪə tjub ˌbɔɪlə/ (say fuyuh tyoohb .boyluh) noun a boiler in which the combustion products pass through tubes immersed in the water space on their way to the chimney. Compare water tube boiler …   Australian-English dictionary

  • Fire tube — Tube Tube, n. [L. tubus; akin to tuba a trumpet: cf F. tube.] 1. A hollow cylinder, of any material, used for the conveyance of fluids, and for various other purposes; a pipe. [1913 Webster] 2. A telescope. Glazed optic tube. Milton. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • fire tube — noun : flue III d * * * fire tube, a tube or flue in a steam boiler, used for the passage of the flame and heated gas …   Useful english dictionary

  • Water-tube boiler — A water tube boiler is a type of boiler in which water circulates in tubes heated externally by the fire. Water tube boilers are used for high pressure boilers. Fuel is burned inside the furnace, creating hot gas which heats up water in the steam …   Wikipedia

  • smoke tube boiler — dūmavamzdžių katilas statusas T sritis Energetika apibrėžtis Katilas, kuriame dūmai, degimo produktai teka vamzdžiais, o vanduo – išorine vamzdžių puse. atitikmenys: angl. fire tube boiler; smoke tube boiler vok. Rauchrohrkessel, m rus.… …   Aiškinamasis šiluminės ir branduolinės technikos terminų žodynas

  • water-tube boiler — /waw teuhr toohb , tyoohb , wot euhr / a boiler for generating steam by passing water in tubes (water tubes) through flames and hot gases. Cf. fire tube boiler. [1870 75] * * * …   Universalium

  • water-tube boiler — /ˈwɔtə tjub ˌbɔɪlə/ (say wawtuh tyoohb .boyluh) noun a boiler in which the water passes through tubes in the combustion zone. Compare fire tube boiler …   Australian-English dictionary

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