Hold on there Casey Jones....... Safety first

A few saftey tips on on the care and feeding of small toy steam engines

When you adopt a small toy steam engine there are a few important things to consider and a number of things to keep in mind as long as you own the little machine. Chances are you are the proud owner of an old toy engine, or you are contemplating buying one someday. Before you make the jump, let's talk about the safety issues involved. Yeah...I know.... BORING!! But since a few minutes of boredom hurts a lot less than a physical injury, humor me for a few minutes and pretend it's interesting.

  1. Steam Engines get HOT!!. I mean really hot. Getting careless, even with a healthy steam engine, is a great way to learn truth of the previous statements. Steam can cause extremely serious burn injuries and touching hot metal parts can leave a nasty naked burn where your skin used to be.
  2. Always visually inspect your steam engine prior to firing it up. You never know when old age, years of careless handling or lack of proper maintenance may sneak up and attack your little friend. The same little engine that ran perfectly yesterday might not be ready to play today, so give it a good visual inspection  before you even fill the tank with water. Look for cracks, pinholes, loose fittings, unsecured linkages and even cracks in the flywheel. This is also an excellent time to oil the engine..
  3. When filling with water, (Distilled Water Only, Thanks) watch for leaks in the boiler vessel. These indicate that the boiler is unsafe. Firing up a leaking boiler can have several undesirable consequences. Super heated steam expands rapidly and creates pressure in a confined space. Your tiny leak might be blow water level letting the pressure create an aresol can effect which is likely to spray boiling water on any nearby objects. If said object happens to be you.... get the picture?

    If the leak is above water level it might seem rather harmless, but think gain. You've got pressure escaping along a cracked and aging solder joint. Each time the pressure is applied, the crack gets a tiny bit larger. Since you have no idea how many times this process has repeated nor  how long it's been getting  larger, are you really willing to gamble that this is not the day it fails totally?  You can't out run the expanding steam if the boiler ruptures violently.

    An electrically heated steam engine with a water leak is not to be run at all, especially  if the water could come in contact with the heater. Electrocution is no fun and since it generally leaves you with a shorted heater, it's hard on the little engine too.

    Basic Rule #1 ....DO NOT run the engine if there are indications of physical problems or structural failures.
  4. Check the relief valve for proper function as this is most important item between you and the possibility of a rather potentially exciting explosion. A boiler that cannot relieve pressure is a potential hand grenade level event, with the addition of scalding hot steam. Not much fun when violently introduced right where you happen to be sitting or standing. It's true that few small boiler ever explode, melting down being much more common. However, seeing your name and the word "explosion" in the same headline of the local newspaper is not an experience for the faint of heart. 

    Basic Rule #2 ....DO NOT run the engine with a malfunctioning relief valve until the problem is fixed.
  5. Many older toy engines were constructed using lead solder. As they age, the many heatings and coolings they've experienced can take a toll on the solder joints. Many of these old engines have been stored in attics, barns and other hostile environments which may have allowed them to freeze repeatedly, sometimes with water in the system. Others were exposed to acidic water which may have weakened the joints. All of these things may have contributed to cause sometimes serious unseen damage. Always approach an old engine, especially the old European engines with caution if you intend to run them.

    Basic Rule #3 ....Treat every old toy engine as if it is potentially dangerous... much as you would treat any gun as if it is loaded.

All of this is, of course, worst case scenarios presented to get your attention. They are real dangers to those who ignore their potential. That being said...with a healthy dose of common sense, due caution and a healthy amount of respect for the potential dangers, many old engines can be operated without any problems. It's the toy engine you take for granted that will get you hurt.

Experience is the very best teacher in this hobby. After you've run a few engines, no one has to tell you that a toy engine is fragile or that overheating or heating a dry boiler  is a big mistake. This information is all very basic in nature and not intended to cover every possible problem one might encounter. It is presented to give a beginner a fair shot at avoiding completely rookie mistakes.

The final couple of rules are pretty straight forward.

Basic Rule #4 ....When in doubt about the condition of an engine, DO NOT run it. Consult with an experienced steamer and ask him for advice. You'll find several online and most of us...er uh....them are always happy to pontificate on the subject of steam...(grin)
Basic Rule #5 ....If you are not experienced with steam engine repairs, contract the work with someone who is experienced and capable of executing repairs properly. Not a plug for work... just sound advice.


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