Oil Burning Steamer Starting Question...

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Sean R Das

Recently I have been adept at correcting people who assume all steam locomotives burn coal by explaining how an oil-fired locomotive works. But to make my knowledge complete, I want to check my facts, specifically regarding starting up a dead engine for the first time:

"...In normal operation all of the appliances related to the fuel system (fuel pump/injector, atomizer, etc) are all steam-operated. However, during a "cold start" no steam at all would be available to operate the fuel appliances until the fire had been burning long enough to allow the boiler to generate some. To overcome this, oil-fired steamers were provided with fittings and valves that allowed air from a stationary trackside compressor to be piped into the steam supply line to allow the fuel system to operate before the locomotive had a chance to get under steam. Once the locomotive was under steam, the steam valve on the turret was opened, the air valve closed, and the compressor detached and shut off..."

I always thought this is how oil-fired steamers were started. Can someone verify this?


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That is one common method. Should you have a steam supply available, either from another hot engine or a portable boiler, that can be also used. That method would have been typical at roundhouses and other areas with a source of steam "back in the day".

Should you have no steam or air, you can start them on wood, if you have a good supply of wood and some patience. The other methods are preferable.


The auxiliary compressed air method is very common in my 40 years of working around boilers, stationary and locomotive. Tom


Another method of "cold starting" uses a propane burner placed in the firebox until the boiler can generate enough steam pressure to run the fuel system appliances (and the injector(s) if needed, which shouldn't be the case at this point, though); like using wood, it takes a while but it gets the job done. The method used for starting can vary depending on the railroad and the facilities available at the enginehouse/roundhouse in question.

Keep in mind that bunker C fuel oil (which was the standard type of oil fuel used in most steam locomotives and steamships) has to be preheated before it will flow and atomize properly (bunker C is basically the stuff left over after you've refined everything else out of crude oil; its consistency has been described as being like molasses or jello - or both - and it flows like it at room temperature, and you do not want to have to clean it up after the remaining volatiles have long since evaporated like we had to with 2926's fuel bunker). That requires having steam, either from an external source or from the locomotive boiler itself. If you're using a lighter fuel (like diesel or a diesel/recycled motor oil mix, for example), then compressed air is all you should need to run the fuel pump/injector and atomizer until the boiler's producing enough steam. Again, it depends on the situation.

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