Steam Powering Industry across America and Beyond

Johnston Boiler Company

Since its founding in 1864 in Ferrysburg, Michigan, Johnston Boiler Company, a pioneer of the Scotch Marine boiler system has been the unsung hero of the industry, providing steam power to such diverse industries as Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, food processing plants, utilities and distilleries. Customers looking for reliability, efficiency, longevity, and low emissions, along with a customized approach, can find all this and more at Johnston.
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Thom Parker, National Sales Director at Johnston Boiler Company, says that while steam is the backbone of industry, he’s happy with the company’s ‘unsung hero’ status. Johnston has built its reputation on dependable operation of its equipment over many years of service. “If our equipment is operating well, the customer can concentrate on their process and what they do best. It’s when it’s not operating well that everyone notices the boiler; this is because steam is essential to the customer’s entire process,” he explains.

“It’s amazing how steam impacts everyone’s life. Without steam, all the plastics we use today are not going to happen; without steam, the processed food you consume is not going to happen; without steam, the electricity needed for lighting, heating and air conditioning won’t be there,” he says, citing other industries which rely on steam including automobile manufacturers, manufacturers of microchips, and health care facilities which rely on steam for sterilization. Hospitals, in fact, use steam for multiple purposes, including heating and laundry, so often it finds more than one use in a given facility.

It was, in fact, the development of the modern steam engine in the 1770s by James Watt, a Scottish engineer, that drove the Industrial Revolution forward while revolutionizing transportation, first in Great Britain and soon after in the United States.

And it was entrepreneur John Watt Johnston, a direct descendant of James Watt, who in 1864, just as the American Civil War was ending and Lincoln had been re-elected to his second term, had the brilliant idea of purchasing the defunct Turnbull Boiler Works on the banks of the Grand River in Michigan.

The Scotch Marine boiler system which Johnston pioneered was originally designed for shipboard use, Parker says, with “the keel and the hull of the ships assembled right here in Ferrysburg and our boilers going into the belly of the ship for propulsion and shipboard use, hence the marine terminology. When we didn’t have a road transportation system, the product could still get anywhere it needed to go on the waterways in the 1800s,” he shares.

“So, we built 500 HP boilers and then we went to 750 HP, then 800 HP and we just kept increasing our steam capacity and no one else made anything like it, so we pioneered those larger Scotch Marine style boilers. Today we manufacture a boiler that can produce around 85,000 pounds of steam per hour, which is equivalent to a 2,500 HP boiler.”

Moreover, in some instances – for example, in the manufacture of resins – boilers need to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the time required for shutting down the entire systems and starting everything back up could cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour.

“It’s hard to describe the design of the boiler verbally,” he says. “You almost have to see it to understand the design concept of the product, however we call it a water-backed design. In other words, all the internal components of the vessel are submerged under water and the benefit is that it reduces maintenance over the lifetime of the product (which is often 30 to 40 years). We’ve eliminated a lot of the refractory that’s contained within the boiler and by eliminating refractory you improve the performance of the equipment and you reduce maintenance costs as repairing refractory is a very costly endeavor, so that is a great benefit to the customer.”

The company is so confident of the high standard of its products that it offers a 15-year warranty which covers major pressure vessel components should there be a defect in its manufacture. Johnston also offers a 15-year warranty covering the front and rear flue doors. Both warranties cover parts and labor to perform repairs, which is unusual as most manufacturers will cover only parts.

In addition to manufacturing the Scotch Marine boilers, Johnston also manufactures supporting products including a full line of deaerators, surge tanks, blow down heat recovery systems and auxiliary boilers. Auxiliary boilers are used in power plant applications to maintain system temperatures when the main boiler is offline.

Parker has intimate knowledge of the equipment’s inner workings. He first came to work for the company in 1987 as an engineering student, but when a strike threatened to close the plant, he worked on the shop floor for nine months. When the strike ended, Pat Barker, then sales director, suggested he’d be good at selling boilers and offered to mentor him. Parker agreed to give it a try; he says he fell in love with sales and the rest is history.

In 1991, he moved to another company, Skidmore, which was also involved in the steam industry and worked for them for 21 years, until he received a call from Johnston Boiler Company looking to fill a vacant position within the company. Would Parker like to come “home”? He would and he did, assuming his present position which involves working with manufacturers’ representatives across North, Central and South America as well as Turkey and the Middle East, with a significant percent of the business being international.

Parker says he’s proud to be associated with the long history of the company, which provided boilers for the rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the provision of 60 boilers for building the Panama Canal from 1907-1910. He’s equally proud of the standing of the company today, although he admits, “We’ve been through some difficult times.”

Four generations of the Johnston family maintained some level of ownership until 1974 when it was sold first to a private investor. In 1987 Larry Hines purchased Johnston Boiler Company; and Larry Hines continues to own it to this day. “I remember asking him why he’d bought it since it was in tough shape and he said, ‘I want to preserve Michigan jobs’ and I commend him for that,” Parker says.

Today Johnston Boiler Company is setting the gold standard in boiler manufacturing, by using a customized approach. “We are a job shop; we’re not like a Ford assembly line. Henry Ford’s famous saying was, ‘You can have this car in any color you like as long as it’s black.’ He didn’t allow for any changes; however, we take a different approach we want to make sure we’re designing the product to specifically meet the customer’s needs,” Parker says.

“We had one customer, for example, who was using combustion elements that were very caustic which were eating away at the carbon steel surfaces of the boiler so we used special materials to negate those effects so the longevity of the equipment was improved. We’ll do special things like that, even if we’ve never done it before. We’ll take a look at it and if we’re capable of doing it, we will build it into the product,” he says.

Customization starts with the concept of the boiler room, with the sizing of the equipment to make sure it works in that specific facility, and continues all the way through the lifecycle of the product including maintenance and eventual replacement. All Johnston products are compliant with ASME (American Society of Manufacturing Engineers) codes and we as a company are sensitive to ever-changing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements. Standard Johnston burners can attain less than 30 PPM NOx (parts per million of oxides of nitrogen), but some regions in the U.S. are now requiring much lower emissions. For example, the Central Valley area of California currently requires less than 5 PPM NOx, something Johnston can provide by partnering with other burner manufacturers who have developed technologies to get down below environmental restrictions.

Today the most popular fuel is natural gas. This is because of its abundance, low cost and ability to meet low emissions requirements. Natural gas has become the primary fuel for most applications with backup fuel being No. 2 Oil, giving the customer the chance to switch fuels when necessary. Alternative fuels also include recycled waste fuels, methane, or digester gas.

“We have purposefully focused on things that make our product better. I could go into multiple stories, but the crux is we concentrate on doing things that make our product last longer. Customers look for reliability, efficiency, compliance with ever-changing emissions requirements, and foremost, longevity, so we pay attention to what the customer’s needs are, we give them good quality products and we give them good service.”

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