When the driver shuts off the steam to the cylinders of a steam locomotive while it is in motion, the moving pistons could create a partial vacuum in the cylinders. This would give rise to two problems. Firstly, the pumping action would absorb energy and prevent the engine from coasting freely. Secondly, when the exhaust valve opened, soot and cinders from the smokebox could be sucked down the exhaust pipe and into the valve chest or cylinder, causing damage. (The exhaust is open to the smokebox because in normal running the exhaust steam is sent through the blastpipe to draw the fire and eject the combustion products from the chimney.) These problems are avoided by using snifting valves to allow air to be drawn into the cylinder. On railways which did not use snifting valves, drivers were instructed to keep the regulator slightly open when coasting to avoid the creation of a vacuum.
If a superheater is fitted, one or two snifting valves may be mounted on the "wet" side of the superheater header. This causes air to be drawn through the superheater and heated so that it keeps the cylinders warm. Different railways had different ideas about the merits of drawing air through the superheater elements when coasting.
The probable explanation for this diversity is that snifting valves were useful as long as steam temperatures were relatively low. As locomotive development proceeded, larger superheaters were fitted and steam temperatures increased. When the locomotive was coasting, the air passing from the superheater to the cylinders became so hot that it oxidised the cylinder oil and interfered with lubrication. At this point, most railways decided to abandon snifting valves.