Doctor Bob's Radiator
Our family dentist, Doctor Bob, bought a retirement home out on the east end of Long Island a few years back and he’d tell me about it while he had his hands in my mouth. “It’s got steam heat,” he’d say. “I was thinking of you when we bought it.”
“Ath nyth,” I’d answer, through his fingers.
“There’s just one problem, though. The radiator in the living room doesn’t heat well.”
“Ahh uhh,” I responded.
“Any idea what might be wrong with it?”
“Obale a ad aar ent.” I explained.
“Probably a bad air vent, eh? I see,” he said.
“Can I get those at The Home Depot?”
“Abee, abee ot.” I choked.
“I see,” he said.
“Well, do you want to come and visit?”
And since it’s my policy to never say no to Doctor Bob while he has metal instruments in my mouth, I took a nice drive out to the end of Long Island.
Doctor Bob’s house is a just block from the center of this tiny town that Norman Rockwell could have painted. The house has a one-pipe-steam system and an enormous cast-iron radiator in the living room. Doctor Bob was looking at me and I was looking at that huge hunk of iron in total appreciation for the lost art that is steam heating.
“How do you repaint something like this?” he said.
“Do you want to take the old paint off first?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Hire someone to remove it and take it to a sandblaster,” I said.
“When they’re done, have it powder coated. It will be gorgeous.”
“Sounds good,” he said.
“Bring money,” I added.
“Will do,” he said.
“And expect your dental prophylaxis bill to increase significantly in the coming months.”
He looked at the side of the radiator. “I don’t see an air vent,” he said. “That’s what’s confusing me. You said it might be a bad air vent but this radiator isn’t like the others. This one has no vent.”
I looked a little closer and he was right, but that didn’t make sense because you can’t have a one-pipe-steam radiator without an air vent. Well, that’s not exactly true; you can have a one-pipe steam radiator without an air vent. It just won’t work. I looked closer, and then I saw it. It was there under what must have been 20 coats of paint. I could just barely make it out, but it was there for sure. In-Air-Rid. I smiled.
There was a time in heating history when there was this huge company called American Radiator. They built a black skyscraper at 40 West 40th Street in midtown Manhattan (now a landmarked building). The building’s roof is crenulated and painted with gold leaf, made to look like the glowing embers in a coal-fired boiler. It’s lovely. American Radiator made just about everything that had to do with heating, and they published these little red handbooks every year or so, which they called, The Ideal Fitter. I have a stack of them on my office shelf;, the oldest dates back to 1900. These are wonderful books to have because they show so much detail about the products that the American Radiator Company made back then. They describe the purpose and the inner workings of all those oddball gizmos that we find in steam-heated buildings. There are cutaway drawings of the products, and when you know what you’re looking at, well; it just gets easier.
Doctor Bob’s In-Air-Rid air vent didn’t look like an air vent. It looked like a hexed plug, and it screwed into the last section of the radiator, right there at the top. From the outside, you’d never know this thing was an air vent. But look in The Ideal Fitter and you’ll see how this wonderful device worked. All the inner workings of a normal air vent are there, but they’re inside the radiator rather than outside the radiator. Behind the vent’s float there’s a spring-loaded, metal seat that pushes against the upper push nipple between the last- and the next-to-last radiator sections.
In a one-pipe-steam radiator, the steam enters from the bottom and displaces the air by rising above it (steam is lighter than air). The steam heads across the top of the radiator, moving through all the push nipple ports until it reaches the last section. If the air vent is at the high point of the radiator it will shut before most of the air has had a chance to escape from the radiator. That can lead to uneven heating, and it’s the reason why the Dead Men installed their one-pipe radiator vents about halfway down those last radiator sections.
American Radiator got around this by fitting the In-Air-Rid with that spring-loaded seat. By sealing that internal opening, the seat forces the steam to work its way down that penultimate radiator section into the bottom of the last section. From there, it rises to the vent and all the air leaves the radiator. It is ingenious in its simplicity.
“Got a paperclip?” I asked. Doctor Bob looked around and found one.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Watch this,” I said, and then I straightened the paperclip and poked the thin wire directly at the dot on the letter “i” in the word “Air” in In-Air-Rid. The paperclip went right through the paint and into the radiator. “That’s the vent hole,” I said as we listened to the air escaping. “Beware of painters.”
“Amazing!” Doctor Bob said. “All you did was poke.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it’s not the poking; it’s knowing where to poke that matters.”
Dentists understand that.
Want to read more? Check out Dan Holohan's Greening Steam: How to Bring 19th-Century Heating Systems into the 21st Century (and save lots of green!).