How To Run Big Steam-Heating Systems Without Steam Traps

Published: June 15, 2011 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating, Darn-Good Stories, Troubled Heating Systems

gunther building lofts

Paul and Joe

Paul Shay and I were in the basement of this 100-year-old loft building in lower Manhattan with Larry, who speaks for the rest of the members of the co-op. Joe was sitting in the car in a no-parking zone. New York’s like that; you either send two guys to a job or you get lots of tickets. Joe is Paul’s 42-year-old nephew, and Paul owns A Real Good Plumber, Inc.

And isn’t that a real good name?

Larry was telling me about the dozen or so contractors who had worked on the building’s steam-heating system during the past 27 years. None had been able to get rid of the banging in the pipes that was driving everyone nuts, but all those contractors had charged a lot to try. Some people think it’s okay to get paid for things they can’t do.

Larry was talking to a guy in a neighboring building and that guy told him about Paul. Being able to do things others can’t do gets you that. People talk about you.

“It was real bad when I first got here,” Paul said. “No one in the building needed an alarm clock. The pipes were banging that much. But that was before the building and I were getting along.”

We wandered through the cluttered basement and squeezed by stuff the tenants stored down there. None of the pipes were banging. I said something about it being a tough place to work and Paul just laughed.

Paul and Joe had picked me up at Penn Station and while we were driving downtown we talked about steam heating and steam traps. I’ve been talking about steam traps for a good long time and how dealing with them in a city such as New York is like painting a bridge. As soon as you’re done, it’s time to start over again. Steam traps trap steam, and when they wear out they usually don’t trap steam. The steam gets into the return pipes that bring the condensate back to the boiler. When steam and condensate meet in horizontal pipes, it’s Showtime. It you’ve never had the experience; just know that water hammer sounds like a migraine headache feels.

Oh, and the two sources of steam in the supply and return lines will trap air in between. Where there is air, steam will not go, so a lot of folks wind up with cold radiators, along with high fuel bills. Having steam traps is like raising teenagers who never grow up. It’s a big job.

Some years ago, Paul decided that he had had it with steam traps, so he did an old-school thing and starting using orifices plates in the radiator supply valves instead of traps in the returns. He bought blank orifice plates and drilled a 1/8th-inch hole into each one. That tiny hole lets in only as much steam as most radiators can condense. Keep the steam pressure low and you’re all set. If a tenant complains about not having enough heat, go back and drill a slightly larger hole in their radiator’s orifice plate. That’s what Paul does. “They rarely complain,” Paul said, “but if they do, the bigger hole solves it every time.”

To get a steam system to operate at a pressure low enough to make orifices possible you have to vent the dry-return lines like crazy. This means you have to roam the building as a world-class nosy person, and get to know the pipes. You have to figure out what goes where in that steel bowl of spaghetti, and all the while, you have to watch out for the tons of stored junk the tenants have accumulated and jammed into every hidey-hole.

Paul built these venting manifolds that look like heating menorahs. They’re all over the place and they vent the air quickly at low pressure. That’s what it takes.

And at the ends of their mains, where a modern fitter would use float-and-thermostatic traps, the Dead Men once installed u-tubes of pipe. The steam main would end, and the pipe would drop nearly to the floor. From there, it would rise again to connect to the dry return. That u-tube would fill with condensate, and as long as the system pressure was low, the steam couldn’t blow the water seal. It worked then, and physics hasn’t changed a bit during the past 100 years, so it still works.

“Now and then, someone might crank up the pressure, even though the building needs less than 1-psi steam pressure to work, and then we’ll have a problem,” Paul said. “But I’ll just crank it down again and it’s fine.”

What’s nice about orifices and u-tubes is that they’re not mechanical. They just sit there and work. There’s nothing to break and nothing to maintain.

Paul also uses a Dead Men trick called a false water line. This is an upside-down u-tube that convinces the system piping that the boiler’s waterline is higher than it actually is. The Dead Men used this trick to cover the return pipes that dipped under the doors of apartments on the first floors of those old buildings. If you keep those pipes below the water they won’t bang. Paul puts things back to the way they once were, and it works.

We walked around the basement and I commented on the radiators that the Dead Men had mounted on the walls, up near the ceilings. “They did that so they would be above the boiler’s waterline,” I said. “That tells you that this was a gravity-return system.”

Paul nodded. “I get rid of as many condensate pumps as I can,” he said. “Most of them never belonged in the building in the first place, and the less mechanical equipment there is, the better things are.”

The building came around to Paul’s way of thinking and they get along just fine now. He talks to it, and it whispers to the tenants. No more banging.

We looked at two other buildings that day and I talked to the tenants. They treated Paul like he was a member of the family. They tell their friends about him.

Seth Godin is a marketing guru who talks about permission marketing. This is where you do right by your customers and get their permission to keep the conversation going. They agree, and you sell more to them because they trust you and believe in you. They also tell their friends about you. I mentioned this to Paul. He hadn’t heard of permission marketing, but he was doing it anyway.

We took a break for lunch at an Irish bar. Joe found a legal parking spot and joined us. None of us had ever been in this joint. It was raining hard after a snow and the city was soupy with slush. There were a couple steps down into the bar and the drain on the lower step wasn’t doing its job. Water was sloshing into the place.

I hit the bathroom and when I came out, only Paul was at the table. “Where’s Joe?” I asked. “Talking to the owner,” he said.

Now, Joe’s a big man and I knew he was hungry, but when his boots hit that standing water he decided to talk to the owner, an equally large Irishman with a potato for a face. Next thing I know, Joe’s back with us and telling about what’s going on down in the basement. The drain is clogged; the sump pump’s broken, and water’s flowing everywhere. The owner comes over and tells Joe and Paul that he has to talk to the landlord about all of this. Joe mentions the possibility of someone getting hurt in that standing water or slipping on the floor by the bar. He also mentions how wrong things would go if the Board of Health showed up today. Then he takes a bite of his bacon cheeseburger and goes quiet.

The owner walks away and comes back. He’s dropping the F-bomb and telling about the useless landlord. Then he asks Joe how soon he can get a crew in there.

I sat there just appreciating all of it. It was one of those days when buildings get along with a very smart man who knows how to talk to them. And it was one of those days when a big man who had been sitting in a cramped car for hours saw a business opportunity on a sloppy set of stairs and jumped on it.

It was a good, New York City day, and it made me realize, once again, that the other guy’s problems will always be your opportunities.