NYC's first (very large) hot-water-heating system?

Published: November 18, 2015 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: History Lesson, Case Study

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My earliest memories are of living on Cherokee Place in Manhattan.

It’s a small street, on the concrete bank of the East River. I was four years old and I remember this so well because John Jay Park is right across the street from the apartment building where we lived.

In that park, one summer day my big brother, Ed, had me stand up in a red wagon, which he then pulled out from under me. I remember the visit to New York Hospital, and I can still see the scar on my noggin when my hair is short enough.

I still love him, though.

I learned much later the significance of this building in which we lived. Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt had this place built as model tenements in 1911. She named it, appropriately, The East River Homes. It was actually four big buildings, all drawing heat and power from one central plant, which was underneath the central courtyard.

The buildings housed 385 families in apartments that had from two to five rooms and a bath. The rent for two rooms and a bath was $3.20 a week. Four rooms and a bath went for $5.30. They get a bit more for those apartments these days.

I remember this place so well because it had windows that went practically from floor to ceiling, and our apartment faced east. I never went to kindergarten but started first grade at five years old, and I can remember my mother getting me dressed in a shirt and tie for my first day at Saint Monica’s on East 80th St. She was so beautiful in that morning light.

And this is how different those times were: John Jay Park, across the street, had rock-hard monkey bars, industrial-grade steel swings on steel chains, tall steel slides that got griddle-hot in the summer and presented road-rash concrete at the bottom to each screaming child. Oh, and finger-munching, tailbone-crunching see-saws, of course.

We were supposed to practice common sense.

All of that was normal in 1954. My brother and I would hurt each other while my mother sat with her lady friends, talking and smoking. She’d often call me over and say, “Run up the corner and get me the Daily News, the Daily Mirror and a pack of Luckies.”

Now, running up the corner involved crossing York Ave., which was thick with city traffic (and keep in mind I was either four or five years old at the time), but the guy in the candy store would give me exactly what I asked for, just like that.

Today, they'd all be in jail.

Let’s get back to 1911. Mrs. Vanderbilt had principally built The East River Homes for families who had a member afflicted with tuberculosis. I’m reading an article about the mechanical system in these buildings. It’s from “The Heating and Ventilating Magazine,” which appeared in 1911. This is the part that really caught my eye:

“Of the two systems of heating (steam and hot water), the central system of forced hot-water circulation offered the following advantages:

(a) Economy of operation, averaging about between 15% and 20% less than a central steam-heating plant. This is largely accountable for by the fact a better control of the heating in the apartments is obtainable to meet the varying temperature conditions, the greatest economy of this type of system being attainable during the milder weather periods when only a slightly modulated heat is necessary. This, of course, became a decidedly important factor when considering the class of tenants occupying these apartments are in poor health and, therefore, the requisite heat to keep the apartments warm at all times is demanded.

(b) Hot water has the decided advantage over steam by permitting better heat control at the individual radiators.

(c) With the overhead system of hot-water heating, no air valves giving off their obnoxious odors, thereby vitiating the air in the rooms, have to be contended with, which air valves in the case of steam heating have to be located in the individual rooms.

(d) With forced hot-water circulation the piping can be materially reduced and run irrespective of grade and level.

(e) No water hammer or air-pocketed radiators have to be contented with.

(f) Absolutely positive circulation by means of circulating pumps.

(g) No excessive back pressure, which represents a considerable amount of power wasted in the average combination power-and-heating plant.

Richard Ruppel, the article’s author, then notes steam had the advantage of being 18% less expensive than hot-water heat to install, but the other advantages won out, especially considering the poor health of many of the tubercular tenants.

The hot-water radiators would have to be larger than the steam radiators, of course, and they would need about 25% more radiation to meet the building’s needs on the coldest days. And had they designed the system without circulating pumps and tried to run the four buildings individually on gravity circulation alone, they would have needed nearly 50% more radiation than they would have used if they had chosen to use direct steam.

And then Mr. Ruppel writes, “It might be interesting to know that, due to the extreme close clearances to which all these rooms had to be designed, in order to meet the tenement-house laws of the city, even the increased space of the radiators was considered important enough at one time almost to give up the idea of hot-water heating if it had not been for the very important factor of sanitation. These figures showed by increasing the radiation by 50% for a given room, the increased radiation space went as high as 34% in some instances per radiator depending on the design and style compared.

“I have purposely gone into detail with regard to the above, in order that it might be shown conclusively at the start why this type of system was adopted in preference to steam heating for the conditions imposed.”

That should give you a sense of how unusual this building was for 1911, a time when most big buildings were getting steam heat.

The buildings drew their heat mainly from the exhaust steam that was coming from the lighting plant. The exhaust steam went into a condenser and transferred its heat through a heat exchanger into the circulating hot water.

They used big horizontal-split-case De Laval circulators, which had turbine drives. These ran off the exhaust steam as well. Those big boys could deliver 1,500 gpm at 80 ft. of head when all the exhaust steam was available.

So my big brother and I were kids in this place for a few years. He was knocking me around and I was just happy to be going to school and living so close to such a dangerous park. We didn’t consider that our apartment was perhaps the first really big hydronic-heating job in New York City and probably the whole country. Kids don’t think of stuff like that.

Mrs. Vanderbilt built it for the poor souls who suffered from tuberculosis. The engineers chose hydronics for sanitary reasons. None of us knew that when we lived there.

I also didn’t know that I would grow and have a long career in the hydronics industry. I didn’t know that I would be father to four strong women and raise them all on stories of this business.

Our youngest, Erin, chose this industry and will be running our business next year. That delights me. And life’s tapestry, being as wondrous as it is, wove Erin’s big sister, Meghan, into the United States Agency for International Development where she travels the world working with foreign governments to battle tuberculosis in their own lands so that it does not get on an airplane and get off in an American city. We’re supposed to be done with that horrible disease here.

Such fascinating threads run through the tapestry of all our lives. If you can find the time, stop for a moment and marvel at them. It’s worth it.