Old Buildings, New Steam

Published: November 24, 2016 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: History Lesson, Darn-Good Stories, Troubled Heating Systems


The call came in on a day when a merciless wind whipped out of the Northwest, as it so often does during a New York City winter. The call was about a building with no heat.

Since the steam heating system in the old, but newly renovated, apartment building was under warranty, the folks at New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development passed the call on to the installing contractor, and he, being a reputable businessman, immediately dispatched a serviceman to get the burner started.

There was a problem, though. When the serviceman got to the basement and looked at the boiler, he noticed right away that the burner was missing.

Now, even the best serviceman in New York can’t fix what’s not there, so this presented a genuine challenge to the guy. He was standing there, scratching his head and wondering what to do next, when a young man arrived at the boiler room door with the perfect solution. This young man expressed his sympathy for the serviceman’s dilemma, and then he explained that his brother sold burners that were absolutely guaranteed to fit that very boiler, and that he, the young man, could get one for the serviceman for just 50 bucks. And he could do it right now. No waiting.

Well, this being New York City and all, it seemed like a pretty good deal to the serviceman. He called his boss and got authorization for the (cash only) purchase. The young man then went away for a few minutes and returned with a little red wagon in which sat a rather large burner. And as promised, it fit perfectly. How about that!

You can’t make this stuff up.

New York City owns a lot of buildings. It picked them up one at a time. Most of these buildings came to the City by way of landlords who decided to stop paying their taxes. The City calls this “in rem housing.” In rem is a Latin legal term, meaning “against a thing” – the “thing” being you if you don’t pay your taxes. Ya snooze, ya lose, pal.

Back in the Eighties, many of the in rem houses were visible from New York’s major highways, and this was doing nothing for tourism, so the folks in charge came up with an idea. They decorated the blown-out windows of these tenements with hand-painted sheets of plywood. Each window had a festively colored set of curtains and a flowerpot or two. Brilliant. It was like putting shiny pennies on the eyes of a corpse.

By 1984, the homeless situation was getting desperate. A group of City agency people began looking at both the homeless and the in rem housing situation as one problem. They reasoned that they might be able to fix the abandoned buildings and create housing for the homeless, and this just might solve both problems.

They began with a patch-it-and-get-out pilot program. Their plan was to do as much as possible for as little expense as possible. Unfortunately, most of the buildings had deteriorated to a point where there weren’t enough places to stick the patches. Before long, the agency people realized that it was actually cheaper to gut those old tenement buildings and begin anew from the shells. Most of the people on government assistance were women with small children. The City had been housing these people in single-room-occupancy hotels at a cost of about $34,000 per family, per year. The cost of renovating one of the abandoned apartments was about $65,000. Gut-rehabilitation of these buildings made sense since the payback period was less than two years. Which was why the City was moving in that direction, but it was happening slowly.

Then, an important court decision came down. It ruled that a single-room occupancy hotel was no place to raise children, and this pretty much made the decision for the City officials. Women and children were being tossed out of the single-room occupancy hotels with nowhere to go except into the in rem tenements, and that’s when everything started to move fast.

There were hundreds of these buildings, and most were five or six stories tall. They all went under reconstruction at the same time and the heating system that the City chose to use (and these were brand-new heating systems) was one-pipe steam.


Don’t be; it made sense. First, steam once heated these tenement buildings. The City figured that if it worked once, it should work again. Second, when the heat goes off (in other words, the next time the burner goes for a ride in a little red wagon) the pipes won’t freeze because, in a steam system, most of the pipes hold no water – just air and steam.

Next, if a pipe breaks in a steam system, there’s very little damage. Not so with a hot water system where you can have quite a flood.

Another good point: Steam systems are pretty easy to design and to balance (if you know what you’re doing).

And steam systems are rugged. They can take a beating and run for years. That’s why there are still so many of them left in America. And the parts of the system that the tenants would have access to would be difficult to damage.

Steam heating also presents no static-pressure problems. This is a concern in high-rise construction that uses hot water heat. The higher you stack water, the more pressure you get down there at the bottom floors. That often calls for special (and more costly) equipment. There are no static pressure problems with steam. Another plus!

But the most important reason that they chose to go with steam heat (and you can’t make this stuff up) is that, with steam, there’s nothing worth stealing from the job site. This is not true with hot water heat. Hot water systems have copper pipes and copper fittings and copper radiators and brass valves and these metals make scrap dealers drool.

Steam pipes, on the other hand, are made of steel, and the heating units in the apartments are also made of steel, and steel is not worth toting out of the building. The scrap dealer would just laugh at you. Make sense? It did to them! At the time, the City’s Project Development Coordinator said, “A contractor can look at a truckload of copper tubing and see a truckload of copper tubing, but to a drug addict, that truck looks like a jewelry store.” He went on to speak from personal experience about this. “When we tried a hot water heating system in one of these buildings,” he told me, “the only way we could keep the copper in the building beyond the first day was to paint it black as soon as it arrived on the job site. Once it was black, the locals thought it was steel and left it alone. If it looked like copper, it didn’t make it through the night.”

Unique New York.

So to the folks in charge of this massive rebuilding project, one-pipe steam looked like a mighty tasty solution. First, it’s a simple system. Second, it’s not worth ripping-off. Third, if someone should cut a pipe once the system is up and running, there won’t be a flood. Instead, that person will get burned. Which is exactly what that person deserves. So there.

The problem they faced, however, was that most of the City engineers had no idea how to design a one-pipe steam heating system. No one had done this for at least 40 years, and none of the current engineers had been around back then.

So they hired me.

Now I’m not an engineer, and I’ve never worked in the trade, but I had this wonderful collection of antique engineering books, and I had a lot of hours of poking around old buildings with a lot of old-timers, and I do know how to explain this stuff in plain English. I guess the City figured I’d do in a pinch.

So we all got together for a few days and I spoke to them of all the things that I’m telling you, but on a deeper level because they were actually going to design these steam heating systems. They had to know about how to properly size the pipes, and how much to pitch them so that the steam and the water got out of each other’s way. They needed to know about system balance and air venting and how to get the condensate back to the boiler once the steam reached the radiators. They had to be able to work with the existing geometry of the buildings, and they had to know what to do if things didn’t go according to the textbook. They also needed to know where the limits were, and to not push those limits. And most important, they needed to overcome that nagging feeling that there’s something mystical about steam heat, and that you can’t possibly understand it unless you’re 90 years old.

And some time went by after our classes, and then they issued the plans and specifications to the bidding contractors, and they gave those folks a lot of latitude on the pipe sizing, knowing that the contractors would have to deal with the real-world conditions of the existing buildings. If a pipe couldn’t go where the plan said it should go, the contractor would have to re-route it and that often called for a change in pipe size. So the contractors had plenty of leeway with these buildings and that worked out to be a good thing. They had the freedom to change things. The bottom line was that they had to deliver turnkey systems that didn’t bang or spit water from the air vents. That was the thing. No banging. No spitting. Imagine that with steam.

And when the jobs were done I went to see them and I tell you they were things of beauty. The steam moved though the basement pipes faster than I could run. It shot up the risers and into the apartments quicker than I could gambol up the stairs. It was that fast. And there was no noise.

And I learned that this is the way steam is supposed to be.

This story is an excerpt from We Got Steam Heat! by Dan Holohan.