The Jal Fitting
In this episode, Dan Holohan tells the story of Irwin “Jal” Jalonack and his decision to use hydronic radiant heating in 18,000 Levitt homes in the 1940s and 50s.
Some years ago, I received a letter from Carol Blum, a Long Islander. Her father, Irwin Jalonack (everyone called him “Jal”), was instrumental in the development of radiant heating in America. “Jal” was the guy who made the decision to use hydronic radiant heating in Levittown, America’s first mass-produced, single-family-housing project.
This was in 1946. Levitt was building more than 17,000 homes for returning G.I.s, and he decided to use radiant because it was the cheapest system he could find.
I thought you’d enjoy the story that Carol Blum told me. Here it is:
“My father, Irwin “Jal” Jalonack began his work life as a plumber. He apprenticed to his father in Syracuse, NY during the early 1920s. Later, he became an HVAC engineer and, as William Levitt's Executive Vice President, made the decision to use oil-fired, hot-water radiant systems in the houses of Levittown.
"During the 1930s my father patented something called a “Jal fitting.” I think it had to do with heating pipes. Have you ever heard of it, or seen one? If you have, I would be interested in tracking one down. I realize you tend to look at work that is a bit older, but Levittown is now over 50 years old, so I thought some of its workings may have piqued your interest. By the way, my brother and I also grew up on Long Island - in Old Westbury and Roslyn around the same time you were growing up.”
I wrote back and told her that I had a “Jal” fitting on my desk. It’s nothing more than a ¾” X 1/8” bushing that fit into a tee on the return side of the system. Whatever water could fit through that 1/8” hole would flow from the radiant system into the boiler and be heated to 180 degrees. The rest of the flow would bypass the boiler and join the heated trickle on the supply side to head back out to the floor. It was a marvelously simple way to control temperature, and it was perfect for the times. We live in a house that once had one of her father’s heating systems.
“Both of my parents are now deceased,” Carol continued, “So I can't get the whole story as to why he went with radiant heat. I do know that, at the time, my father was considered one of the experts in this country in the use of radiant heating. However, I do know a little that I can tell you.
“Of course, the idea was to build an inexpensive house that could be run economically. Clearly, building on a slab was the way to go. My father felt that forced air was not good. He also preferred oil to gas. He always said that, were it cheap enough, he would have preferred to use electric heat, however. In fact, he had many discussions with the Long Island Lighting Company about the possibility of electric heat for Levittown. But luckily as it turned out for the Levittown residents, LILCO would not come up with a cheap enough electric rate.
“My father made the decision to go with oil heat and then went looking for an oil-fired boiler that was small enough to fit in the kitchen, next to the other appliances.
“Since Levitt owned many of the houses, and rented them out, my father had to find an oil company that could handle supplying oil heat to the 17,000 new homes. He chose a small two-truck company that he thought would be able to grow and do a good job. You have most likely heard of them. They are Meenan Oil. (Meenan grew huge as a result and is now part of the Petro organization)
“My father said that some of the problems with the leaks in the Levittown radiant systems had to do with the way the workman had installed the copper tubing,” Carol wrote. “If it had too much play in it, it broke faster. His solution (in 1965) to the serious leaks in the copper tubing was to suggest sealing it off and installing baseboard convectors. I suppose that today they use plastic or some similar type of tubing, rather than metal.
“My father was a hands-on kind of guy. Besides being VP, he was in charge of all purchases. Although he had an office at Levitt’s main office in Manhasset, he had another larger one at Levitt’s office in Roslyn. If you know where the railroad trestle crosses the Long Island Expressway between Albertson and Roslyn, just off the north service road, on the West Side of the tracks, there was a building with a railroad siding. In those days, the road dipped as it went under the trestle. And of course, when it rained, the dip in the road always flooded. We all knew it as Lake Levitt. Pop lost one car (either a Nash or a ’48 Hudson) to Lake Levitt.
“From his Roslyn office, he would set out to Levittown and ride around. The workmen never knew where or when he’d show up in his battered black Hudson to check on construction.
“As you probably know, the exact amount of supplies, in exactly the correct sizes, would be dropped in front of each plot for the builders. Pop said that the tradesmen, especially the plumbers, were not used to having things cut to exact lengths for them. If the plumbers took a longer pipe than they needed and cut it, they would later find that they were missing a longer pipe that they needed. They eventually got used to this method of construction, though. In fact, my father said that they would speed up as the day went on. So while they could do one to two houses in a morning, by afternoon they would usually get to three more.
“They all knew him as 'Jal,' and years later, when one of the Meenan men came to our house to fix the burner, he looked at my father, yelled, Jal!, and they had a good time talking about the Levittown days.
“In 1950, we moved from North Park (a small Levitt development off Willis Ave) to a house my father built, located on Potters Lane in East Hills. The house, which was demolished to make way for the Long Island Expressway, was on a slab and had radiant heat in the floors. When he knew that the State was going to take that house, he built another one on Meadowbrook Lane in Old Westbury. It also had radiant heat, except that since it had a basement, the radiant heat was in the ceiling. There was also central air, but for that he had his own AC well and a duct system throughout the house. That house is still standing.
“After he left Levitt, my father built homes himself under the name of Jalco, and then with a partner as Jalfeld. He built in Commack and Deer Park. In those houses, he used oil-fired, hot-water heat with baseboard convectors.
“At some point during the late ‘60s, he also worked with Andrew and Johnnie Levitt when they built under the name of LevittHouse, out in Stony Brook. Andrew and Johnnie were Alfred Levitt's sons. Of course, Alfred was Bill's brother. I remember all of them, including Pop Levitt himself. And did you know that Levitt almost built homes in Israel in 1949? But that's another story, and it probably wouldn't have included much heating.”
All in all, they put up 18,000 homes here on the Isle of Long, and they all had hydronic radiant heating systems. If we ever start a Hydronic Heating Hall of Fame, I’d like to propose “Jal” Jalonack as one of the first inductees.
Imagine, a ¾” X 1/8” bushing as a temperature control. So simple. Jal knew that if he maintained the boiler at 180 degrees (these boilers all had tankless coils for domestic hot water), the supply to the radiant would be 140 degrees, which gave him 50 Btus per square foot. He needed that because people were using thick carpeting in those days. Remember shag rakes?
The fun started when the tankless coils fouled. The oil company offered service contracts, but those contracts didn’t cover the cleaning of a fouled coil. The homeowner had to call someone else to do an acid wash. But the customers didn’t like that, and they threatened to take their oil business to a competitor. The company would then send a service man to crank up the aquastat to overcome the fouling in the coil.
But now, with the boiler maintaining, say, 200 degrees instead of 180, the water flowing out to the radiant floor got a lot hotter. That’s when the asbestos floor tiles turned into hockey pucks. You can’t make this stuff up.
I hope you enjoyed that story. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have lots more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I’m really enjoying our time together. Thanks for being here!