District Steam

In this episode, Dan Holohan time travels back to 1905 when Washington, D. C. was pondering the promise of a soon-to-be-installed district heating system.


Episode Transcript

Some years ago, I was visiting Washington D. C. with my family. We stayed right near the Smithsonian Institute and spent our days walking through museums, breathing in history, and having a fine time. The sight of the homeless people sleeping in the streets moved me, as it always does, and I took special notice of the poor souls who guarded their places over the steam that escapes from so many grates in the sidewalks. D. C. has one of those old district steam systems. Most folks don’t give it much thought, but you know me. I just had to learn more about how it all began.

I found what I was looking for in one of my old Domestic Engineering magazines. This one is from April 8, 1905. Ever see any of those old trade magazines? They’re gorgeous. They have these old ads with pen-and-ink drawings of long-forgotten products, and they’re filled with promises of comfort and ease. I love the polite way they went about selling their goods back then. The future looked so bright in 1905 America. So much invention was going on!

In the middle of the magazine, I came across an article titled, “See Economy in Central Station Heating of Capitol Buildings.” The words of the Dead Man who wrote that story brought me back to our family trip. The steam I saw then had been leaking from those pipes for nearly a century. Here was an article that spoke of the promise of that soon-to-be-installed district heating system. The Dead Man wrote it during a time of great energy consciousness. There was waste in government, silly waste, but the engineers had a plan to make things right.

I want to share that article with you. Let’s take a walk back to 1905.

“Extravagant waste of coal and unnecessarily large labor cost in the operation of the power and heating plants of the buildings in the Executive group at Washington are pointed out in the report of the engineers who have recently completed an investigation of those plants under the direction of Professor Woodbridge, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The large building west of the White House, occupied as the headquarters for the State, War and Navy Departments, consumes 6,000 tons of anthracite coal a year. Twelve of the twenty-four boilers are used for power and lighting; their exhaust steam goes to the sewer. The boilers are somewhat scattered and the efficiency of maintaining them is thereby reduced. The Treasury, on the other side, is so crowded for room that it has to buy part of its electricity for lighting and power. The new Post Office building burns soft coal, under twelve boilers, and by means of automatic stokers, has very little trouble with smoke. The piping is not capable of sustaining high pressure and the engines are non-condensing. The exhaust steam here is used for heating in winter. The nine buildings of the Executive group now contain 77 boilers, which burn from 20,000 to 30,000 tons of coal a year. The new buildings for the District of Columbia, the National Museum and the new Agricultural Department headquarters, will bring the total boiler up to eighty-five, and the number of employees in connection with the twelve scattered plants up to nearly 200. The space which these occupy in the various buildings is an important factor.

“By combining the buildings of this group into one system for heating, power and lighting services, ten boilers located in one room could perform the work. These could consume low-priced steam-producing coal without the nuisance of smoke. The use of economizers and superheaters, more applicable to large and steadily running plants than to the scattered ones now in operation, would add to the savings. The use of exhaust steam nearly two-thirds of the year for heating purposes would be a great economy, especially when it is recalled that some buildings have an excess of this, because of their large power operations, which could make up the deficiency elsewhere. The storage battery would serve to equalize the work of the boilers and engines, to remove the chief occasion for smoke, and also reduce the night work of the plant. The electrical light and power now purchased for a considerable group of buildings could be produced at this central station. Much of the heat, and dust, and gas, which attend steam production in scattered places would be avoided.

“The engineers note that the fuels having the largest thermal value are those richest in hydrocarbons, and these are, for the most part, of such volatile quality that their burning under hand-firing, and without effective smoke-preventing meaning, is commonly objectionable. Smoke may be prevented, however, those engineers say, ‘with certainty and consistency,’ by suitable methods of feeding and burning. The low cost of bituminous coal, by comparison with the anthracite, justifies the expense of providing proper appliances for accomplishing this purpose. It is estimated that bituminous coal could do the work in this group of buildings, which the anthracite now performs, for $30,000 a year less.

“Heat may be conveyed from the central station to the buildings of this group either as steam or as water. Low-pressure, live steam for the transmission of heat is not economical because of the larger cost of piping material, of trenches and of insulation. High-pressure steam is superior because of the lower first cost of the pipe, but steam, however carried, cannot utilize the exhaust from engines in a distributing system of the large proportions and distances of that under consideration. Accordingly, hot water, which may be driven through the pipes by centrifugal pumps at a negligible cost, seems best suited, and that is recommended in this report. Several of the important buildings are already equipped with hot water piping, which would invite the extension of this system.”

They went with steam, of course. It was cheaper. I can imagine the debates that must have taken place before they made that decision. The thought that Central-D.C. might have had a district hot water system in 1905 makes me swoon. In the days before primary/secondary pumping, how large do you suppose those centrifugal pumps would have been?

Time-traveling through this business is always a hoot, isn’t it? Imagine 200 people shoveling 30,000 tons of coal into 85 boilers right there on the Washington D. C. Mall. Dead Men tax dollars at work.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I hope you enjoyed that tale. And if you did, please share it. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. Thanks so much for taking the time to be with me. I love telling you stories. See you next time. Thanks.

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