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Old Buildings, New Steam

In the 1980s, New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development renovated hundreds of old buildings and installed brand new one-pipe steam systems. In this episode, Dan Holohan shares why steam was the solution and how he taught their contractors to install steam systems from scratch.


Episode Transcript

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 City 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 oil 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 required.

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 oil burner. And as promised, it fit perfectly on that new boiler. 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.

Back in the Eighties, many of the in rem houses were visible from New York City’s major highways, and this was doing nothing for tourism. So the folks in charge came up with an idea. They covered the blown-out windows of these tenements along major roads such as the Cross Bronx Expressway with hand-painted sheets of plywood. Each had a festively colored set of curtains and a flowerpot or two. It was like putting shiny pennies on the eyes of a corpse, but it was the best they could do. Or so they said.

By 1984, the homeless situation was getting very out of hand. A group of City agency people began looking at both the homeless people 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 pilot program that tried to just patch things. Their plan was to do as much as they could with as little money 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 bare walls, floors and ceilings. 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-rehab 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 SRO hotels with nowhere to go except into the in rem tenements, and that’s when everything started to move quickly.

There were hundreds of these buildings, and most were five or six stories tall, many of them nearly 100 years old. 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 had been in all of 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. 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 as I said, 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 those metals make scrap collectors 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 said, “the only way we could keep the copper in the building beyond the first day was to paint it black before it arrived on the job site. Once it was black, the locals thought it was steel and they 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. It’s a simple system. It’s not worth ripping-off. And best of all, 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 that for at least 40 years, and the people who used to do it were mostly dead nowadays.

So they hired me to teach them how.

Now I’m not an engineer, but I had this wonderful collection of antique engineering books, and I had spent a lot of time poking around old buildings with a lot of old-timers. I also had the advantage of being alive. And knew how to explain all that stuff in plain English. So New York City figured I’d do in a pinch.

We all got together for a few days in a classroom and I talked steam with them on a designer’s level. They had to know about how to properly size the boilers and 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 quickly. 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 plan. They also needed to learn where the limits were, and to not push those limits. And most important, they needed to overcome that nagging feeling that there is something mystical about steam heat. There isn’t. It operates on simple principles. High pressure goes to low pressure. Always. Water flows downhill. Always. Steam is a gas and it’s always looking for a way out. Always. Steam and air will never mix. Never. There’s nothing mystical about any of it. Most of it you already know. You just may not know that you know it. That was my job. To make them understand that it’s just a beautiful mix of simple physics and common sense.

Some time passed after our classes, and then the plans and specs arrived, and all at the same time. They gave the bidding contractors some latitude, 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, or pitch, or angle. So the contractors had plenty of leeway with these buildings and they all loved that. They had the freedom to change things as necessary without prior approval from the City. The bottom line was that they had to deliver turnkey systems that didn’t bang or spit water from the air vents. That was what mattered most: No banging. And no spitting. Imagine doing that with steam. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

And when the jobs were done I went to visit many of them and they were things of beauty. The steam moved through the basement mains faster than I could run. It shot up the risers and into the radiators on all the floors quicker than I could gallop up the stairs. It was that fast. And there was no noise. And it was balanced. And that’s the way steam is supposed to work. It’s only years of neglect that makes it noisy and unbalanced. That’s the truth. By teaching those engineers how to properly design, and by watching those contractors do what they do best, I got to spend some time in the 1920s. I got to see new steam heat at its best. And it was beautiful.

Well I hope you liked this tale. And if you do, please subscribe to our podcast, and join us again next week. I have much many more Dead Men’s Tales to share with you. Thanks for being here. It means the world to me. Thanks.

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