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The $37 Million Steam Trap


Ignoring preventative maintenance can have disastrous consequences. Take this story, for instance. 


Episode Transcript

Here’s to preventative maintenance, a practice that’s often overlooked. When the laws of physics and the laws of economics collide, the laws of economics nearly always win in the short run. The laws of physics, however, don’t care about anyone’s budget, or anyone’s ignorance. The laws of physics just win in the end. Always.

So even if people are putting off preventative maintenance today to save a buck, they’ll pay tomorrow, and through the nose because there’s no escaping Mother Nature. She can be vicious and she’s forever relentless. And when things go wrong, we blame her instead of ourselves. But I think we’re to blame because we’re dopey enough to pretend that Mother Nature isn’t there. Here’s a higher-education example of just that:

Dartmouth College gets about $60,000 per undergraduate for yearly tuition. It's not the most expensive school around, but still dear enough to get your attention.

James Wright, who was once the President of Dartmouth, lived in an old house that had also been home to the previous six Dartmouth presidents. It’s one of the nice things about being the boss. The place got a long-overdue renovation a few years back, and all to make it ready for the next president and his family. They knocked down most of the walls and spent six months and $2.8 million to fix up the place.

Let that number sink in for a moment.

I read an interview where President Wright explained that when he and his wife, Susan, first moved into the house in 1998, he chose to delay renovations to the heating, water and plumbing systems because of its “invasiveness.” I can understand that, but here we are all these years later and you can imagine what’s gone on in that old house since the Wrights moved in. You don’t know “invasiveness” until you’ve ignored and upset Mother Nature. She never sleeps.

"We live in a wonderful, historic house,” says President Wright. “But it’s an embarrassment for an institution like Dartmouth to have a house in this condition. So I am pleased that the Board is more than willing to go ahead with some of these renovations."

And the parents grabbed their wallets.

The house was still using its original heating and plumbing systems, but they replaced all of that. They switched from steam to hot water because (are you ready? This is a quote.) “The steam system has resulted in significant heat loss, leaks and damage.”

Okay, I’ll go for the leaks and damage. Steam systems will do that if you ignore them for nearly a century, but I think the heat loss has more to do with the building envelope than it has to do with the system itself. But, hey, I’m no Ivy Leaguer.

“The current system is not only uncomfortable, it's wasteful," President Wright said. "It's not efficient, and Dartmouth should do better. We're going to miss living in the house immensely, but we certainly won't miss the heating system in the house, and we won't miss the other problems.

“There is water in the basement oftentimes. There are issues of mold down there, which really can be a health issue, and there is seepage coming in from the foundation."

And he was living with this for years. Go figure.

Dartmouth offers degrees in engineering, up to the Ph.D. level. Wouldn’t you think that, over all these years, at least one of those students would have checked out the heating system in the president’s house? Or perhaps done a bit of preventative maintenance. Reached out and touched the real stuff. Or is it just me?

And that brings me to the $37 million steam trap.

On July 18, 2007, it rained here on the Isle of Long and in New York City. Now this wasn't normal summer rain. This rain would have gotten Noah’s attention. I stood at my backdoor and watched the water creep up our concrete patio and nearly enter the house without knocking, and that had never happened in the 30 years Marianne and I have lived here. It was impressive.

Later that day, after the rain had stopped, the corner of Lexington Avenue and 41st in Manhattan exploded in a plume of steam that rose higher than the 1,047-foot Chrysler Building. This happened when a 24-inch, high-pressure steam main, installed in 1924 (about the same time as the Dartmouth President’s house came to be), let loose. It left a crater 15-feet deep and 35-feet wide. Asbestos coated everything. A 51-year-old New Jersey woman, who worked a block away, ran from it, had a heart attack and died. A 22-year-old, tow-truck driver was in the middle of the intersection when the ground exploded. It lifted his truck 12 feet in the air and dropped it back down onto the 400-degree steam. He lived, but spent months afterward in a medically induced coma because of his burns. It was horrible.

“The rain started that,” I said to Marianne when I saw it on the news that evening.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The rain cooled the steam main and the steam inside the main condensed. When you suddenly have that much water moving at that speed, you’re going to get water hammer, and this is what water hammer can do.”

We watched the news together. I mumbled more about the power of steam, and about Mother Nature. Marianne puts up with me when I get like that. She’s good that way.

The steam mains under New York City streets share the space with a lot of other stuff. There are sewers, electrical cables, phone lines, water mains, subways, and more. I can’t walk by any New York City excavation site without stopping to stare into the hole for a good long while. It looks like a bowl of linguine down there. You have to see it to believe it.

There are manhole covers on just about every corner, and this is where you’ll find the steam traps. There’s often steam spewing from those manhole covers and we New Yorkers see this as perfectly normal. ConEd, the district steam company, used to have an advertising slogan: Dig We Must.

And they sure do.

The official report came out on December 27, 2007. A contractor had used sealant to repair a leak in a joint, and the excess sealant had gotten into two nearby steam traps and clogged them. No one noticed this. When the rain arrived and cooled the steam pipes, it created a lot of condensate, which the traps couldn’t drain because they were clogged with sealant. The water gathered and launched itself at Lexington and 41st. It hit with an unbelievable amount of pressure, and that was that.

This is from a November 12, 2008, ConEd press release:

“The New York State Public Service Commission today approved a $37 million settlement with Con Edison to resolve the Commission's prudence investigation evaluating the company's actions and practices relating to the Lexington Avenue - East 41st Street steam event. Under the settlement, Con Edison will not seek to recover from customers some $37 million in costs related to the incident.

“The July 18, 2007 steam incident in midtown Manhattan was a difficult time for many of our customers. Con Edison sincerely regrets the incident and the substantial and profound impacts the incident had on our customers and the public. The company is committed to learning from this experience in order to strengthen the safety and reliability of the steam system and has implemented measures to enhance its system.

“Con Edison has implemented an action plan in conjunction with experts' findings that includes replacement of all 1,654 steam traps on the system with an improved design; enhanced rain response procedures to include physical inspection of manholes in flood or vapor-prone areas; new repair oversight protocols; remote monitoring; research and development on steam trap design, as well as new steam trap inspection and testing procedures.

“The environmentally friendly steam system serves major institutions in Manhattan below 96th Street, including museums, hospitals, government and commercial buildings, skyscrapers, as well as apartments and private residences. It supplies heat, air conditioning, humidification, and sterilization services. Con Edison's steam system is the largest in the United States, larger than the next nine steam systems combined.”

A steam incident. I like that.

And okay, there were two traps, so the actual cost per trap was only $18.5 million, not $37 million. A bargain!

I hope that tale was good food for thought. And if it was, please share it with others. We can never be too careful out there in the world. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I appreciate your taking the time to listen. Thanks.

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