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The Mills System Surprise

In this episode, Dan Holohan faces a startling surprise when troubleshooting a problem involving a Mills steam-heating system and a football-sized air vent. 


Episode Transcript

Tommy is a big guy. I’m a big guy, too, but Tommy looks like the box I came in. He called me one day to ask for help, and he enticed me by telling me that the problem was in a New York City co-op that was filled with famous people. And that we’d be able to wander through their apartments because, after all, we’re the Heating Guys. And The Heating Guys, as you probably know, get to go everywhere.

Well, I couldn’t resist, so I met Tommy on the job and we started in the basement because that’s where the boiler was, and it’s always great to check out the boiler first because, well, boilers are beautiful. Some of these New York boilers belong in museums. They’re old and graceful, and they have many stories to tell, most of which are in the piping around them. This one didn’t disappoint. It had a 12-inch pipe coming out of its head, and that pipe shot straight up and through the basement ceiling.

“This is a Mills system, Tommy,” I said.

“Who’s that?” Tommy said.

“John Mills. He was a writer and an inventor way back in the day. He invented the Mills boiler, which H. B. Smith made for many years. And he wrote some mighty fine books about heating. He also came up with the idea of sending a big pipe up to the top of the building and then down-feeding all the radiators.”

“Why’s that?” Tommy asked.

“So that the steam and condensate could get out of each other’s way,” I said. “This place has one-pipe steam, right?” Tommy nodded. “And it’s a pretty tall building, isn’t it?”

“Fifteen stories,” Tommy said.

“Well, imagine steam trying to make its way up a riser that’s fifteen stories high as condensate from all the radiators on that riser tries to work its way back down to the boiler. It would be like trying to climb a hot waterfall.”

“There’d be some traffic jams in that pipe,” Tommy said.

“Exactly. So John Mills came up with the idea of sending the steam up to the top through its own big pipe, and then allowing the steam to travel downward toward the radiators, in the same direction that the condensate was going.”

“Steam goes down?” Tommy said.

“Up, down, sideways. Steam’s a gas. It’s just looking for a way out. It’s looking for an air vent. And that’s what we need to look for. Somewhere up there is an air vent that’s not doing its job. We’ll find it.”

So we set out to wander. We knocked on doors and met celebrities and movie stars and we wandered around their apartments, looking at radiators (and everything else) because we’re the Heating Guys, and Heating Guys get to go everywhere. We figured there was plenty of time to look for that vent.

When we had enough glitter for one day, we took the elevator to the top floor and then worked our way up into the crawlspace over the penthouse, which wasn’t much higher than the top of your desk. Tommy went first. He had an 18-inch wrench in his back pocket and a penlight in his mouth because that’s what Heating Guys do when they’re crawling along steel beams above the nasty, coral-reef side of a lathe-and-plaster ceiling. They hang on with both hands and shine with their mouths. I followed.

And that’s when I saw The Fitting. It was over there at the top of that riser that we had last seen in the boiler room. The Fitting was a tee, but not just any tee. This was a twelve-by-twelve-by-three-quarter-inch, screwed tee.

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing one, but a tee this size is a truly magnificent thing. It’s about as large as a small kayak, and it has to weigh at least 200 pounds. And all I kept thinking about at the time was that there was once a wholesaler who stocked these things. Imagine what inventory time was like for those guys.

And there was a Dead Man who once carried The Fitting up to the top of this building. And caught a thread!

And what sort of wrench did that guy own? And where the heck did he stand? And what did his arms look like?

I figure it was either Popeye or Bluto who did this job.

So there we were, Tommy and I up in the steeple of this Hydronic Cathedral, and I’m looking at that three-quarter-inch tapping in the tee where there is a brass air vent that’s about the size of a football. It has cobwebs all over it. I point at the air vent and tell Tommy that we have found the culprit. This ancient vent is obviously quite dead, and has been for many a year, and this is the reason why the glittering people below have had such erratic heat in their luxury apartments.

“Can you unscrew that vent, Tommy?” I asked.

“I think so,” he said.

So Tommy maneuvered his trailer-truck of a body into a contortionist position, placing his size-14, steel-tipped work boots against the edges of The Fitting, and the rest of himself along that steel beam. It was like watching a sumo wrestler on a balance beam. Tommy grabbed the vent with his wrench. I watched as his arms inflated, first with testosterone, and then with frustration. The vent, which had joined with the pipe and turned into a macromolecule, wasn’t respecting Tommy. But Tommy was not the sort of lad who ever used the word “quit.” No, he just reached in again, and I watched in awe as his blue eyes bulged out of his crimson face. Bridge cables sprang from his massive neck, and spittle dribbled from his mouth. He mumbled very bad words, and gave the mightiest yank I had ever seen in all my days. And that’s when we heard it. The screech of ancient metal giving in to a determined man’s brute force.

“You got it!” I said.

“Yeah,” Tommy said, and he unscrewed that football of an air vent the rest of the way.

And that’s when I heard what sounded like a subway coming up that twelve-inch riser.

Or maybe it was closer to the rumble that one of those oil-well gushers in the movies makes. You know, the sound you hear as the two wide-eyed wildcatters are gaping at each other? Just before the thing explodes into space? It was like that.

And while the inevitable was building to a climax in our confined crawlspace, Tommy was using his flashlight to look down the hole in the pipe. “I think I hear something,” he said. And as he said this, his long hair was blowing straight back, like the guy in that old Memorex commercial.

“Uh, Tommy?” I said.

“What?” he said (but he never took his blue eyeball away from that hole).


Which he did.

And then, knowing that no supply house in any city in all the world is going to have a replacement for our brass football of a main vent, I asked Tommy if he had any main vents on his truck. He told me that he had about eight Hoffman #75 main vents, which are the size of beer cans. I told him to go get all of them, and also a lot of fittings.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“We’re going to put all the vents on one manifold,” I said. “So that they can all work together to vent the air from this mighty twelve-inch main in a big hurry. And we’re going to connect that manifold to The Fitting.

“I’ve never seen one of those,” Tommy said. “What do you call that?”

“It’s called a heating menorah,” I explained. “Picture it.”

And once it was in place, The Fitting never looked (or worked) better.

And all the rich and famous people smiled. Including Madonna!

Well, I hope you liked that tale. And if you did, please share it. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more tales to share with you, and I appreciate your taking the time to listen. It means a lot. Thanks.

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