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Levittown Radiant Heating Systems

Levittown radiant heating system

I grew up in Hicksville, Long Island (don't laugh!) and I spent a good part of Junior and Senior High School sharing a classroom with Billy Joel, and that is my single brush with musical fame.

I clearly remember sitting next to him in Biology class. We were about 14 years old at the time and he was singing a brand-new Herman's Hermits song while tapping the tune on his desk with the eraser ends of two yellow pencils. He turned to me and proclaimed that he would some day be more famous than Herman was at the time. I smiled and nodded. Even though we were just a couple of suburban kids, anything seemed possible back then.

Billy Joel lived in Levittown, which is right next to Hicksville. Hicksville is right next to Bethpage, which is where I live today. Down the spine of Long Island there is a smear of towns that tumble and fold over each other in a sprawl of stores and little homes that were all built at the same time in the days following World War II. Our fathers returned from the War and moved their young families from New York City to the “country” where they bought or rented these inexpensive homes and set out to live the American Dream. About 10,000 of these cookie-cutter houses were in Levittown and these were the first radiantly heated homes in America. Thousands more of these little dwellings wound up in Hicksville and Bethpage and radiant kept us cozy while we were growing up.

Irwin “Jal” Jalonack, was responsible for all of this. He was the father of radiant heating in America. “Jal” Jalonack made the decision to use hydronic radiant heating in Levittown in 1946. These were the first mass-produced homes in America. Sociologists have written books about Levittown. Everyone who lived there was about the same age. The houses all looked alike. There had never been anything like this place, and it was heated with a new type of system. Levittown introduced the American consumer to radiant.

Recently, Mr. Jalonack’s daughter, Carol Blum, wrote to tell me about her father.

“He began his work life as a plumber,” she remembered, “He apprenticed to his father in Syracuse during the early 1920's. 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. Both my parents are now deceased, so I can't get the whole story as to why he went with radiant heat. I do know that, at the time, he was considered to be one of the experts in this country in the use of radiant heating, however.

"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 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, right next to the other appliances.”

Mr. Jalonack found that little boiler. It was made by York-Shipley and the trade dubbed it the “low-York” because it was just a bit taller than a washing machine. Most of those boilers continue to heat those Levitt homes to this day.

William Levitt followed the methods of Henry Ford when he built his houses. He managed to throw them up at the incredible rate of one every two hours! And since these were America’s first radiantly heated homes, much of the engineering was experimental. A lot of what they did in those days they made up as they went along. Things that we consider to be crucial to radiant design nowadays never made it into those Levitt homes. For instance, they used no insulation whatsoever under the slab or at the edges of the slab. As a result, many of my neighbors can grow tulips in February. They think they have green thumbs; I know they have some serious heat loss.

Levitt also didn’t bother with a vapor barrier beneath the slab because that would have added too much expense. As time went by, and as the copper tubing began to leak, the water soaked into the ground rather than rose up through the floor. As a result, the homeowners didn’t know when a minor leak occurred, and that led to major leaks as time went by. Many of these systems were abandoned after 20 years or so.

“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 Blum wrote. “If it had too much play in it, it broke faster. His solution to the serious leaks in the copper tubing (and this was in 1965) was to suggest that the homeowners have the tubing in the floor disconnected and replaced with baseboard convectors. I suppose that they use plastic or some similar type of tubing, rather than metal nowadays.”

Carol is right about the plastic. Today, many contractors use PEX tubing because it can take more stress and strain than metal tubing. And she’s also right about the failures. We now have baseboard convectors in our Bethpage home. The family that lived here before us abandoned the radiant system in 1970. The buried tubing had lasted for 20 years, which was typical and really not too bad when you consider how quickly Levitt built these homes. The amazing thing to me is that so many Levitt homes still have their original systems. They seem to work in spite of the haste with which they were installed.

“My father was a hands-on kind of guy,” Carol Blum wrote. “Besides being VP, he was in charge of all purchases. 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.”

Imagine that. A single crew would install up to five radiant systems every day of the week!

“In 1950, we moved from North Park (a small Levitt development) to a house my father built, located on Potters Lane in East Hills,” she writes. “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.”

Which answers the question, “If I have radiant, can I still have air-conditioning?” The answer is Yes! But it’s done as a separate system. Does that add to the cost of the house? Yep, but those who have lived with radiant know that the extra cost is well worth it, especially when you spread the difference in cost over the years that you’ll be spending in your new home.

The truth is that once you’ve lived with radiant it’s hard to switch to anything else. Just ask the thousands of Levittowners! There’s something wonderful about those warm floors and the crispness of the air that you find in a radiantly heated home. The people of Levittown who still have working systems wouldn’t trade them for the world.

And keep in mind that, back then, radiant was in its infancy. They assembled those houses faster than anyone imagined it could be done. The workmanship and the materials were crude, and yet those systems lasted for decades.

Just imagine how long a modern, properly designed and professionally installed radiant heating system will last. And then imagine the incredible comfort it will provide for your family as the years roll by.

I grew up in Hicksville, which touches Levittown, which rubs up against Bethpage. We all played on warm floors as children and came to believe that anything was possible. Some of us became famous rock stars; others wound up writing stories about radiant heating. All of us remember the comfort.

If you’re new to radiant, you can rest easy. You’re not the first.

Not by a long shot.


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