My Friend's Mansion

I’ve known him for most of my career. He’s a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, NY. He’s absolutely delightful and he talks faster than I can think. He has an accent you could schmear on a bagel and he’s also as good as it gets when it comes to hydronics - both steam and hot water, both old and new.

Out of the blue, he wrote to me; and this is what he had to say:

“I have done a lot of designs and I’ve done a ton of service, and if I was building a mansion for myself, I would install a single-pipe steam system with an old-fashioned, millivolt gas valve and a standing pilot because I don't even want the Electric Company involved in my heating system. If the power goes off, my mansion should still be warm.

“My system would have a mechanical, float-driven water feeder with a tank on the upper floor for reverse osmosis and deionized water for gravity feeding the boiler.

“The header would of course be a drop-header, and it would go all the way up to the roof's ridgeline and feed across the attic space and downward so that steam and condensate travel in the same direction. Talk about an A-Dimension! You can’t beat that!”

In case you don’t speak Steam, a drop header is an old-school method of near-boiler piping that dares the liquid water in the boiler to leave the boiler with the high-velocity steam. When done properly (as my friend always does) you wind up with very dry steam that contains hardly any liquid water, which can cause the steam to condense in the pipes rather than in the radiators.

The A-Dimension is the vertical distance between the boiler’s waterline and the lowest, horizontal, steam-carrying pipe. The static weight of the water in that vertical space, joins with the “leftover” steam pressure at the end of the steam main to put the condensate back into the boiler. The A-Dimension must be at least 28 inches to get proper gravity of the condensate. My Brooklyn friend’s would be much, much higher than 28 inches.

“My challenge to anyone in this business is this,” he continued. “I want you to think about the next 50 years. What would be the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of my system versus any system you would come up with? TCO must include the cost of design and installation, the amount of fuel used over the next 50 years, and the maintenance required for the same amount of time.

“I say that the system in my mansion will have a TCO that’s way less than anything anyone else can come up with, and that even includes radiant with geothermal heat pumps." So there!

I’m thinking that this mansion would be well-built and properly insulated, with good windows. I’m also thinking about that brand-new, one-pipe-steam system and how simple it is. The only moving parts beyond the boiler are the supply valves on the radiators, which will remain open all the time and close only for service during the winter. But then, what goes wrong with a cast-iron, one-pipe-steam radiator? It just sits there and gets hot.

The other moving part would be the innards of the radiator air vents. Consider how long they last when the steam reaching them doesn’t contain liquid water. I’ve seen steam-radiator air vents last 100 years. How about you? And replacing an air vent doesn’t break the bank. Installation? Lefty loosey, righty tighty. Done!

There’s not much maintenance involved with a properly installed steam system. Just watch the water level and keep the low-water cutoff clean. But back to my Brooklyn friend. He’s not quite done yet.

“Even stupid, old-fashioned water heaters are better than the new-fangled tankless heaters. I fix them also. In my current house, I have two, high-recovery 50-gallon water heaters. That’s 130,000 Btu in the water. I can stand in the shower all day long if I want to and never run out of hot water. And I have two water heaters because I’m a big fan of redundancy. That’s because water heaters know exactly when the holidays are and that’s the day they choose to fail. Always!”

I think that no matter where you stand in regards to heating domestic water, you have to agree with his holiday observation. Happy Hanukkah? Not today! Oy!

“And it’s not just the TCO,” my friend goes on, “It's also the cost of aggravation. That’s the highest cost of all! Who needs all this aggravation? With my system, you can go on vacation and know that your mansion won't freeze and your pipes won’t burst, even if there is a power outage. All I need is a standing pilot; I don’t need electricity. You can't put a price on that kind of peace of mind, can you?”

Good point about frozen pipes. When a steam boiler shuts off, all the water flows by gravity into the return pipes and the boiler. The pipes don’t freeze and break and neither will the boiler.

“I do lots of service,” he went on. “And if you have to change a combustion fan in a modulating/condensing boiler then all the gas savings that that piled up in the 10-year life cycle of that heater is lost for good. I think that’s kinda stupid, don’t you? And that’s why I’m issuing this challenge to the industry. What is the 50-year TCO of the system you would design? Would it be as good as mine? I’m regularly seeing steam systems that have lasted twice that long, and if you take care of them along the way, they’re very efficient.

“And speaking of efficiency, I know everybody wants that these days, but I say BAH HUMBUG. Think about it. Efficiency is spelled with two fs. Have you ever heard anybody pronounce the second f?. That’s not very efficient is it? HA HA!

“And finally, I’ll say this: God does heating and cooling with steam. The sun and the oceans equals weather. Am I smarter than God? I don’t think so!”

Is my friend old-school? You bet he is. But he also installs and maintains the latest boilers, controls, and piping systems available. He’s great at that, too, but as he works he reflects back on simpler times, hydronically speaking. What is the TOC over 50 years? What will it be for the coming heat pumps and the electrification of everything? And what will it cost to make the electricity to run all of this? How will they make that electricity? How will they get it from there to here, and how much efficiency is lost in transit?

So many questions. So many choices. What will you do?


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