Subdural’s Triumph

piped steam boiler

Subdural posed a question on The Wall at in the Strictly Steam section, where some of the sharpest knives in the drawer post every day. The question was about a drop-header, and if you don’t know what that is I’ll do my best to help you understand.

Back in the day, the steam boilers were much larger than they are now. They had very wide sections so the steam could rise up through the water without causing a lot of turbulence on the surface. They also had much larger steam-disengaging spaces so the steam could leave the liquid water behind as it headed for the radiators. And those wide boiler sections were able to accommodate bigger pipes that rose to the horizontal steam header. That was important because the wider pipes kept the steam’s velocity low as it left the boiler. The faster steam goes, the more likely it is to lift the liquid water with it, and once that water gets into the pipes, it causes the steam to condense. That means you get less steam reaching the radiators, which leads to higher fuel bills, and more liquid water in the mains, which leads to water hammer.

But boiler manufacturers really didn’t have much choice as things evolved. The first oil embargo in the early ‘70s caused the government to mandate higher efficiencies for boilers. The only way to do that was to reduce the size of the boilers, and that was a bad thing because, with the higher efficiency, came more narrow boiler sections and smaller pipes rising to the boiler header. High-velocity steam was the result, and much of the liquid water began to leave the boilers.

It took a long time for the trade to realize what was going on, and the more steam-savvy contractors turned to a Dead Men trick called a drop-header. This is a near-boiler configuration where you take (ideally) two risers out of the boiler and bring them up as high as you can, given the geometry of your basement. From there, the drop-header piping turns horizontal and then vertical again, dropping down to the header, which is now close to the top of the boiler. Your take-offs to the steam mains leave from the top of the header and the end of that header drops further to become the header-drip/equalizer. Done properly, a drop-header does a magnificent job of keeping the liquid water in the boiler, which leads to much drier steam. Dry steam heats the building more quickly, saves fuel, and everyone is happy.

Subdural (a Wallie nickname) is a homeowner, not a heating professional. Steam heating has a way of grabbing some people by the lapels and making them want to do more of it because it truly is both an art, and a test of a person’s piping skills. It grabbed Subdural and didn’t let go.

Subdural uploaded a hand-drawn diagram of all the components needed to build the drop header that would serve their family. The Wallies commented on it, making suggestions that would improve the final product. From there the questions and answers turned toward who sized the new boiler. We learned that the supply house had said that it must be the same size as the one it was replacing. This may or may not be correct since oversizing steam boilers in America is somewhat of a national sport. The chat went back and forth for a few days and I was gaining more and more respect for Subdural. This person knew how to ask very good questions, listen, and take the advice offered.

Months went by and Subdural returned to post photos of the homeowner-installed, near-boiler piping. It was practically perfect. And I say “practically” because heating people will always find something in the other person’s job photo to correct, even if that correction wouldn’t make a bit of difference. We’re like that; we pick nits.

But I didn’t pick. I just smiled and congratulated Subdural because I was looking at work that was as good as anything I have ever seen when it comes to steam heating.

Another photo appeared and this one had a woman in it. She was holding a long wrench and the business end was attached to one of the risers to the boiler’s drop-header.

“Thank you for all the help,” Subdural wrote. “The build went great. It’s up and running and I appreciate all the help. If i missed anything, or there are any upgrades, please tell me. The system is working fine - no bangs, no leaks, and the skimming went well. Oh, and I figured if you knew I was a woman the advice would have been different. But I did make this build sexy.”

And that’s when things got even more interesting. Most of the Wallies congratulated Subdural on her work. “Absolutely nothing wrong with being female and turning wrenches!” one of the guys posted. “My wife picks up parts at the supply house every now and then. One day one of the men made a snide comment. The manager leaned over and said loud enough for all to hear, ‘Be careful, She knows more than you do’.”

But then there was this from a nice guy who is my age (meaning old) and whom I think is stuck in the past.

“I have a picture of me standing next to my motorcycle. The Doubting Thomas in me says he needs to see a videotape.”

To which, a homeowner Wallie who posts every day wrote, “I do not understand your comment? You need to see a video tape of what? When I posted pictures of my boiler install no one asked for a video of me actually doing the work. Why not?”

The old fella replied, “Okay, in the first picture she has the wrench on a nipple that is already piped in. So she's turning it into the ell and out of the coupling. Also she is perfectly clean and smiling. When I ask my wife for help with something I always get it, but there is grumpiness and frowns. I’m not saying she didn't pipe that boiler, but it will take more than a few photos to convince me. Also, nobody uses blue pipe dope and doesn't get any on themselves. I handed the Amish masons on my job a few cider blocks so I could tell everyone I helped build the house.”

To this, a younger Wallie said, “I just finished my first boiler install and it isn't nearly as beautiful as Subdural’s. She did an outstanding job, very well organized. Unfortunately, I also forgot to make a video of myself while I was doing it and now even with pipe dope (still) all over my hands, I just realized nobody is going to believe me. Oh well, maybe next time.”

My daughter, Erin Holohan Haskell, who bought from me when I retired in 2016, and who, with other strong women, started Women In Energy some years back, had this to say:

“Believe it or not, women can work in mechanical rooms. We can even run HVAC forums. How about that?!

“If we want to attract young people into the trades, we've got to throw out these antiquated attitudes. I know you like to joke, but this comes off as disrespectful. In all my time on this site, I've never seen anyone repeatedly questioned over whether or not they did the work. I applaud Subdural's willingness to learn and tackle this job with impressive results.”

Amen, and thank you, Erin.

Another Wallie, another observation: "I have absolutely no problem believing a woman can pipe a steam boiler. What I have trouble with are all of the grown men I see that do it completely wrong and then try to defend it.”

Amen again.

But then another curmudgeon wrote this:

“If I know anything about taking pictures of women I know that they are not going to let you take that picture until after costume, hair, and makeup are done. My guess is the helper daughter took those pics. She probably said, ‘Mom, you need to put a clean sweatshirt on before I take your picture.’ Us old guys have no problem getting our picture taken with messy clothes and some soot on our face.”

Another Wallie referred to her as “girl” but she sure looked like a grown woman to me, and I wonder how he would react if someone called him “boy.”

So guess what happened next. Subdural posted a video she had made, showing her doing her tne entire install, step by step. At one point, when she was using that big wrench on one of the risers, the big boiler shifted. She just laughed and moved it back.

And what did the first old fella have to say about that?

“I'm so glad you had a video. In fact I was laying in bed this morning thinking she must have a video. Everyone takes pictures and videos. I was also thinking how this was going to end. I think I stated my doubts well, and never did I say you could not have done the work, so I don't know where the disrespect thing came from. So now let me be the latest to say good job.”


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