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Times Change

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Morris had me on the phone. It was 1974 and he was calling from Brooklyn, NY. I had a waxed handlebar mustache that year and my workmates at the manufacturers’ rep were calling me Rollie Fingers because he was pitching for the Oakland Athletics in the World Series. Looking at those 1974 photos, I realize that the mustache was not one of my best ideas, but the ‘70s were their own time and no one can change that.

“I need some Hoffman number 40 air vents,” Morris said.

“How many do you need?”

“Send me a dozen gross,” he said.

“You got it. What else?”

Morris went on with his list and I scribbled to keep up with him. He needed other steam air vents in addition to the 1,728 #40 vents he had just placed at the top of my list. It was just an ordinary order for Morris.

Brooklyn had a lot of one-pipe steam systems back then. The U.S. Census noted that there were about a half-million, steam-heated buildings in that one borough of New York City. Imagine that. And most of them are still up and running, even after all these years. I had a feeling it was going to go that way, which is why I self-published my book, The Lost Art of Steam Heating 32 years ago. That book continues to sell.

The best part, though, was that Morris, who worked for one of the many supply houses that served Brooklyn and the other boroughs back then, would replenish that order several times each winter. “You can’t sell from an empty wagon,” he’d laugh.

I once asked my boss how we could possibly be selling so many steam air vents in New York City, considering that no one had installed a new steam system since before, well, how about before the Great Depression? He smiled and said, “As long as there are painters, we will continue to sell air vents.”


Years later, an old-time plumber told me about how many radiator problems he had solved just by using a dental pick to punch through the paint that was clogging the vent’s hole.

“You get paid for that?” I said.

“Yep,” he said. “Big time.”

Morris and the other wholesalers wouldn’t approve of that, of course, but plenty of other plumbers just replaced the vents, so it all worked out for everyone over time.

Times do change, but often not quickly. When coal showed up, the wood people did all that they could to stop it, but coal happened anyway.

When fuel oil appeared and threatened dirty coal, the coal people insisted that coal was king and would always be king and that would never change. It did change, though.

For years, my friends in the oil industry fought the natural gas people, often with the silly marketing approach of Go Gas. Go Boom!. That didn’t work out so well for them. Gas won, but now the gas people have to fight the electrification folks. Time will tell how that goes, but it’s not looking so hot for the gas crowd right now.

Times always change, but not always quickly because we have many old buildings in America and many of them are still running on steam, as they have been for 100 years or more. Why is that? Well, because change costs money and people get used to the way things are right now. Most would rather spend their money on things other than new heating systems.

The oil industry is currently fighting the heat pumps by pushing biofuel, which is better for the planet than burning 100% oil, but I think there’s more going on here than just environmental issues. The electrification people, now backed by big industry and creeping government mandates, insist that there will be enough electricity for all, even as the power companies have to shut down parts of New York City on brutally hot summer days because of all the air-conditioners. Now throw in electric vehicles and ever more electronic gizmos. Will there be enough electricity if change happens fast? Or will the change be slow, as it most always is.

I listen to friends in the heating industry. Most of them say it’s never going to happen. They say you can’t just electrify the world, and why would you want to? For climate change? Hey, how do you make electricity? You gotta burn fossil fuel, right? Isn’t that bad for the planet? And nobody wants nukes, right? Or do they? The Chinese are putting small nuclear reactors in small cities right now and heating every house with district-hot-water systems. So maybe it will be nukes. It has to be something in addition to what we now have. Wind and solar alone can’t get the job done, and we don’t have the right batteries yet.

“I’m too old to learn about this new stuff,” a contractor friend said. “And there’s no place to put a wrench on a heat pump. Those guys are trying to steal my trade. I worked my whole life in this trade. I’m not going to allow them to take it away from me.”

“How are you going to stop them?” I ask.

“It’s gonna stop itself. You’ll see. Those heat pumps don’t work when it gets really cold outside. People will realize they got screwed.”

“But the new heat pumps are working in Northern Maine and Northern Europe at 20 degrees below zero.”

“I don’t believe that.”


“No, I don’t believe that the heat pumps work there.”

“But they do.”

“No they don’t.”

“Based on what?”

“Based on what I believe.”

And because of his belief, which, from what I’m hearing is widespread in the industry right now, contractors will be telling potential heat-pump customers that they would never switch from fossil fuel to electric in their own house. They’ll say it’s not reliable and they don’t want to freeze during a rough winter. And there won’t be anyone who will service the heat pumps. It’s just the way it is. The homeowners will ask other contractors and get the same answers, and when it becomes that difficult to change, most people will stick with what they have.

Add to all of this the government mandates, which at this point are mainly on new construction (no new natural gas!). Have you noticed how most Americans don’t like having the government tell them what to do? People, who otherwise might like to change, won’t change if they’re being forced to do so. And they vote.

And that’s why I think electrification will take a long time to actually go mainstream.

Times change, but not overnight. Wholesalers are still selling Hoffman #40 air vents for one-pipe steam systems, even after all these years. Imagine that.


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