Click here to Find a Contractor in your area.
Welcome! Here are the website rules, as well as some tips for using this forum.
Need to contact us? Visit

Steam heating maintainance

A friend of mine is hoping to buy a house up in Maine, and she called to ask me about the steam heating system.  I'm a licensed master plumber here in MA, but unfortunately my only experience with steam is that I helped replace a steam boiler about 12 years ago when I was an apprentice.  The only advice I could give her was that as long as there were good, qualified technicians available in her area, it shouldn't be much of an issue.  Obviously it's an older house, but the boiler is a 6 year old Weil-McLain steam boiler - so far so good.  Here's the question:  She called the company that has maintained it, and they told her it needs to be flushed <strong><span style="text-decoration:underline;">monthly.</span></strong>  Is that right, or are they just trying to get another $89/month out of her?  Aside from annual burner service, what else is involved in maintaining a steam system that is not necessary with a forced water system?


  • Steam in Maine

    I have a house in Maine and my experience has been that there are very few people in Maine that understand steam heating and that the people your friend talked very obviously isn't one of them!  I would suggest you take a look at the top of this page under "Find a Professional" and see if there is a "steam pro" located near your friend.

     I would also suggest that you go to the "Shop" section at the top of this page and get a book  titled "We Got Steam Heat" by Dan Holohan. It's easy informative reading and written expressly for the home owner with a steam system. I'd consider it a "must read" for any homeowner with a steam system.

    On second thought you might want to get  "A Steamy Deal" which

    includes "We Got..." plus the more advanced "The Lost Art of Steam Heating" and a troubleshooting book on steam system.  That way you could read " We Got Steam Heat" in an evening or two and then send it on to your friend.  With your professional experience, the other books will quickly bring you up to speed on steam heating.

    I went through several years of  the local "highly recommended heating experts" trying to make my 1 pipe steam system work properly and constantly suggesting I needed to "modernize".  In frustration I decided I needed to learn about steam myself and luckily found the above books which quickly made me realize my "experts" didn't know a thing about steam heating. (However they are`good on burners). With a few corrections I now have a steam system that is very comfortable and efficient.

    - Rod
  • beachplumb
    beachplumb Member Posts: 8

    Thanks for the response, Rod.  I got the same feeling when she told me what they said, I said - steam isn't my strong suit.  I got Dan's book The Lost Art of Steam Heat back when I first started plumbing (I think right around the time I assisted with the steam boiler replacement), but I soon realized there isn't much steam left where I am (Nantucket).  Most houses have been completely remodeled/upgraded within the last 20 or 30 years, and there are a couple of old local shops that service most of the old homes/systems in the historic district.

    The only other thing I vaguely remembered was my old boss instructing the homeowner to monitor the sight glass periodically to make sure there's enough water in the boiler.  But what else should one do to maintain a steam system?

    I'll definitely take a look at the books you suggested, thanks!
  • beachplumb
    beachplumb Member Posts: 8
    Steam pros

    Tried the "Find a Professional" link.  Apparently there are no steam heat experts within 100 miles of her! (lol)
  • Big-Al_2
    Big-Al_2 Member Posts: 263
    edited August 2009
    Just a Homeowner

    My experience with maintaining single pipe steam is not to flush monthly, but to "blow down" periodically.  This is what the local tech might have meant . In my case, I do it weekly.   It entails letting some water out of the boiler and refilling.  In my case it also tests the float-type Low Water Cut Out switch.  While the boiler is firing up, I drain out water out of the LWCO into a bucket until it runs clear . . . a gallon or so . . . and then refill the boiler until the water is halfway up the sight glass.  This keeps the dissolved solids level in the boiler under control.  If the water line drops more than a half inch or so during the week, I start to wonder if there is a minor leak somewhere.   I also casually listen for leaks anyway and periodically snoop around for radiator vents that may be plugged or not closing when they should.  In the two winters I have had steam, I have found a couple of vents that have gone bad, and did discover a cracked radiator once, just looking and listening . . .

    The boiler should also have an annual maintenance, cleaning the LWCO, draining and flushing the boiler, cleaning the burner, checking the intermittent pilot, and if the tech is good, setting up the burner based on a flue gas analysis.

    I'm not a pro, but I think I understand what needs to be done.  If I'm wrong, somebody please correct me.
  • beachplumb
    beachplumb Member Posts: 8
    Not "just" a homeowner...

    ...a knowledgeable homeowner.  Part of the problem is that this friend of mine isn't very mechanically inclined and she's trying to figure out if she should just move on and look for something else.  She loves this particular house, but doesn't want something that will be a hassle (and difficult) for her, or expensive if she has to have someone come every month.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,864
    She doesn't need to have someone come out each month

    What they're talking about is blowing the gunk out of the low-water cutoff, assuming it's a float-type unit. If she has one of the newer probe-type LWCO units, it needs to be checked yearly.

    Float-type units should be blown down weekly, rather than monthly.

    ALL heating equipment should be checked out each year, by a knowledgeable pro.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • beachplumb
    beachplumb Member Posts: 8

    Very good info, steamhead, thanks.  I'm guessing since they replaced the boiler 6 years ago they (hopefully) replaced the old LWCO as well with a probe-type unit.  That's something I can check out - if she does buy this place.  In the meantime, I ordered the We Got Steam Heat book Rod recommended and got my copy of Lost Art of Steam Heat out of the attic.
  • Steam in Maine (2)

    The "We Got Steam Heat" explains pretty much what any owner needs to know about their steam system and how to run/maintain it. It's very readable (It's not written as a tech. manual) My wife (who is "technically challenged") read it and thought it was really good. After`she read the book she admitted to me that she had always been afraid of steam systems as she thought they "might explode" and when she read that they are designed to run at very low pressure (under 2 PSI) she was very relieved.

    . As Big Al mentioned it may  just be a problem with terminology and the local "experts " may actually know what they are doing and after reading the book your friend will have a better idea of what they are saying.

    Probably the first concern is to make sure the steam system in the house she is buying is running at its optimum.  Steam systems are pretty "bullet proof". What needs to be checked is the items that wear`out and may not be working, like main vents, individual radiator air vents, and  that the radiator valves are operation/fully open and that the radiators (1 pipe steam) are sloped correctly. If it is 2 pipe steam, that all the traps are working correctly. Another item is to check is that the thermostat  used is designed for steam and that you can set the amount of cycles per hour.  The ones from Home Depot etc. generally don't have this feature and being able to set the amount of cycles per hour really saves on fuel.

    Generally the original steam installers knew what they were doing so what you have to look is any  "mickey mouse" work done over the years since then and correct that if necessary.   Steam systems are really trouble free and low maintainance if they are initially setup properly.  I now really like steam, now that I understand it. i came really close to chucking my steam system and am very, very glad that I didn't.

    I just checked the Find a Professional section above and don't see many listed in Maine. There were more before on the old board so maybe it will take some time to get them reposted. I see Al Letellier  in South Portland is listed there. He's a really good guy. You might want to give him a call and maybe he knows someone competent near`your friend he would recommend.

    I sure wouldn't turn down a house I really liked just because it had a steam system.

    As I mentioned above, steam systems are very "bullet proof". A small steam leak at under 2 PSI isn't a worry.   I'd be far`more worried about a badly installed hydronic system and the possibility of leaks and/or having had the pipes frozen /damaged in the past.  Also one really needs to be worried more about the condition of the chimney(s), foundations and roof, wiring etc. as these can be big buck items to fix.

    - Rod
  • beachplumb
    beachplumb Member Posts: 8

    This site is new.  This "Strictly Steam" Forum didn't even exist when I posted my original question yesterday (I think).  It took me a minute to find this thread again.  I get the weekly emails, but haven't been to the website in a long time.

    The house she's hoping to buy is in Cape Elizabeth, ME, so maybe the guy you mentioned in South Portland isn't too far away - I'll pass that along.  As far as how big the house is; one-pipe or two-pipe I have no idea - I've never seen the place.  I told her if she does buy the house, don't rely on the opinion of the home inspector as far as the steam system goes - she should try to get a steam heating expert there at the same time to make an assessment/recommendations.
  • Steve_152
    Steve_152 Member Posts: 26
    i can help

    i am   close  to   cape  eliz.   & can  help..   30 years  steam  exp. ///   me. lic.  master  oil  &   stationary   steam  engineer...
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 15,447

    it would be nice to have you in Find a Professional. It's just a dollar a day. You decide how many days. I'll bet a lot of business comes your way. Search "steam heating" on Google and see where comes up. 
    Retired and loving it.
This discussion has been closed.