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revive this old steam system

forgive me for being brief, but i just spent the last hour typing a long-winded explanation of the job i walked in on and when i pressed "preview post" a got an "oops" page and upon navigating back discovered all was lost. anyway here's the nutshell version. a 2 pipe steam system was shut down some time in the mid 70's for reasons unknown. my guess as to why is a series of disrepair's snowballed into rendering the system inoperable. secondly, each room is zoned with pneumatic controls with the boiler being fired on a timer. half the heads are missing off the zone valves and the compressor is gone as well. the home owner wants to know if the system can be "revived". question: should i be concerned that the piping system has been sitting idle for over 30 years and secondly, i'd like to make it a single zone system and remove the rest the pnuematic valves. any thoughts?

Tom M


  • Tom Minz
    Tom Minz Member Posts: 18
    Revive This Steam System

    OK...I've regrouped  since the oops page episode and would like to offer a little more information. For reasons unknown, this system was shutdown in the 70's.It's replacement were 5  forced hot air systems scattered throughout the house without a lot of thought or effort going into how it would change the appearance and the elegance of this beautiful 1932 home (attached are some pics of the fine workmanship/craftsmanship that went into this extensive 1970's "update").With no info  as to why this system was laid to rest( the new owner had no info from the previous owner and the owner before that was unknown or unavailable), I began looking at the entire system where some clues (some obvious, some not so obvious) began to pop up as to why this system was abandoned. Starting with a disrepair/solution to a buried dry return to a condensate receiver (installed in a two foot pit) for the basement rads, to some failed/poorly maintained F&T traps at the end of the steam mains, to a F&T trap, aka a "Master Trap" installed on the vent pipe off the receiver ( that's not a typo...some mechanic, I use that term loosely, actually installed a main trap on the system vent! Steam must have been making it's way to the receiver and out the vent pipe and he figured a trap on the vent will solve THAT problem!). At that point I'm guessing the company's "song and dance man" aka Salesman, came in in performed what I often refer to as the "soft shoe shuffle"(with the aide of some smoke and mirrors) and sold the forced air job. Anyway, after a good deal of investigating, I've found that 99% of the original system, as far as the piping goes, is still intact and I feel confident that I will be able to breath life back into this "Dead Man's" work of art. The hand full of problems/repairs I found that were devastating to this system can be( with some TLC and knowledge) repaired and corrected. As posted earlier, my concerns are mainly with the system being idle for 30 plus years. Ive taken apart and looked at (inside and out)  a hand full minor system piping and it seems sound. Has it been detrimental to the system or has it been "frozen in time" just waiting to be awakened....Anyway, here's a series of pics that I will call " A View from the Foyer".." The Serenity of the Parlor" (fountain trickling in the back ground)..and "Retire to the Master Suite" (just don't look up). If I lived in this house, I think every time I looked at this it would anger me or depress me or both.

    Tom M
  • Paul Fredricks_3
    Paul Fredricks_3 Member Posts: 1,557
    edited November 2009
    Oh man!

    It appears this house had some stately elegance at one point in time, and has definitely been set upon by those who didn't know better. If it were my house I would definitely rip out the duct work disaster and awaken the 2 pipe. I would think 30 years wouldn't be too bad on the piping, though I am no expert. I would worry about any buried returns, if there are any. Might make sense to do a low pressure test on the piping just to prove integrity. Like 1 or 2 PSI.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 21,539
    I can only

    speak from my own experience, but for what it's worth... I had a vaguely similar situation: a very large house ("cottage", if you please) which became a museum about the time I became the building superintendent -- that is, some 20 years ago.  Prior to that, folks had been living in one end, but the other end, including the vapour steam system, was closed (don't even ask what that did to the books, plaster, paintings, woodwork finishes... you don't want to know) and had been closed for 30 years.  I restarted (with some generous help from the folks here on the Wall!!!) the old steam system: installed a new boiler, reconnected the mains  and returns to the closed end of the house, started to fill the boiler... replaced all the wet returns in the closed end! ... filled the boiler, flipped on the power, and it's run perfectly ever since.  Haven't even had to replace a trap.

    Moral of the story: I would assume that any wet returns are toast.  If they aren't, so much the better, but plan on it.  Anything else which is still there is probably just fine, except for the trap problems you have already found (in fact, anything with moving parts is probably suspect) and I'd take a close look at all other traps I could find!  What may take some thought is reconstructing where the dead men meant the water level to be, and the related question of what the problem was that inspired your previous master mechanic to put a steam trap on the receiver vent.

    May be a little tedious, but shouldn't be that hard!
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • DavidK_2
    DavidK_2 Member Posts: 129
    I'm no expert,

    but the only advantage I see to forced air is the ability to easily include AC. If the owners want AC I'd redo the forced air, if they only want heat I'd redo the steam.
  • Unknown
    edited November 2009
    George Washington Slept Here!

    Neat project and it will be very rewarding when you have the job done.

    I was just thinking fixing the steam system is the easy part.  What does one do to fix the holes hacked in the paneling?  I guess find a large portrait of George Washington.

    When you see a butcher job like that done to that beautiful wood paneling you begin to wonder if the guy that did this is still alive so you can track him down and kick his butt!

    Unfortunately this is quite typical of what happens in a lot of old homes. It's just plain ignorance on the part of the homeowner and in the heating profession. In our case, we struggled for years dealing with knuckleheads who didn't have a clue about steam. We were told many, many times that we needed to "modernize" as steam was out of date and couldn't be fixed.  It scares me to think how close we came to scrapping our steam system. I still thank my lucky stars I found this site and Dan's books!

    - Rod
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,257
    edited November 2009
    I agree

    aside from any underground piping and/or wet returns, and trap issues, this system should be fine.

    Whoever installed the ductwork should be shot.

    How about some pics of the Vapor system? Are the radiators still there?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • Tom Minz
    Tom Minz Member Posts: 18
    She Lives!

    All of the radiators, with the exception of one or two out a half dozen or so, free standing cast iron radiators are still in place( the rest( 40+) are beautifully preserved recessed convectors)The only buried piping here was a return dedicated to a few radiators in one generously sized room in the basement, AND..(this is key!!)..the drip off one branch of the steam main. The pic posted shows the 70's crew's fix. Realizing the end of the main is good 8-9 inches lower than its start in the boiler room, it's obvious that it didn't take long before that main was completely choked off with condensate! At least they provided an "out" however... notice the plug they left? I envision them saying to the home owner.."if the house gets cold, go downstairs and pull this plug to drain the main...oh, and don't forget a bucket... maybe two!" Another pic here shows their solution to the lack of heat in the basement due to the failed  buried return. Utilizing the hot condensate off the second of two steam mains and the return condensate, they piped in two radiators in series with the dry return just before the receiver pump ( you know, where main system vent is). Looks like one giant "P" trap to me! Air can't move thru there either! With two ignorant repairs these guys eliminated any chance off this system ever heating anything other than the boiler room! I'm guessing that's when the "song and dance man" must of come in and pitched the forced air. Down right criminal if you ask me! By the way...I dusted off, filled and tried to fire up that  40 plus year old boiler yesterday( which only saw about 10 to 15 years of active service). I had to find out if boiler failure had anything to do with the decision made 30 years ago! Guess what? She huffed and puffed for a few seconds and came alive!...I could have sworn I heard someone mumble behind me...."God bless you".... The hair on the back of my neck stood up when that old thing came back online!  I'll gather more pictures of the system and post after my next visit!
  • Tom Minz
    Tom Minz Member Posts: 18

    sorry...here's the pics
  • Gordo
    Gordo Member Posts: 842
    Great Story, Tom!

    Keep up the Good Fight, saving the world one steam system at a time!

    In that first picture of your Nov. 13  0700hr post, that looks to me like a vacuum lift fitting.

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
  • Tom Minz
    Tom Minz Member Posts: 18
    Vacuum System?

    You just thru me curve! I'm not sure Gordo, but you may have just saved me a lot of frustration. Am I looking at a vacuum system here? Time to dig a little deeper! Relatively uncharted territory here for me. I've done a little work on one vacuum system at a local Community House in my area, mainly trap repair/replace, and chapter 12 of Dan's Lost Art," Vacuum: Friend or Foe?"  got my head spinning a bit! Time to read it again! Thinking about it, it's quite a large house and tho it's difficult to tell what size the steam mains are due to the insulation, the return piping may be a little smaller than you might expect in a typical pressure system...and that pump in the pit.? time to brush off the debris and take a closer look! It's inoperable and looks as if it's been under water a few time over the years... Is this a clue? That lift fitting at the end of the main is piped to a dedicated line which goes back to a manifold where it and the dry returns meet up right before dumping into the receiver. I thought that was unusual when I first saw it, but, if a vacuum system,would it expedite air removal? I'm heading back there next week to go thru with fine tooth comb... will post more info as I get it!..and pics
  • Tom Minz
    Tom Minz Member Posts: 18
    I'd go with no AC

    I would be embarrassed to attach AC to that duct system...I'm sure the Pitch Man used that argument when he ditched the steam system. No disrespect intended to your post but I could have air conditioned that home quite nicely, all the while leaving the steam heat AND the home's grandeur intact.
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