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Please help prioritize water hammer mitigation techniques

I bought condo in a 32unit 3 storey building with single pipe steam heat.  The steam system has issues, but is functional.  The building is a u-shaped courtyard, with the boiler at the base of the u.  I (predictably?) live at one end of the courtyard, on the second floor.  The system is quiet from the boiler to the section of basement below my unit.  First the radiators with giant vents pant a bit, then the water hammer starts.  It's thunderous.  1812 Overture.  European discotecs are jealous.  I can watch the steam mains jump around.  All my radiators fill with water by the end of the cycle.

After lurking on the site, I've found a number of problems that are glaringly wrong.  None of them are rocket science, but I'm also not sure that they individually or together are the root cause.  Here we go:

1.  None of the basement mains are insulated.  Zero.  really.  Risers might be, I can only feel one warm spot on any walls.

2.  While there is at least one main vent I've found, there don't seem to be any directly under my apt.

3.  The only return I can identify is also not insulated.

4.  There is a 6ft section of main and return which crosses an outside stairwell alcove with deteriorating insulation on the main, and no insulation on the return.

5.  The boiler room is unvented and smells of natural gas.  I'm not sure if the boiler has an independent fresh air supply.  But when I open the door, there's a pretty good wind sucking in from outside.

Obviously calling a Pro (help?  there are non listed in the Chicago area.  closest I found was PA.) is in order for the gas smell and any plumbing/venting.  I also want to make sure they use someone other than they've been using.  The radiator guy I met pronounced that "all steam systems bang. There's nothing I can do..."  Thanks to this site, I know that is wrong and the attitude is probably costing us a bundle of money.

What should I stress the most when I call the management company and talk to the Home Owner's Association?

I have a feeling that some changes will pay for themselves in fuel savings, but perhaps not stop the symphony of pipes.  If pictures would help, I'll be happy to snap some.  I've become fascinated as I've learned exactly how my building might be broken.



  • priorities for condo boiler repair

    1. gas smell investigation-call gas company.

    2.all mains/dry returns must be be insulated and vented.

    3.boiler burner should be serviced, cleanned and adjusted, once per year.

    4. keep the pressure down.

    5.call boilerpro asap as the gas co. may shut you down when they investigate a gas leak.--nbc

  • Call "Boiler Pro"

    Here's a phone number for Dave Bunnell - "Boiler Pro"  Phone 815 857-2339

    Here's another link:


    When it comes to steam he is one of the Super Pros !
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,941
    Prioties one, two and three

    are to call the gas company about the natural gas smell.  If you smell natural gas, there is a problem, which could be a really serious problem.  As NBC says, it's just possible they may shut you down until you can get any problems they find sorted out -- including an air supply for the burner, so be prepared.

    Priority four is to call BoilerPro as noted and get him on the job.

    The lack of or condition of the insulation is obviously a major part of the problems, but there are doubtless other issues as well...

    As to what to tell your Homeowners' Association or the management company -- or both -- you will probably have to be diplomatic, particularly with the latter.  They don't want to hear that they are managing a mess, even if it's true.  The gas is a no-brainer -- "I smell natural gas, could we have a gas leak?" usually brings up visions of loud noises.  The rest of it -- explain that steam systems can work beautifully and that you can help the Condo achieve that!

    Oh yes -- and good luck!
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • BikeManDan
    BikeManDan Member Posts: 4
    Talked to HOA and mgmt company

    The management company is very responsive.  And apparently there's more banging than I realized.  A bunch of people complained at the meeting.

    Here's what's going on:

    1. Gas smell: sewer work on the street over the summer (before I moved in) made a number of apartments smell like gas.  None of the apartments had leaks.  The trap in the floor drain in the boiler room dries out pretty regularly.  The maintenance guys pour a bucket of water down, and the smell goes away.

    2.  The building was designed to have the basement heated by the bare steam mains.  The claim is if they are insulated, the water plumbing is at risk of freezing.  The basements are comfortable, but not hot, so it's not a huge stretch to think that it could freeze down there.

    3.  Vents?  dunno.  I'll have to call and talk outside the HOA meeting.  There's a lot going on during a meeting, and it wasn't a good time to ask detailed questions.

    Since there were so many people talking about water hammer, the management company is going to have their boiler man come out this week.  The manager suspects wet steam. 

    I looked at the pressure settings:  Running pressure is .5psi, high pressure cutoff is 2psi.

    I'll see if they mind if I tag along when the boiler person comes.  I'm sure the adjustments will be of interest to everyone.


  • BikeManDan
    BikeManDan Member Posts: 4
    boiler room is unvented

    That was a tad misleading.  The boiler itself has a giant ~ 24inch exhaust manifold with two full size headers from the boiler.  The exhaust stays full size as it exits the room.  it  seems to have a strong draft, if the wind when opening the door is any indication. 

    I still think the room needs a fresh air vent, but I also don't think there's an imminent explosion.  Right?    Right??
  • risk of imminent explosion?

    only someone with the proper detector [like the gas man] can tell if there is gas present in the basement, or not

    a co detector would be a good insurance against the unimanigeable

    i can't believe the basement is that "air leaky" so as to need "bare pipe heating", especially if there is a strong draft, when opening the door.

    i can certainly imagine the politics involved in a condo, or co-op owners meeting. can you get yourself nominated to be the steam front-man? remind everyone that the end result will be .......silence........comfort.......economy... probably not much money will be spent  in comparison to the gas bill, as long as a real steam expert is involved!--.nbc
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,941
    Bang clang

    Well, at least we know where some of the banging and clanging is coming from.  Inuslate those steam mains.  There is a variety of interesting ways that uninsulated mains can cause troulbe.  There is nothing good that they do.  If you need more heat in that basement, install some sort of dedicated heat source for it.  Perhaps a bit of baseboard heated by a hot water loop from the boiler -- lots of systems do this.  Perhaps a radiator set horizontally at the ceiling, heated by steam (the building I super has two of these and they do the job just fine, despite the foundation having been built somewhere in the mid 1700s -- a little draughty!).  But not from uninsulated steam mains.

    Uninsutlated steam mains are just plain trouble.  Furthermore, any problems they are causing will mask any other problems you may have...
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • BikeManDan
    BikeManDan Member Posts: 4
    Heated Politics

    The HOA meeting was mainly called to announce a special assessment.  There were lots of frowns, and lots of whining.  The property manager spent a lot of time pushing the party line, and a potentially expensive subject would definitely have been a minefield right then.  He might have been dropping a couple hints instead:  He pointed out the ceiling radiator in the meeting room as the only place the basement is heated normally, and  qualified his prohibition on insulation with "at least in the laundry areas."

    Perhaps I'll call and try to have a more constructive conversation without all the political baggage.

    I ordered a CO detector just before I posted the first time, but to confirm the safety of my unvented gas fireplace.  Does a CO detector also detect unburned natural gas?
  • floor drain drying out

    put some anti-freeze in that drain, and it will take much longer to dry out, and yet still be functional.

    if the laundry room is cold, can the air leaks be fixed? the system is really held back by the lack of insulation. did you check the pressure?

    if that system were to be properly corrected, it could result in a very large savings of fuel-mine was 1/3 for 55 rads, and 1,050,000 btu! how much would that be in savings on your gas bill?

    there may be more of your neighbors interested in properly functioning heat, so maybe an anonymous note to raise interest would get the ball rolling. they could even visit this site. if you can get them to understand that the system was silent and even ,when the building was first built, then perhaps they can see the need for some corrective action!--nbc
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