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Steam history question

Brian_74
Brian_74 Member Posts: 237
I was never interested in or fond of history until I read TLAOSH. I'm still puzzled by the rapid change from steam/hot water to forced air. I would guess that at its peak in popularity, steam and hot water were used in 80% or more of the homes in the US. I remember reading recently that now all non-forced air forms of heating combined account for 15%. Why did nearly everyone change? Was it because of the development of air conditioning?



I've looked for an answer on the web, but all I can find is the claim that natural gas and electricity caused the demise of coal and of steam/hot water heating. The coal part makes sense (no more fires to stoke) but not the steam/hot water part. Does anyone know the answer?
1929 Ideal Heating vapor system.

Comments

  • Kevin_in_Denver_2
    Kevin_in_Denver_2 Member Posts: 588
    Cost

    Cost is the main reason. Take a set of house plans to several different heating contractors, and forced air will usually be cheaper.



    Production homebuilders account for over 90% of all the homes built, and they don't care too much about comfort because they don't have to live in those homes.
    Superinsulated Passive solar house, Buderus in floor backup heat by Mark Eatherton, 3KW grid-tied PV system, various solar thermal experiments
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,262
    You left out

    that they don't care about the health issues either. Ever seen the inside of a duct that's been in service for a while? I've seen some that look like the birth of the universe with all the primordial life forms in there.......
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Brian_74
    Brian_74 Member Posts: 237
    When did this happen?

    I'm probably being stubborn, but I can't imagine that nearly everyone went with the cheapest installation price. But I think that's why drywall replaced plaster. Still, I'd like to imagine that a certain percentage of the population--who had grown up with radiators--wouldn't want to give them up for the new fangled forced air.
    1929 Ideal Heating vapor system.
  • Brian_74
    Brian_74 Member Posts: 237
    We have those at work

    Makes me sick just to think about it.
    1929 Ideal Heating vapor system.
  • Brian_74
    Brian_74 Member Posts: 237
    We have those at work

    Makes me sick just to think about it.
    1929 Ideal Heating vapor system.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 18,689
    To the best of my recollection...

    which is a little foggy... It happened in the decade after World War II.  There was an incredible explosion of house building in that decade, mostly tract houses.  I have several builder's handbooks from that era (best not ask why), and they all discuss forced air heat.  One of them has a passing mention of hydronic, and none of them discuss steam.  When you look at it, though, it makes sense -- that was also the era of the "ranch" house, and the introduction of pre-manufactured roof trusses.  The installation of a forced air system in a house with that construction is the essence of simplicity -- the furnace comes on a truck, and is light enough to be handled by a couple of hefty guys or a fork lift.  You put it in place in the roof among the trusses, or maybe in a little closet somewhere, and hook up perhaps as much as 30 feet of duct located above the ceilings -- something a labourer with very little training can do -- and you're good to go.  In contrast, steam boilers back then were still pretty big, and required skilled labour to install properly, and hydronic more or less the same.  All very attractive to the tract builders.



    Then folks got used to it -- many of those tract homes were the first house that GI Joe and his Jane ever owned -- and it never occurred to them or their kids that there was anything else.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 15,916
    Exactly.

    That's what I've gleaned from my research as well. Thanks for putting it so well, Jamie.
    Retired and loving it.
  • Brian_74
    Brian_74 Member Posts: 237
    So it comes down to labor

    Thanks, Jamie. If I've understood you, what happened was that the population boom exceeded the availability of skilled labor--houses were needed faster than the craftsman could put them up. This probably drove up the cost of labor, so folks invented or improved simpler to use materials like forced air and drywall to keep costs down.



    I think the same thing happened with cars. Why don't our cars have the two or three dozen grease fittings that they had in the 1970s? It became too expensive to have someone lube them all every 3,000 miles. So we invented sealed bearings and the like.



    Still not sure I buy the "didn't know any better" explanation, though. GI Joe & Jane's first house probably did have forced air but they probably grew up with radiators, no? I say, follow the price of skilled labor.
    1929 Ideal Heating vapor system.
  • Polycarp
    Polycarp Member Posts: 135
    marketing

    In addition to what other people have said, don't forget the impact of marketing. 



    Forced air was marketed as providing "instant" heat.  For people accustomed to the heating lag of steam and water, this could be a very big deal.  Forced air was also marketed as "maintenance free."  No more filling, no more draining, no more bleeding, no more blow-downs, no more balancing.  Just a filter replacement, if even that.  This too could be quite attractive to people accustomed to the ongoing tuning and maintenance of steam and hot water. 



    The "maintenance free" marketing concept has been *very* successful in the US.  Paneling, aluminum and vinyl siding, perma-stone, drop ceilings, etc., all of these really ugly products had great success because of their promise of maintenance-free operation.



    As people have begun to see how really bad forced air is, the main thing that has kept radiant systems from making a bigger come-back is air conditioning and de-humidification.  Forced air systems allow you integrate all of these in one system.  Radiant systems usually mean that if you need air conditioning or de-humidification, you will probably need another system on top .. and that is a big expense.
  • Chris Jones_3
    Chris Jones_3 Member Posts: 12
    edited February 2010
    Air Conditioning

    Growing up in Kentucky, I believe that it was air conditioning that reduced the amount of hydronic systems installed.  Paducah, the city I grew up in had a large building boom in the early fifties when an uranium enrichment plant was built near town to produce fuel for  "the bomb".  Many of the engineers at the plant built custom and expensive houses in town, many with in-slab radiant heat.  When a/c came into wide use in the south, mid-to-late 1960's the same class of people built expensive houses with forced air air conditioning. Why put in two systems.  When the radiant slab heating systems failed, many of these houses were retrofitted with all air systems.  My family is in the construction business, and I have only seen one new house with hydronic heat in the last 30 years.

    When I added air conditioning to my 1915 Kentucky house, most of the contractors wanted me to abandon the hydronic heating system with recessed convectors and rely on gas furnaces.  No one wanted to service the boiler.  I replaced my somewhat ancient Severn boiler and could not have been happier.  I now live in the former "steam town" of Bellows Falls, VT and almost every house has steam, even those built late in the 1950's.  I think this may be because the dead men around town were used to steam from all the mills.
  • ttekushan_3
    ttekushan_3 Member Posts: 942
    from heating tech standpoint

    I find it interesting that the use of forced air heating increased just as suddenly as hot water heating replacing steam where "wet heat" was to be used. This seems to come down to two events: the obsolescence of coal technology and the ascendance of automated on/off gas and oil firing; and the perfection of the water circulator and the squirrel cage blower. Prior to that, gravity hot water and gravity warm air were relegated to narrower, taller structures or anything with a small footprint. Steam could go anywhere -tall buildings, wide houses, up, down, over, under. All worked fine with manual coal firing. Since there was a lot you couldn't do with simple gravity hot water and air systems, steam was king.



    Enter the circulator, and you didn't need those big pipes of gravity hot water or steam (including the costs and care associated with their installation). Enter the squirrel cage blower, and the "cheap" air system could go almost anywhere in an average residence and without those huge furnaces and headbanger ducts. On/off automated firing really made on/off circulation possible and it really seems they developed concurrently.



    Now air heat and water heat could go anywhere- over, under, wide buildings, etc. But the air really won due to first cost and low maintenance. Leaky duct? No problem. Missing return air system with a single big return downstairs somewhere? Not ideal, but it works if you're building on the cheap in a hurry (which came in handy during the post war building boom).



    For example, my immediate neighborhood has steam (houses around 1935), gravity hot water (1920's, 30's), gravity air (also mid 20's to 30's) and "newfangled" forced air (1939-41). Every house in the neighborhood built in 1940-41 is forced air. Steam and gravity hot air got totally shut out in a heartbeat. And no one was thinking air conditioning yet.



    IMO, the electric squirrel cage blower finally did in all the others overnight due to inherent low first cost and low maintenance of warm air heating combined with the flexibility owed to the blower arrangement. When central air conditioning technology became affordable, well, that was that.



    -Terry
    terry
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 15,916
    A question from the general public:

    http://myefficientplanet.com/42298/how-efficient-are-radiators-for-heating-a-house/



    And note the answers.
    Retired and loving it.
  • Brian_74
    Brian_74 Member Posts: 237
    I guess that's it exactly.

    At least when I looked at the answers, there were two. The first was "pro-steam/hot water." The second was rip out anything older than 10 years and put something new in. If these two people represent typical Americans, then it's astonishing that something that half of America prefers is found in less than 15% of the homes. It might be some awesome marketing, as Polycarp suggested. I guess it could be A/C, but my house has A/C added to the vapor system. It could also be the cost as several people mentioned, but I would think that more than 15% of America would be willing to spend more money to get something that they preferred.



    As always, thanks to everyone who replied. I always learn a great deal on the Wall.
    1929 Ideal Heating vapor system.
  • Gordo
    Gordo Member Posts: 797
    There is Another Wrinkle to this Story...

    Builders.



    Several years ago, I worked in a relatively modest custom home in Baltimore City that had baseboard hydronic heat.  These folks were originally from New England.  They wanted hydronic heat in their new home, and they were willing to pay for it.



    Their builder refused.



    They told me they had to tell the builder he would either do it, or they would get another builder.  The builder grudgingly complied.
    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.
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/all-steamed-up-inc
  • jpf321
    jpf321 Member Posts: 1,567
    now all we need....

    all we need is to figure out how to run A/C into a 1-pipe radiator system  :-)



    we probably can't pull humidity out of the air, but we can certainly make the rads pretty cold



    ...hmmm.
    1-pipe Homeowner - Queens, NYC

    NEW: SlantFin Intrepid TR-30 + Tankless + Riello 40-F5 @ 0.85gph | OLD: Fitzgibbons 402 boiler + Beckett "SR" Oil Gun @ 1.75gph

    installed: 0-20oz/si gauge | vaporstat | hour-meter | gortons on all rads | 1pc G#2 + 1pc G#1 on each of 2 mains

    Connected EDR load: 371 sf venting load: 2.95cfm vent capacity: 4.62cfm
    my NEW system pics | my OLD system pics
  • Big-Al_2
    Big-Al_2 Member Posts: 263
    edited February 2010
    Money in the Wind

    Every time my steam boiler fires up from cold, and takes fifteen minutes to even start making steam, I can imagine all the dollar bills flying up the chimney.



    Every time I need to haul down my window shakers from the attic in the summer, put them in and listen to them roar and rumble in order to get cooled off, I sure miss my central A/C.



    Every time I write out a check to the gas company, I sure miss the 94% efficient furnace in my old house.



    Every Saturday when I blow down the boiler and test the LWCO, I sure miss the semi-annual media filter replacement ritual in my old system.



    Every time I need to replace an expensive, heavy cracked radiator or a leaky valve, I sure miss that flimsy tin ductwork.



    I'm a mechanical engineer, and have fun tinkering with my steam heat.  It still makes sense in a large commercial building, but I think that most people who say it's so great in a single family dwelling are just rationalizing.  No doubt, steam heat has a nostalgic "coolness factor,"  but if I could afford to replace my steam boiler, and could figure out where to run the ducts through my 1917 foursquare, I'd do it in a heartbeat.



    I doubt I'm alone in this, and that's why scorched air heat got so popular after furnaces got reasonably compact in the 1940s.
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 15,916
    But then,

    there is steam punk. Can't discount that.  :-)
    Retired and loving it.
  • Big-Al_2
    Big-Al_2 Member Posts: 263
    edited February 2010
    Steampunk

    style is cool . . . It's a cross between high Victorian and Jules Verne.  (The steampunk lifestyle is kind of disturbing though.)  btw: Our downstairs bathroom has sort-of a steam punk motif.  We get a lot of compliments on it.



    Here's a site with some really creative steampunk projects. 



    http://steampunkworkshop.com/taxonomy/term/11
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 15,916
    I would like to live in a city with all of those people.

    Or perhaps on the moon. :-)
    Retired and loving it.
  • Patrick_North
    Patrick_North Member Posts: 249
    I'd rather fight than switch.

    Our previous house had forced air. We fiddled with registers, dampers- the works. It was never terribly comfortable. Uneven heat- those weird "warm drafts." When we replaced the furnace, we had a humidifier added on to try to replace some of what the beast sucked out of the air.

    But frankly, it never occurred to us that anything was "wrong." Warm in the winter, cool in the summer- why complain?

    When we moved into our current home, we had a moment of panic realizing that those big cast iron things in each room of our new, very old house would not be getting nice and cold in the summer time. And while we had some mindless "understanding" of how a forced air system worked, the thought that this antique setup could actually keep us adequately warm in the winter seemed irrationaly optimistic.

    And then winter came and we realized steam heat is the bees knees. Cozy. Toasty. EVEN heat. It's years later I still don't have the vocabulary to describe how much better this is than forced air. Now I tinker- I've read The Books, check the Wall regularly, etc. I am a steam enthusiast. But my wife- who could care less about vaporstats and 4" cast iron fittings (cool, right?!)- remarks regularly that she LOVES our steam heat. Men, this is on a par with us raving about a new handbag and how well it suits the new shoes. Several times a year. Steam is, even for those who don't really understand why, remarkable heat.

    And the gas bill? It's hard to compare. Our old house had a new hot air furnace. Our new place is about 1000 sq ft bigger and has a new steam boiler. Our heating bills are essentially unchanged. And we're more comfortable. And I don't even bother dragging out the window units in the summer anymore- insulate the attic, get an attic fan, and those few really warm days in Central PA are no big deal. And I ain't rationalizing!

    I tell my wife that I'm leaving this house feet first, but if the unthinkable happens (maybe once the nest is a bit emptier) I can imagine joining the ranks of those few living folks who've installed a one pipe system, 'cuz I'm not going without my steam heat.

    Best,

    Patrick North
  • Robbie
    Robbie Member Posts: 41
    edited February 2010
    Steam/Hot Air

    My house(built in 1883) appears to have originally had forced hot air, as did one around the corner we looked at, built in 1904(and still has the original hot air setup, but with a newer heating unit).

    I am thinking about getting the old, and still present, ducts cleaned, and use them to push AC around the place...  I figure they are in place already.

    Still working on the details



    Scott
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,262
    Well, let's take a closer look at this

    "Every time my steam boiler fires up from cold, and takes fifteen minutes to even start making steam"..... If it's taking that long, that's a problem. A modern boiler can produce steam in half that time.



    "Every time I write out a check to the gas company".... See above and look for other things that would increase your gas consumption. Dan's brand-new book "Greening Steam" goes into this in detail. And did you know the typical duct system loses an average 20% of what goes into it?



    "Every Saturday when I blow down the boiler and test the LWCO"... New boilers generally come with probe-type LWCOs, which do not need weekly blowdowns.



    "Every time I need to replace an expensive, heavy cracked radiator".... If you've had to do this a lot, something else is wrong. Maybe you have a pH problem?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Polycarp
    Polycarp Member Posts: 135
    Gravity Air

    If your house is 1883, then it did not originally have forced air. That was the era of gravity air. The furnace heated air and convection currents carried it through the ducts into the rooms. It was popular for a short period - it was put in the capital building in DC and that sent off a trend - but they were replaced in most houses because the technology just wasn't there at the residential scale.



    If you want to use the ducts for AC you need to take a hard look at duct capacity. Gravity ductwork was designed for continuous air delivery. But modern AC was designed to do bursts of air, and that means bigger ducts. This means that the velocity and pressure will have to be much, much higher in your historic ducts (unless you want to run the AC continuously with low velocity air, not a very efficient way to use it). Since the ducts were not constructed for high pressure - they are just tin boxes fitted into each other - you will lose a lot of air through the ducts, which will make the system way more inefficient .. as if forced air weren't inefficient as it is. I have heard that there are duct-liner technologies that can solve the leaky seam problem, but I've not seen them commercially.



    My steam-heated house is in a neighborhood that was all built with a later generation gravity air (around 1900), but almost all of them were replaced with steam and hot water systems. The ones that stayed air and went forced air have astoundingly high heating and cooling bills (imagine heating bills of over $1000/mo with a modern, high-efficiency furnace).



    It still might make sense to you to go ahead with the AC conversion, but keep the impact that the ducts will have in mind.
  • TonyS
    TonyS Member Posts: 849
    No sense in missing that central a/c

    Put in some modern mini splits and you will forget how to say central a/c.
  • Big-Al_2
    Big-Al_2 Member Posts: 263
    Hey Steamhead

    I have an eight year old Burnham IN6 boiler that shipped with a M&M 67 LWVO.  That boiler is still in production, so I'd say it's modern.  Even though it's oversized, when it comes off of a setback, it takes fifteen minutes before the radiators begin to heat.  The house has a pretty large steam main that takes a while to heat up too. I'm not sure what to do about that. 



    Replacing radiators?  I'm not sure what went on before I bought the house, but two risers were capped off and one radiator was cracked near the inlet fitting.  Finding suitable used radiators, removing rusted fittings, getting them sandblasted, painting them, and hauling them into the house was a big project . . . and one of the replacements developed a  some seepage between two sections a couple of weeks after it was installed.  I suspect it got bumped around a bit too much in the reconditioning process. (I've never been in a house with missing ductwork.)



    A modern split unit instead of central air?  Sure, if you only want to cool a couple of rooms, don't mind wall-hung evaporators, and want to spend several times what central A/C costs to add to a forced air system.  I suppose it's better than sweating.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,262
    Main vents!

    you should be able to vent that main quickly with the proper vents, which will get heat to your radiators faster. How long is the main and what pipe size is it?



    How long does it take for the boiler to start making steam, from a cold start?



    Seepage between rad sections usually means a bad push nipple, which is replaceable. I've done dozens of these.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Charlie from wmass
    Charlie from wmass Member Posts: 4,214
    Al despite my bias

    I have been in houses with missing duct work. and miss placed ducts and simply dirty ducts. What man can build another can make work worse for a bit less money.



    Ever seen a forced air system set up with separate returns in each room? Or how about the fact a cooling systems ducts and a heating systems ducts should not be in the same location? DO you move them each season? It comes down to it is cheaper to install forced air. Same reason so many folks got stuck with electric baseboard. In the 1980's it was cheaper to pay an electrician to install electric baseboard than to buy the material to install a proper hot water baseboard system. I ran my ac window unit one day in 2009. A window fan would have been fine but I had the ac unit in the closet closest to my boys bed room. I put it in for that night for them I slept without the ac in my room. The only reason I had to was it was hot and they had just gotten back from a week at their mother's apartment with central ac.
    Cost is what you spend , value is what you get.

    cell # 413-841-6726
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/charles-garrity-plumbing-and-heating
  • Polycarp
    Polycarp Member Posts: 135
    Missing Ducts

    I've seen missing ducts, especially in the return .. I've seen systems with no return ducting at all, just sucking air from the attic or crawlspace.  I've seen ducts disconnected from registers or plenums.  I've seen systems with over 50% duct leakage.  I've seen ducts coated in some built-up goop.  I've seen dessicated animals in ducts.



    The reality is that there are horribly built systems of all kinds.  Forced air will tolerate a lot of horrible problems and still work, it will just be really inefficient.  Unfortunately, forced air is probably the worst way to condition a space, but it is just so hard to beat it on price.
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