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

A love hate relationship

First off, I love steam heat. That was one of the things that prompted me to buy this house, (along with the neighborhood, view, etc). I love walking into a room and feeling the radiant heat emanating from those big bulky cast iron beasts. And when I bought this home, the heat worked. All the radiators got hot, and the house was warm. It had a new boiler and I thought how much better can this get? And then I started reading. I read old books from my grandfather, and I found this site. Then I bought Dan's books and read them. Herein lies the hate, the downfall of my love for steam heat. Through reading I have found that my near boiler piping is very wrong, I have no header, and no hartford loop, just to start. The boiler is undersized for the edr of my rads. My near boiler return trap and air vent aren't working (and I haven't yet determined if they are broke or if that is part of the new boiler piping). So I have wet steam, rads not heating, air not venting in my returns, the list goes on. All from a system in a house that was just installed from a professional.  Yes I still have heat in the house but I'm paying for the fuel and it is atrocious! So after that rant, how far can a system be knuckleheaded and still be brought back to its glory? I certainly can't recoup anything from the pro that installed a too small boiler with piping not remotely to what the manufacturer even recommend, because I didn't authorize or sign off on the work. I've had 4 steam guys in here for various problems with the system and not one of them mentioned that the near boiler piping was scary at best. I'm a competent woman who is an aircraft mechanic. I'm "not" a steam mechanic, but at this point I'm frustrated to the point of questioning all the work that has been done to the piping and wanting to just fix it myself. Again, I'm sorry for this rant, but if anyone has any input on horrible systems brought back to life, I'd love to hear them.

Thanks, Dee
steam newbie


  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,728
    It's not the fact that it's steam

    or Vapor, in your case. The problem is that the wrong people have messed with it. These guys don't know, or don't care, or both. We see this every day, and hate the way it makes everyone in the business look bad.

    Keep at it. Your system will work great once it's de-knuckleheaded.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,928
    As I said on another thread...

    sometimes a little knowledge can just ruin things, can't it?  However... you are in pretty good shape, basically, since things do heat and all the radiators get hot.  There really are two halves to any steam system -- the distribution and radiation, on the one hand, and the steam generator (boiler and near boiler piping) on the other.  The fact that your steam generator section appears to be somewhat odd, at best, does not mean that the rest of the system is -- in fact, the distribution and radiation are probably pretty good, although they may need a little TLC.

    The boiler and near boiler piping, however.  Now that's a different story.  But even there, it may not be as bad as it seems.  For instance: how badly undersized is the boiler?  In one place you said all the radiators get hot (although in another you said they didn't?), it may not be that bad.  It is quite possible that making sure everything is insulated may be all that is needed to match the size; possibly a higher firing rate might be needed, but still within the capacity of the boiler.  The near boiler piping, though, should be corrected.  That's where your wet steam is coming from, and the wet steam is hurting things all down the line -- it could be the problem with radiators not heating, for instance.

    Fortunately, replacing near boiler piping is quite doable, and usually worth the expense.

    One does want to take things a step at a time -- and in this situation, I'd suggest that step one would be do redo that near boiler piping (assuming, that is, that the boiler really isn't that badly undersized -- do you have available the EDR for the radiation and the current and maximum ratings for the boiler?  Then we can comment on them?).  Then figure where, and how much venting you need.

    If you are an A&P, you should be able to do a lot of the work yourself, although you will have to buy some tools (48" pipe wrenches aren't much use on an airplane, and I never saw much need for pipe threaders and the like in that trade, either!).  It isn't really hard, although it can be time consuming (like: do it in the summer!).

    As to how far can a system be knuckleheaded and brought back to life?  In my humble opinion, if most of the distribution system is intact (although, possibly, badly hung and uninsulated) and the radiation is still there, it can be brought back to something like its original glory.

    So I would say to you -- don't despair and don't let your frustration last overnight, if you can help it.  Keep reading, keep asking questions, and you'll get there!  (I don't know what kind of birds you work on, but I've seen some awfully tacky looking Cessnas and Pipers come back out of a decent shop looking -- and flying -- better than new!).
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • crash2009
    crash2009 Member Posts: 1,484
    Before and after

    I have been working on our steam system for a couple years now.  I wish I had the budjet to fly in one of the contributing pro's here and just have them knock it out in a weekend.  I have been rebuilding mine for a couple years now.  Compared to the way it was it's a lot better now.  When I took over this place the boiler was in such bad shape that I thought it was a bomb.  Many cold winter nights I thought it was going to blow up.  Before, the house never really warmed up.  All the system did was move the cold back and forth from one side of the house to the other.

    Things are different now.  The gas bills are lower, the house is more comfortable, I feel safe, we get many complements.  The previous owner visited recently and asked "How did you do that?"

    Like you, I am a voratious reader, and I am always open to suggestions.  Hopefully we will get it right eventually.  Heating Help and their members have helped me so much to get to where we are.  I feel confident that whatever steam problem does pop up in the future, the members here will have an answer.

  • The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)
    edited February 2011
    It is almost alwys worth the effort

    One of the earliest systems I worked on was a Moline system in a big old two story 1880's 4500 sq ft home that looked like it was out of Gone With The Wind.

    This system had been added on to, the boiler was piped incorrectly and oversized, a condensate pump and numerous traps had been added and the fuel bills were enormous.

    The boiler did the owner a favor and developed a big hole, so they were forced to do a replacement,  With the help of information from this site and its proprietor and some thinking, we were able to intgrate the addition, eliminate the pump and all the traps, put in a boiler that was techinucally undersized ( but fits the system very well) and cut the fuel usage by about 75%.  They were heating this leaky frame home with almost no insulation or storm windows on the massive windows, 12 foot ceilings on the first floor and 10 on the second for only 350.00 during the worst month in Northern Illinois.   Oh and the second floor heated properly for the first time in at least 50 years.

    Steam and vapor are hands down some of the best systems to heat any structure......when they are not knuckleheaded.

    As to the "undersizing" of the boiler, that may not be a problem at all if the system is properly tuned. Look in the hot tech topics for an article I wrote on the subject.
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert

    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • JohnLaPlante
    JohnLaPlante Member Posts: 49
    edited February 2011

    ...I'm with you!  After reading Dan's books and this site, I'm pretty sure I know how things should look in my system and what needs to be done.  However, there aren't any local heating people who will agree to work on my system.  I have diagrammed my system (took me about 4 hours), and created a very detailed list of what needs to be done.  I have sent it to 3 contractors, all of whom gave me the "hmm..." answer, and then never called back.  I know Dan mentions in his books that HVAC contractors like informed customers, but I'm starting to think that it's not true in my area.  I think the contractors around here want you to be in awe that they know the difference between 1-pipe and 2-pipe steam...

    Case in point...I had an HVAC contractor at my house back in December...my boiler was short cycling way more than I was used to.  He proudly said that I had a vapor system, and that not too many pros in our area would know the difference.  At which point he declared that my problem with short cycling was due to the pressure being too low...and he proceeded to crank my Pressuretrol up to 5psi.  My gas bill for the next month was twice what I was expecting.  I found this site, bought Dan's books, and reset my pressuretrol to 0.5/1.0.  Through this site I was able to determine that my supply main vent was stuck shut.  Which leads me to...

    ...Another case in point.  I called a reputable HVAC Steam contractor, who came out to install some new Gorton vents that I purchased, along with all of the connectors and parts.  He installed them with no teflon tape, no pipe dope, nothing...just screwed them on.  I asked him about this, and he replied that it really wasn't needed because the system was operating at such low pressure.  Guess what...all of the joints leaked water.  I had to rip it all out and install it myself. 

    So I hear you...sorry for the minor thread hijack and rant...I think the only reason I rant is that I love steam heat, and I think it adds so much to the house...

    So to answer your question, I have committed to restoring my system to its glory, but I think I'm going to have to do a LOT more reading.  I will be purchasing all of Dan's books, and I'm even toying with purchasing some training videos from Weil McLain on Steam Boiler operations and Electricity for HVAC techs. 

    Keep at it!!
  • moneypitfeeder
    moneypitfeeder Member Posts: 249
    Thanks for the encouragement

    Thank you all, (I think I mainly needed to vent). The article Boilerpro wrote is great. I feared that I would never get efficiency if the boiler was undersized even after all the piping and venting was resolved. But reading that article I don't think I'm that far off. My total EDR is 499.2, and with the standard pick up I need 159,345.6 MBH. My boiler is a Utica peg c 187, and its doe rating is 151,000. My mains are all insulated, and my house doesn't lose heat very fast its brick on brick old gypsum board and plaster. I currently only have 1 problem child radiator that won't heat. Every other radiator in the house heats. I can hear water in the piping to it, and it doesn't seem to be allowing the condensate to drop into the return. I've replaced the trap on it and the rad in the next room that had failed, and checked all the other traps off that main and I can hear them close. I opened up the air vent in the basement next to the boiler, and for a few days I got heat at that radiator. Now its gone cold again, and I'm back to hearing sloshing. I'm guessing that until I get the near boiler piping fixed this won't be able to be resolved. And a good flush on the returns is probably in order. To Jamie, I'm a helicopter girl, I work on Hueys, Kiowas, and Chinooks.
    steam newbie
  • crash2009
    crash2009 Member Posts: 1,484
    The problem child

    Just a couple idea's for you. 

    I have 1 shut-off valve that sticks when you go to open it, (bent stem) can you make sure the valve is full open.

    On a few of my other rads, over the years they dug a hole in the floor and got lower.  I had to jack them up to get them to drain correctly.  Its a 2 person job.  1 to pry it up and the other to shim the feet.  I had to be careful not to break anything though or its plummer time.
  • jimmythegreek
    jimmythegreek Member Posts: 56
    keep at it!

    You already know the terminology and have a grasp for steam, its a huge help that you are a mechanically inclined person.  If you can tackle a chinook, you can handle some iron pipe no prob.  What area are you in?  and if you can post some pics of the problem child and area maybe we can help.  I will give you a little suggestion.  I fixed a few rads that were cold for years by simply wet/vac sucking the valve with the rad removed.  So much crud built up the steam could get there but no water out. BE CAREFUL if you do while boiler is still carrying steam, itll do a number on the vac and hose will shrink/melt after a min or so.  I did a few and some more than once, the heat coming back in loosened up the cruddy rust and eventually with a little more pitch and vent play rads usually heat.  I have also removed the floor valve and flushed/snaked the lines solving a dud rad.  U gotta get creative sometimes..........
  • backflushing radiators

    here is an earlier thread on the subject. i am not sure about using a vacuum, but i know this works:


  • crash2009
    crash2009 Member Posts: 1,484
    Shop vac works good

    I have used the shop vac on cold radiators, a couple times, with good success both times.  I don't take the radiator off the shut-off valve, although that sounds like a good idea for a tough clog.

    Just remove the radiator vent, and vacuum the vent hole.  Here is another example of it working.  This guy, from Calgary, Alberta took it 1 step further and built a rig to connect to the air-vent hole.  I suggested he try the vacuum on January 20, and havn't heard a peep out of him since.  http://www.heatinghelp.com/forum-thread/134542/Steam-close-to-radiator-but-leaves-me-cold#p1217744  It sounds a little ridicules but it works.
  • moneypitfeeder
    moneypitfeeder Member Posts: 249
    I can get steam if...

    If I loosen the coupling from the valve to the rad and let all the air/ water out. as soon as I start to get steam I crank that union tight, then I go to the trap side loosen that union to bleed the air out, and that rad will get steam all the way across. Just for that 1 cycle. By the next time the boiler kicks on, it will have locked itself up again. I really am thinking its the piping near the boiler, and the way the returns are piped that not allowing the condensate and air to come down and get vented. I think this rad is more affected because its a tiny 4ft baseboard that I can pickup myself vs. all other (but 1 more larger bb) that are the large convector type. They have a lot more room internally and don't seem to be as finicky. I've played with the pitch since I can move it easily, no dice. I have a call into Marsh Steam to see if they can get me the original piping layout for their boiler return/ air vent. (I think when the repl. boiler went in it screwed with the water line, putting the boiler return too high from the new water line. I don't think its equalizing the pressures that it needs to in order to force the condensate back to the boiler. (it takes forever to get back, and my feed is adding water sometimes every day) And I think its vent is either, affected by the piping change, or needs its guts changed. I'll let ya'll know when Marsh gets back to me. Thanks!
    steam newbie
  • off again-on again

    could steam in the returns from another bad trap be closing that rad trap down, and preventing it from doing its job?--nbc
  • moneypitfeeder
    moneypitfeeder Member Posts: 249
    didn't dig the stethascope out yet,

    But if the house is quiet, and I cup my ear to the traps I can hear air moving on boiler startup, and after a bit it goes completely silent. Then if I continue to listen I can hear what sounds like drops of water (guessing the condensate dropping to the bottom). So long story short I've checked them all and can hear them all close. I haven't had the patience to wait for them to open back up again. My instant temp gauge didn't seem to work real well, so I went low tech. 
    steam newbie
  • moneypitfeeder
    moneypitfeeder Member Posts: 249
    I should clarify

    I can test all the traps but the one cold rad. When its cold, and airlocked I obviously can't hear anything off it.
    steam newbie
  • bad trap?

    if you open the bad trap, and remove the insides, then close it back up, will the radiator then work? did you tell us what your pressure was in ounces?--nbc
  • moneypitfeeder
    moneypitfeeder Member Posts: 249
    the problem lies beyond

    The trap on the cold rad was just replaced w/ a barnes & jones cage unit. The problem is that there is either water not draining, or air not venting or both from what I can tell. If I swap the cage unit from the rad in the next room it still functions the same. (they're both Warren Webster O2H traps both with brand new cage units). The rest of the house is a Marsh system, from before they ever had their patents. (side not those all work fine) These 2 rads share a supply and return riser, and the larger baseboard rad gets heat just fine, the little guy not at all. Even if I turn the supply valve off to the larger rad, the little one doesn't heat. These then drip to a dry return (no F&T trap, it doesn't tie to the steam main). Then they travel back to boiler return and air vent. The air vent is venting a little, but not enough. And then we're back to my near boiler mess. I'm pretty certain the key lies in that near boiler piping, and sorting out why the boiler return and air vent seem to have be taken "offline". (without putting a condensate pump in to compensate for their lack of functioning). 
    steam newbie
This discussion has been closed.