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Keeping Steam System Completely Off in Chicago Winter

A couple of quick questions. Thanks in advance.

I inherited a 100+ year old 3 flat in Chicago Lincoln Park with a 1 pipe steam system that must be as old as the building. Is there anything I have to do to winterize the system if I leave it all off all Winter? It can get below zero in Chicago.

Also a bit unrelated, but does not heating a building cause the plaster to crack more?


  • Paul48
    Paul48 Member Posts: 4,469

    If it's plaster it will do more than crack.It may fall off the walls and ceiling in sections.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,736
    You'll want to keep some heat on

    enough so the building doesn't suffer. 

    One of the best steam men in the business is in Chicagoland- go here for his info:

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • icesailor
    icesailor Member Posts: 7,265
    It all fell down:

    Maybe that would happen in Chicago, I don't know.

    Where I live and work in New England, I've lived and worked in buildings that were over 200 years old. I never saw a single case pf plaster falling down because the building was cold. Before I got into plumbing and heating, I worked in masonry and plastering. I've worked repairing and replacing ceilings and walls with hand split wooden laths, lime, sand and horsehair plaster and what was the problems were old hand cut nails working out of the plaster pulling away from between the laths. These were heated and unheated houses. I'm always hearing about damage in cold houses. I see a bigger problem in heated houses where powder post beetles eat year around in heated houses where before, they went dormant during the cold periods and it slowed down the damage.

    But maybe Chicago is different.
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,576
    Plaster problems

    How is the roof in the building? If the plaster has been absorbing any moisture, then the freezing temperatures will cause expansion, and cracking.

    I would be worried about any pipes in the building which may contain some water, no matter how carefully drained. When was it last occupied? Is it in such need of renovation that all the piping would have to be changed anyway? --NBC
  • redspeed
    redspeed Member Posts: 2

    Thanks everyone for all the info.

    It does have a complete new roof and parapet rebuilt a few years ago so should stay pretty dry. Plumbing needs to be totally replaced. Had tenants last winter and a high gas bill. There already is peeling paint and some areas with cracked plaster. Maybe from previous temperature swings. Wouldn't surprise me if the next owners gut the building. - http://www.518fullerton.com/home/photos

    If we ran the heat this winter would it be better to run it once a day for a longer period or multiple times a day for shorter periods.
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,576
    edited October 2012
    Chicago steam

    I would make some simple improvements to the steam system, such as main venting, lower pressure, and a better control system. You could leave the heat on, set to 45, which would stabilize the structure, and make it more comfortable for any prospective purchasers to examine the property.

    There is a limit to how much improvement in efficiency is possible for an old boiler, but you can make the system more responsive, which is more important for this application. You will not save much by using a timer, or setback. The piping configuration can account for large portion of the whole system. Years of deferred maintenance can result in a large decrease of even steam distribution. So what I am trying to say is that some simple repairs/replacements will result in a lower cost of operation for this winter..--NBC

    PS, if the heat is on, then the building will continue to be "owner occupied", and qualify for the lower tax.
  • ttekushan_3
    ttekushan_3 Member Posts: 958
    edited October 2012
    Relative humidity

    Moisture is the real culprit in unoccupied buildings. Anytime I see failing plaster and paint in an unoccupied building, there is a coincidence of roof leaks.

    Now, roof leaks can occur on a very old roof when a building is left unheated for the first time in forever. There's simply inadequate elasticity to old tar based underlayments and coatings when they get cold, particularly on flat roofs. If the building was always heated and the insulation is non existent, then you may never know how badly aged the roof materials are until the heat's shut off.

    In the absence of roof leaks, cold and drafty is good. Especially the drafty part. It will keep the moisture at bay. The steam boiler and wet return piping should be drained, but the rest of the system is "dry" when the steam's off. This is one reason steam continued to be used in institutional settings like schools well into the 50's and 60's. Heat could be shut down over weekends and holiday breaks without fear of perimeter radiators and ventilation fan/coil units freezing during unoccupied periods.

    Another option, as NBC mentions above (and one that I would favor) is to keep the building at about 45 degrees so that any occluded moisture in interior walls won't freeze. I leave you with this study done by the Interfaith Coalition on Energy.

  • Keep it on.....

    Maintaining the Structure at 45F.   Keeping a free standing structure at 45F verus the typical 70F will reduce fuel usage  by about 2/3 in Chicago.  Also,if it is protected on one or both sides by other structures, the heat will run even less because the adjacent structures will keep it warm (the neighbors heating bills will probably go up).  The main problem with plaster is the moisture freezing in the plaster and causing it to separate.  I have been in many structures that were heated in some areas and not others, and the plaster in the unheated areas suffers.

    I have a number of clients within one block of that address( on Fullerton, Belden and Cleveland)  While new owners may make changes, many of the most sought after condos in that area are restrored, not gutted.  With the very high property values there, I would expect it would be worth the couple hundred dollars to keep the structure at 45, versus shutting it off.    Typically some simple and rather inexensive upgrades can be made to the steam and gas system to cut operating costs considerably, even while retaining the old boiler. 
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert

    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • icesailor
    icesailor Member Posts: 7,265
    Raining Plaster:

    I'm not saying to shut off the heat. And leaving it at 45 degrees is a very good idea because it usually stops condensation on walls and ceilings. Its the dewpoint don't you know.

    Maybe midwest plaster is different ffrom New England plaster. What I see as a bigger problem with old plaster walls and ceilings is a type of old paint or paint primer that no matter how well you prepare it, new paint will be rejected. You have to grind it all off or you can skim it with imperial plaster.
  • SWEI
    SWEI Member Posts: 7,356
    old paint

    Vewwwwwwy interesting.  What era?
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