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Need Steam Help and Desperately Need Contractor in My Area!

Hello all!

My fiance' and I recently purchased a cute little 2-story 1930's brick bungalow that has steam heat--which we love the idea of because it seems so clean (we grew up with gas forced air--yuck!). We are currently in the midst of doing some renovations in the kitchen and upstairs bath, and while my plumber/HVAC guy was out to look at replacing a cracked cast iron sewer pipe he noted the 'unique' placement of our radiators that he had never seen before (they are tucked away in the wall). This of course prompted him to look at our heating system.

After looking things over, he planted the idea that the pipes on our steam system are at the end of their lifespan. He noted that sooner rather than later, all the pipes need to be replaced or else they would start causing problems and we would have to rip into the walls to fix them. Since we already have some plaster removed, he mentioned that now would be the time to replace our piping instead of doing it later (a very valid point). Options were discussed that included re-doing all the piping for the current system, switching to hot water, gas forced air, or under floor hot water heating. The inefficiency of steam heat was also mentioned--how the upstairs won't heat as well as the lower floors because by the time the steam reaches the upstairs it already has started to condense.

So, now the seed has been planted and it's gotten us to thinking WAYY too much about our system. We really like the idea of steam heat and don't want to spend the extra money if we don't have to. So I come here seeking answers from all of you who are much wiser than my fiance and I. We really need a second opinion--or opinions--because this is a huge chunk of change we could be talking about.

Here is what I discovered just in the first hour of research on this site:

1. Steam heat (if properly functioning) isn't as inefficient as the guy made it sound.
2. We probably have a two pipe steam system, as there is one pipe leading into our radiators and one pipe leaving them.
3. Our 'in wall' units don't really seem all too 'unique'. They look a lot like the Herman Nelson invisible radiators or the Trane units I found in the Museum section. I assume that they are unique to our area, however, since we live in a farming community and these in-wall units probably cost quite a deal more than most other radiators at the time.
4. We need to be concerned about our system in the sense that it used to be a coal-fired system (the family that sold us the house said it used to be a coal-powered boiler, and there is a coal room) and now it is being powered by a gas steam boiler. Need to make sure that our old pipes are angled correctly, have the right amount of fall for the return line, everything is in working order, etc.
5. We need to make sure its vented properly (and according to the literature on the Herman Nelson radiators, the vents won't be in the wall, they will be somewhere in the basement, though we have no idea where to look)
7. We need a contractor that knows steam! I have a feeling that our system has not been properly maintained, serviced, or installed correctly (in regards to the new boiler). We would feel more comfortable with someone who has experience in this type of thing. Not sure the current guy has much experience in this sector.

So here are my specific questions:

1. Are any of you near the thumb of Michigan or know a knowledgeable contractor who is? I did a search for a contractor on this site and it says there is no-one within 100 miles of us. :(
2. What IS the lifespan of our black iron/old galvanized pipes? Do we need to replace?
3. Where would be the best place to start looking for vents in our system? I only ask because I KNOW it isn't working right. The basement is ROASTING, the main floor is 'eh', and the upstairs doesn't seem to get much heat. I also noticed that a few of the radiators (both upstairs and down) aren't getting warm. Based on this site, it seems proper venting can help with this issue.
4. How involved is maintaining a properly working steam system? I thought I've read that folks are draining the boiler once a week or more...is that normal?

Other things that can help you answer my questions:

1. The boiler is new in 2004 and is powered by natural gas
2. The pipes are (almost 100%) wrapped in asbestos, and run in a loop all along the perimeter of the basement of the house. There are multiple branches off this loop to serve all the radiators.
3. We don't notice any hammering, however there is a slight 'hiss' when the system starts up
4. The radiator in the wall that we did uncover looks to be copper piping with aluminum fins (but I thought I read that copper was bad in a steam system?) We removed a steel heat shield covered in plaster to get to it--normally wouldn't have done this except we are putting tile on the walls in the bathroom and need to remove the plaster first.
5. The only two radiators that aren't in the wall were in the sleeping porch area. They were cast iron stand alone models. I say 'were' because one was removed before we purchased the home--the stains on the wood floor indicate it was leaking condensate. The other one is technically still there but has been capped off and is no longer functional.

I know this was a lot to read, but we definitely need your help! Any and all ideas, opinions, etc. would be greatly appreciated. When I get a moment, I'll be sure to attach some more pictures of our system for your viewing pleasure.

ps. Excuse the terrible bathroom..it was the best one I currently have that shows the radiator vents in the walls and it was taken when we first saw the house.

Comments

  • BobCBobC Posts: 4,946Member
    Welcome to the world of steam heating! These systems are simple and long lived. I do all my own maintenance on the steam side and I have only had to call a service man once in 20 years (replaced the oil primary control) and that was because i had the flu and was too sick to fix it myself. When I had oil I had the system cleaned every year and that was that

    My system is 15 years older than yours and all the piping is original. There is one 15 ft long run that may need attention at some time in the future, the other 6 runs look like new.

    Vertical black iron pipes should last forever, horizontal lines with zero slope are suspect because water might be sitting in them, they can become porous in their old age.

    I would be leery of anybody that starts talking about replacing a steam system, that usually indicates they don't understand steam. Do yourself a favor and buy a copy of "The Lost Art of Steam Heat" that is offered for sale on this site. That one book has all the information you will ever need and the folks here will be happy to answer any questions you have.

    Show us more pictures on the piping around and above the boiler, it does not look look it was done quite right, if it's working ok it can probably be lest the way it is. Also show us an open wall convector if you can. What pressure is the boiler running at and what kind of main vents do you have?

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • Don't worry about the steam pipes rusting through. My house, built in 1885, still has the same pipes. If any pipes will rust out, they will most likely be the wet returns, in the basement
    The piping around the boiler could use some help to make it as the boiler manufacturer requires for quiet, efficient operation, but that could wait until the spring, and requires no wall opening.
    I would think the recessed radiators should have some sort of removeable cover, for inspection.
    There are some excellent steam books in the store here which would give you more information than most of the contractors in your area.
    For now, I would concentrate on checking your operating pressure, and learning how to maintain your boiler.--NBC
  • BobCBobC Posts: 4,946Member
    On closer inspection it looks like you have a couple of returns tied above the waterline, that can lead to trouble. One of your main vents looks like a hoffman 75 and the other looks like it's very old. How long are those steam mains? Does everything seam to heat up at about the same time?

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 10,276Member
    You may have a very fine plumber. I wouldn't know.

    As a heating man, he's -- bluntly -- not to be trusted. If work is needed, find someone else (unfortunately that may be a bit of a problem in your area -- but on the other hand, there isn't that much to do, most likely).

    First -- as NBC and Bob have said, don't worry about the pipes rusting out. They won't, except maybe the odd wet return in the basement. They're fine just as they are! Don't touch them -- or the radiators.

    Nor do they need cleaning or flushing or anything of the sort -- again, except for the odd wet return in the basement, which might.

    Steam heat is only slightly less efficient than the very best hot water mod/cons -- not enough less to justify the expense of switching. Don't do that.

    Steam heat can be made perfectly even floor to floor. With two pipe, slight adjustments can be made on the radiator inlet valves if some rooms are too hot or too cold.

    On two pipe there are vents in the basement, probably near the boiler. There are none on the radiators -- but there may be traps on the radiator outlets. It's not hard to check them. Can you get the covers of the in-wall units off and take pictures of the inlet and outlet and post them?

    I'll have more thoughts later...
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • AbracadabraAbracadabra Posts: 1,948Member


    After looking things over, he planted the idea that the pipes on our steam system are at the end of their lifespan. He noted that sooner rather than later, all the pipes need to be replaced or else they would start causing problems and we would have to rip into the walls to fix them. Since we already have some plaster removed, he mentioned that now would be the time to replace our piping instead of doing it later (a very valid point). Options were discussed that included re-doing all the piping for the current system, switching to hot water, gas forced air, or under floor hot water heating. The inefficiency of steam heat was also mentioned--how the upstairs won't heat as well as the lower floors because by the time the steam reaches the upstairs it already has started to condense.

    Sorry, can't answer all your questions right now, but please promise me you don't ever let that guy back in your house. There's an image I think @Hatterasguy posts every so often. It goes something like this:



  • JUGHNEJUGHNE Posts: 5,578Member
    edited December 2015
    You need access to the inlet and outlet piping to each radiator. This is something to consider as you remodel. More pictures of your radiators/convectors are needed. The bathroom picture you have.....is the white grill where the heat come out of the convector? there should be some bottom grill for air to enter?

    Your plumber may be innocent, he just doesn't know that he doesn't know. He should learn as perhaps there are more steam systems in your area. Steam work is certainly more interesting than toilets and drain lines. :)
  • ChrisJChrisJ Posts: 9,626Member
    edited December 2015
    Steam heat when working properly is fairly efficient, often more so than forced hot dust.

    Also, when working properly you can have every room the same temperature. The second floor the same temperature as the first floor etc.

    Furthermore, DO NOT REPLACE THE PIPES! As others have said, this was either a flat out lie, or, hopefully, he just has no idea what he's talking about.

    My steam system in a drafty 150 year old house runs for less than our next door neighbors forced hot air system and he has a smaller house with modern windows. We both run 72F inside and obviously have very similar outdoor conditions.

    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
  • BeatlesChick86BeatlesChick86 Posts: 5Member
    Hello all!

    Thanks so much for all your comments, thoughts, ideas, etc. I'm really glad that I decided to ask a few questions--this has helped immensely!! My fiance and I read everything you had to say, and spent an hour or so tracing our steam pipes in the basement to find any vents, see how the entire system is plumbed, identify any problem areas, monitor the system as it runs, etc. Never in my life has a heating system been so interesting!

    Based on your responses, we've decided that we are definitely keeping the steam system--no hot dust blowing around for us! Thanks to all of you who confirmed what we had thought---that our guy doesn't know anything about steam heat.

    It's taken a bit because of the Christmas holiday, but I've finally taken some pictures and I've attached them to this reply. Hopefully this can help all of you get a better idea of our system.

    The pictures you are seeing attached to this message are better pictures of our boiler, the piping (ugh! Copper and it's oxidizing that icky red color), and the vents we've discovered (a Hoffman 75, a Dole 99, and a Dole 1933--vented off of a radiator that was added to the system at a later date--more on this in a later post). You will also see pictures of the in-wall unit and what the walls look like when they're not torn apart.

    In the next couple posts, I'll also quote what a few of you have asked with my responses listed below.
  • BeatlesChick86BeatlesChick86 Posts: 5Member
    BobC said:



    Show us more pictures on the piping around and above the boiler, it does not look look it was done quite right, if it's working ok it can probably be lest the way it is. Also show us an open wall convector if you can. What pressure is the boiler running at and what kind of main vents do you have?

    On closer inspection it looks like you have a couple of returns tied above the waterline, that can lead to trouble. One of your main vents looks like a hoffman 75 and the other looks like it's very old. How long are those steam mains? Does everything seam to heat up at about the same time?

    Bob

    Hi Bob!

    Thanks for looking my post over! I'm sure the piping around the boiler was not done right, mainly because it was done in copper, just for starters. I'm surprised the piping has lasted this long--2004 is when the boiler was apparently installed. I can tell that copper is not good with steam just from the red color that the pipes are turning.

    I've provided a better picture of the piping near the water line that I'm thinking you're referring to. I don't know if you can tell from the picture, but the wrapped pipes on either side of the green vent seem to be returns. The red copper pipe flows back down to the boiler. The small black pipe toward the top of the picture actually connects to the water line, which then is attached to a pump (see picture) that ensures we never get low on water in the boiler. It seems to me that if the pump is on, water will flow first into these return lines, and then down into the red pipe and into the boiler. What kind of problems can this hookup lead to? Also, my question is this: If there is a pump that ensures our boiler always has enough water, how will we ever be able to tell if the system has a leak somewhere and is slowly losing steam/water? Is this type of pump acceptable on a boiler setup like ours?

    As far as the pressure, when the system turns on, the gauge never moves. To us that means either:
    1. There isn't enough pressure to get steam through the entire house.
    2. The system is running optimally at .5 PSI of pressure, but our gauge only reads in increments of 1 so the .5 is undetectable.
    I would assume the former of the two is correct, since the radiators toward the end of the loop AND those upstairs are heating up very slowly, if at all.

    Our steam mains seem to run the entire loop of our home's basement--one big line (maybe a 3 or 4" main) comes off the boiler and then splits to circle each half of the house. Not sure how many linear feet it is, but it seems like a lot.

    Our vents are a Hoffman 75 (the big one), a Dole 99, the one next to the Hoffman, and a Dole 1933 (off the radiator in another part of the basement). The green one you see in the picture of the water line piping is unidentifiable because it's corroded so badly. What I'm wondering is whether the vents should be replaced, or maybe even if they are gunked up with deposits coming off that oxidized copper piping. What do you think? What would you replace with?

  • BobCBobC Posts: 4,946Member
    edited December 2015
    How long is the main for each main vent and what size pipe is each steam main?

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • BeatlesChick86BeatlesChick86 Posts: 5Member



    Steam heat can be made perfectly even floor to floor. With two pipe, slight adjustments can be made on the radiator inlet valves if some rooms are too hot or too cold.

    On two pipe there are vents in the basement, probably near the boiler. There are none on the radiators -- but there may be traps on the radiator outlets. It's not hard to check them. Can you get the covers of the in-wall units off and take pictures of the inlet and outlet and post them?

    Hi Jamie!

    I would LOVE to know how to make this system even and as efficient as possible!! I've attached all the pictures I have of the in-wall units--just excuse the dust from remodeling AND the junk that the previous owner left under the radiators (ick!) The good views of the radiator are of the unit that we exposed completely during a bathroom remodel.

    I think I see what you mean about a trap on the radiator outlet--let me know if that's what you were talking about and how to best adjust them. However, adjustment might be difficult given the small space we have to work with....
  • BeatlesChick86BeatlesChick86 Posts: 5Member
    ChrisJ said:

    Steam heat when working properly is fairly efficient, often more so than forced hot dust.

    Also, when working properly you can have every room the same temperature. The second floor the same temperature as the first floor etc.

    My steam system in a drafty 150 year old house runs for less than our next door neighbors forced hot air system and he has a smaller house with modern windows. We both run 72F inside and obviously have very similar outdoor conditions.

    ChrisJ,

    I can only hope/dream of getting our system like yours!!

    Right now our system is obviously not running as efficiently as it could, since we have radiators not heating, a basement that's roasting and a second floor that's freezing, etc. We aren't living in the house during the remodel, so we are keeping the house set at 58 degrees (to keep pipes from freezing etc.) Our heating bill was 130 dollars last month--to me that seems really high for 58 degrees in a 2000 sq. ft. house! I'd hate to see what it'd be at when we are at the 72 that we'd like to have it at!!! Especially when my parents' 3000 sq. ft. home with forced air is set at a whopping 74 and they tell me they paid 330 last month!

    Hopefully with the help of yourself and others we can get our steam system in tip-top shape!! Can't wait to tackle this bugger and her purring like a kitten again!
  • SteamheadSteamhead Posts: 12,868Member
    That's a Trane Vapor system using B-1 traps on the radiators. Pretty straightforward- you'll probably have to replace at least some of the trap elements, and install some bigger vents on the steam and return limes. I think there's a steam guy from Detroit who comes on here, can't remember his name though......
    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
  • AbracadabraAbracadabra Posts: 1,948Member
    Wider angle pic of the boiler showing all the piping attached to the boiler please?

    You'll need to install a gauge that goes 0-3 or 0-5psi. You probably have one that goes to 30psi. That's basically useless for determining what pressure your system is running at. You shouldn't have to go above 1psi.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 10,276Member
    Steamhead said:

    That's a Trane Vapor system using B-1 traps on the radiators. Pretty straightforward- you'll probably have to replace at least some of the trap elements, and install some bigger vents on the steam and return limes. I think there's a steam guy from Detroit who comes on here, can't remember his name though......

    Just so -- and the Trane vapour systems were (and are!) some of the very best systems.

    You probably will have to replace some of the trap elements -- that may be where some of the unevenness comes from. Fortunately, that isn't that hard to do, and from the pictures it looks as though you have the headroom to do it. It can be a do-it-yourself, but we can help you find the right replacement elements and guide you as to how to go about it without damaging things. It's not that hard, either, to identify traps which need help. The outlets should be somewhat warm when the radiator is good and hot -- but they shouldn't be steam hot. An IR thermometer is the best way to measure, but the old yeouch text works, too. They can fail two ways. Open, and the outlet will be steam hot once the system has run for a while, and so will the outlet pipe. Closed, and the radiator -- if it heats at all -- won't heat well, and the outlet pipe will be relatively cool or cold, once you get any distance from the trap.

    Trane -- and all vapour systems -- run on very low pressure. For that you will need to add what is called a vapourstat to make sure the boiler doesn't develop too much pressure, and it is helpful to add a 0 to 3 psi pressure gauge. Can you post a picture of the controls on the boiler? That will help figure out the best way to do that.

    You will have a good time working on getting this right, and it won't be that hard -- and the results will be wonderful!
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • Congratulations, you are so lucky to have one of the very best steam systems which was made!
    With a little TLC you will have supreme comfort and economy.--NBC
  • ChrisJChrisJ Posts: 9,626Member
    @BeatlesChick86 When working right, your system will surpass mine.

    It just needs a little love.
    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
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