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Steam Heat & Headaches

Hi all

Long-time listener, first-time caller. Answered a lot of questions between here and Dan's book?

I'll get right to it—I suspect our heating system is causing me headaches when I sleep. There's a mild but distinct rusty/steamy odor that comes from the radiators, which is likely enough to give me a headache (I'm extremely sensitive to a lot of stuff like perfume and dust, which give me similar headaches). I'm working with a couple doctors to see if there's a medical way to deal with the headaches, but in the meantime I'm just trying to eliminate triggers. FWIW, the issue doesn't seem to be from the dry air (humidifier didn't help). My current theory is there's some trace amount of steam and rust getting into the air before the valve in the vent shuts.

Last winter I had the same problem, but as able to remedy by changing the vent on the radiator and buying a HEPA filter. I slept soundly for the rest of the winter after that. This year the HEPA filter isn't helping and I'm waking up with the headaches again. I haven't changed the vent yet as I figure it should still be good after less than a year, but I'm planning to change it anyway since our bedroom is getting a bit too hot at night.

My questions are:
  1. Is there a way to cut down the rusty smell?
  2. Is there a way to be sure no steam is escaping into the room?
If anyone has any thoughts or insights I'd really appreciate it. Thanks!

Comments

  • BillWBillW Member Posts: 198
    There will be air in a steam system that has to be displaced by the steam when the boiler fires, and it leaves thru the vents. They shut when the temperature reaches their limit, and the steam transfers its heat, condenses back to water, and returns to the boiler and the vents cool down and open again to wait for the next cycle. Water contains dissolved minerals and dissolved gases and these may produce odors when the water is heated. Algae and other organic matter can also produce odors. Have you painted the rads recently? If so, paint solvent vapors may be off-gassing. Dust and dirt build up on rad surfaces, and the microscopic dust particles may be circulating in the air currents around the radiators. Don't expect to see them; anything small enough to ride those currents is invisible. Hatteras suggested some things for you to do, and I agree with him. The only other thing I can suggest is possibly a water filter on the feedwater line, and a visit to an allergist to find out what you may be allergic to. Good Luck.
  • smoothdeitysmoothdeity Member Posts: 9
    edited December 2015
    Thanks for your thoughts, Hatterasguy and BillW

    It is quite interesting that the change of vent did produce a benefit.

    The catch is that I introduced the HEPA filter around the same time as the vent change, so the variables weren't controlled. It's quite possible the vent change did nothing and the HEPA filter was the source of help last winter.

    After doing my homework I remembered that changing the vent shouldn't affect how hot the radiator gets (just how fast it gets hot)—but it sure does seem hotter than I remember it. I figure I might try changing the vent anyway to see if that makes a difference just for the sleep trouble. Maybe it's gone bad more quickly than I expected.

    This may require several fill and draining cycles of the boiler and/or the addition of some TSP to attempt to get it to the cleanest condition possible.

    What is TSP? Tried googling around but there were too many hits on that acronym to figure out what you were referring to. (Edit: searched around a bit more and found the answer—Trisodium Phosphate)
    BillW said:

    Have you painted the rads recently? If so, paint solvent vapors may be off-gassing. Dust and dirt build up on rad surfaces, and the microscopic dust particles may be circulating in the air currents around the radiators. Don't expect to see them; anything small enough to ride those currents is invisible. Hatteras suggested some things for you to do, and I agree with him. The only other thing I can suggest is possibly a water filter on the feedwater line, and a visit to an allergist to find out what you may be allergic to. Good Luck.

    The radiators haven't been painted in ages, but we did add a new radiator cover in the past couple years. It's not painted yet, but the top is some kind of composite wood—maybe that's off-gassing somehow. Or maybe there's some glue in the construction. I'll take the cover off for a night or two and see if that makes any difference. And that's as good a time as any to dust off the radiator. Dust is definitely one of the triggers, so it's certainly possible that's contributing.

    Thanks again!
  • vibert_cvibert_c Member Posts: 63
    @smoothdeity This sounds similar to my chums story. If you have a white powder that settles around the vent area, it comes from an additive that is in the boiler water. This incapacitated him at work in six weeks. He had to retire to get away from it. Would you like the benefit of his experience? If so send me a private memo.
  • neilcneilc Member Posts: 661
    op,
    while you're chasing dust, steam, and off gassing , , ,
    Have you checked, are you monitoring, for CO ?
    CO detectors with digital readouts often have a button to push and will show low levels which will not trigger the alarm.
  • neilcneilc Member Posts: 661
    and if it's allergies,
    your laundry detergent, pillow foam, etc ?
  • smoothdeitysmoothdeity Member Posts: 9
    Update!

    Changed the vent a couple days ago, and have indeed been sleeping better. However, I did get 3 interesting pieces of information in the process:
    1. The old vent was installed in February 2015, so if it indeed went bad it was in less than a year.
    2. The old vent had some chalky white residue around and beneath the opening. Not too much, but noticeable, and definitely liquid by the pattern.
    3. The new vent immediately started "sputtering" as the air is pushed out of the system.
    #3 led me to check the pitch of the radiator—it looks like it's tilted very slightly *away* from the pipe! So my current hypothesis is that the radiator isn't draining properly, and the water is just sitting inside corroding. When the air is pushed out it's taking some of that corroded water along for the ride. This explanation seems to cover all of the observations and issues so far.

    I'm going to try getting the radiator tilted back towards the pipe with a wood shim and see what happens.
  • smoothdeitysmoothdeity Member Posts: 9
    @neilc Good thoughts. Actually am monitoring CO throughout the house and especially near the bedrooms.

    As for the other allergies, I switched to unscented laundry detergent decades ago, and have gone through a couple pillows in the process of experimenting but it never made a huge difference besides replacing an old, dusty one with a new one. Interestingly enough, the allergist said I'm not significantly allergic to much of anything—at least in the regular tests he's done. I have some follow up appointments with him to dig a little deeper, including CT scan of my sinuses which I'm very interested in seeing the results of.
  • saewutyosaewutyo Member Posts: 1
    Forty-five years of severe headaches in various homes qualifies me as a household toxicology expert, kinda sorta.

    If you had ethylene glycol in your system I'd recommend changing it out for propylene glycol, immediately. BIG difference.

    If your boiler is not in a proper plenum room, you are possibly sharing your air and even exhaust with the unit.

    One common culprit I discovered is a nasty tendency for installers in my area to use rubber hose for the fuel feed. The hose verrrry slowly weeps hydrocarbons, like an essential oil diffuser. Headaches, lack of appetite, mood disorders, diabetes, facial sores (especially around the nose) and eventually death are all symptoms of exposure to #2 heating oil fumes. We got off light with 5 out of 6.

    The wood is a good suspect. So are synthetics in clothing, furniture, upholstery, drapes. Due to my wide variety of poisonings I'm probably more sensitive than most.

    My health's all-time worst offender, after numerous abatements, turned out to be my precious mother's oil paintings which, as much as I cherished, I had to finally move into a closet. Viola! No more waking up with unsolicited hangovers. (It WAS the last thing I tried.)

    That only took half a century to figure out.

    Good luck and don't be surprised if people think you're nuts. You're the one who has to live with it, so take it seriously and don't take "no" for an answer. There are always experiments you can devise that will prove your suspicions in any case.
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