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.

Replacing Steam -- is this a crazy plan?

Options
I've checked out some past threads here and given that others have had similar questions, and similar solutions, I thought it would be good to get this out there for feedback and possibly to help others.

I'm in the NY area in a house about 100 years old, with steam radiators. In the past year, we've had two holes/leaks open up in the main steam feed line. The return, and most of the radiators, are fine, although some of the radiators are set in the wall and the vales are truly "stuck" without major work.

The system works, but is getting old. I had a plumber in to patch the holes, and he said that given the age of the pipes, it's likely that we'll get more holes and that it's just as likely for a leak to be in an easy-to-access area as it is to be in a wall.

I'm considering what my options are, although I do actually have some options, as my house has central AC. It is, of course, AC, so the duct openings are in the ceilings. With the steam boiler in the basement, the basement gets warm and steamy pretty regularly (usually from the pressure release at the end of a big heating cycle). So:

1. Get rid of steam, update to hot water radiators, running all new pipes
2. Keep steam, but get forced air and run both systems together (primarily forced air)
3. Get rid of steam and replace with forced air.

I am very tempted by the 3rd option, primarily due to cost compared to hot water, but forced air is not as comfortable as radiant-style heat. So, here is my crazy plan:

1. Get rid of radiators and steam/boiler
2. Update AC to include forced air heat, replacing the fan in the attic (vented) with a furnace
3. Install whole-house humidifier to address dry-heat in winter
4. Install radiant floors on main level to keep the main living space comfortable

This seems to give me the greatest flexibility, since the upper levels would be warmed by forced air in the evenings, and the main living space would be heated primarily by the floors (which would shut off overnight). I'd replace our aging floors at the same time, with hardwood, as I've read that putting hardwood over radiant floors is fine as long as you address the humidity problem.

I don't love the steam, as our system is old and without diligent cleaning, which takes about 30 minutes once a week, it clangs, and is also uneven so we have a space heater in our bedroom and my son's (2.5 yr old) room. Not having the radiators would also free up some floor space. However, spending a fair amount of money to install a system that we dislike is even worse!

Comments

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,652
    edited February 2017
    Options
    On the other hand, why not fix the steam? It would cost a lot less than any of the other options and, despite @Hatterasguy 's comment, it will be just as comfortable.

    Steam shouldn't clang, and needn't, if its properly set up. Steam requires very little maintenance -- just cleaning and tuning the boiler once a year.

    It's very very rare -- vanishingly rare -- for leaks to develop in the steam mains. Wet returns, yes. Almost to be expected. But steam mains? Rare. But even so, it is no big deal to cut out the old leaker in the basement and replace it -- since I take it that being in the basement it is accessible. It is clear that you have some other problems with the system, though, which are also easy to fix for the most part, and inexpensive -- but could make a difference.

    First, get the boiler pressure set right: no more than 1.5 psi cutout, and 0.5 psi cutin.

    Second, replace the vent(s) which you say release steam at the end of a big cycle. They're toast. They shouldn't do that.

    Third, add main venting; it's unlikely that you have enough -- or that it works.

    Fourth, find and repitch the pipes which have sagged and which are making the clangs.

    Fifth, repair the radiator inlet valves which don't work. This is hardly a "major" project.

    Sixth, if this is single pipe steam -- that is, there are vents on the radiators -- you would probably be well off to replace them. While you are doing that, you can adjust them so that each room gets exactly the amount of heat you need.

    Seventh, insulate all the steam carrying lines in the basement.

    If you're doing all that, you might also take a hard look at the boiler. If it is more than about 15 years old, it may be time to think of a new one -- but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That would be by far the priciest bit of the project -- but wouldn't cost any more than a new boiler for the hot water, which you would have to have if you went that way.

    All of the options you mention are more expensive than the above work would be, and are marginally to very much less comfortable.

    If you plumber can't imagine doing these things, find a good steam man who can -- there are a number of them in the New York area. Look under "Find a Contractor" on this site.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 15,920
    Options
    Or option #5, replace the questionable pipes and leave the rest alone?

    This is the first I've heard steam pipes being likely to fail. It sounds like your plumber doesn't work on steam, and likely shouldn't.

    Below are some guys from our area that know steam well.
    They also do hot water of course. Forced air maybe, not so much depending on the guy. Be warned, forced air can work very well, but it ends up very expensive to do well and most residential forced air systems are done poorly. There is no free lunch.

    Steam, Hot Water, Forced Air. They can all work well, or be done cheap. Never both.

    @JohnNY
    @Paul S
    @EzzyT
    @Dave0176


    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
    RomanGK_26986764589BobC
  • EggyToast
    EggyToast Member Posts: 6
    Options

    EggyToast said:



    1. Get rid of steam, update to hot water radiators, running all new pipes


    You should seriously consider this option more carefully.

    Two caveats:

    1) The radiators need to be "HW radiators" and can be used for HW without replacing them (a photo or two will confirm).
    They're definitely cast iron radiators, and could not be used for HW, so I'd have to replace (about 11, some freedstanding and some in the wall)


    Second, replace the vent(s) which you say release steam at the end of a big cycle. They're toast. They shouldn't do that.
    Fifth, repair the radiator inlet valves which don't work. This is hardly a "major" project.

    Sixth, if this is single pipe steam -- that is, there are vents on the radiators -- you would probably be well off to replace them. While you are doing that, you can adjust them so that each room gets exactly the amount of heat you need.

    I have replaced the valves that are accessible, so that each room has its own control (or better control). The overall heating in the house is decent now, but there are 2 valves that are positioned in such a way that they simply don't unscrew. I'm sure a plumber could cut them off.

    Similarly, one radiator is significantly tilted away from its valve, but it's because of the floor, and adding a 2" lift on one side makes everything else in the space not fit. I suppose it's not the end of the world.

    It is single pipe steam -- in general the system seems OK, but old.
  • EggyToast
    EggyToast Member Posts: 6
    Options
    ChrisJ said:


    This is the first I've heard steam pipes being likely to fail. It sounds like your plumber doesn't work on steam, and likely shouldn't.

    It is a good point. Before I spent any money I would prefer to get someone to take a look at the system and give an honest opinion. I had one guy come look to address the clanging, and he said (not an exact quote):

    "Steam clangs when it's dirty. Your radiators are pretty much tilted fine and some of your valves are old. But to really address it we'd need to clean it, and I'd install a flush intake on the boiler, and we'd run hot water through it for about 2-3 hours. We'd probably want to do that each season for 3 years."

    And gave a big quote for that, just for the clanging. The clanging and burbling is fine in the day, and not consistent, but we've had the radiator in our bedroom off all winter, using an electric plug-in radiator instead so that we aren't woken up at 2am. Of course, the radiator in my son's room doesn't clang.
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,839
    Options
    Unusual for steam mains to get leaks unless at joints caused by water hammer.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,652
    Options
    ChrisJ said:

    Or option #5, replace the questionable pipes and leave the rest alone?

    This is the first I've heard steam pipes being likely to fail. It sounds like your plumber doesn't work on steam, and likely shouldn't.

    Below are some guys from our area that know steam well.
    They also do hot water of course. Forced air maybe, not so much depending on the guy. Be warned, forced air can work very well, but it ends up very expensive to do well and most residential forced air systems are done poorly. There is no free lunch.

    Steam, Hot Water, Forced Air. They can all work well, or be done cheap. Never both.

    @JohnNY
    @Paul S
    @EzzyT
    @Dave0176


    Talk to any one of those four good folks.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • EzzyT
    EzzyT Member Posts: 1,297
    Options
    @EggyToast send me a private message
    E-Travis Mechanical LLC
    Etravismechanical@gmail.com
    201-887-8856
  • EggyToast
    EggyToast Member Posts: 6
    Options
    Here's my two types of rads. The inset one in particular seems to have the original valve (and keeps the kitchen steamy)



  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,652
    Options
    you would have to replace at least the upper one, and most likely the other should be. As I said in a previous pose, if the kitchen one keeps the kitchen steamy, the vent -- the little thing on the front -- isn't working properly if at all. If by steamy you just mean "too warm", then you can adjust that by changing the vent to a slower one -- but don't do that until you get the main venting fixed.

    And the clanging. I expect, from your comment about the radiator which is off level the wrong way, that your house may have settled some over the years. They do. And that may have let some of the pipes pitch the wrong way, so they don't drain properly. That's the usual cause of clanging -- and is almost always very easy to fix.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 17,008
    Options
    Keep the steam.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • EggyToast
    EggyToast Member Posts: 6
    Options
    Well, we're going to do an analysis of what we currently have to at least know what we're starting from.
  • MilanD
    MilanD Member Posts: 1,160
    Options
    From an end-user perspective: 10 years ago, one pinhole leak in one of the mains developed. I was "advised" to "upgrade" all to gas forced air as surely more leaks are to come. "You can zone it", "You can control it better", "It's cheaper to operate", "you'll just have more leaks develop in pipes"... I'm yet to see the 2nd leak on the main. Anyhow, total cost to "upgrade" to hot air was more than cost of replacing our huge boiler, including all the maintenance I did the last 10 years. (I oversee a 10,000 sq.ft. building with 780,000 btu system.) Those furnaces (multiple) would last, maybe 20 years... So I'm already in the 2nd decade of keeping our steam, and still under the furnace for boiler exchange cost... Say nothing of the comfort afforded by the wonderful steam heating system.

    I now know my issue was a lot of make up water, and this was corrected. I'd suppose here, your boiler and the system, as you describe it, needs some major tuning, and it may be taking on more water than is normal (and may have for decades, which have rusted out that one pipe). There is a good exchange here on the board about water quality and one about water softener for boiler - a no-no btw, chlorides and oxygen pitting of iron, etc.

    You definitely need an eye of a professional steam man to guide you back to optimum setup. Then you need to check water quality and maintain it. Not difficult when equipped with knowledge, and with all ingredients available from amazon.com.

    Get in touch with one of the steam men tagged in posts above, and not some Joe the plumber. Judging by that vent on the wall radiator, your system is due for some tlc from a knowledgeable steam professional. Then, you need, nay, must familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of your particular system. Once one of the gents comes over, ask questions so that you know what's the optimum performance and what's not and needs attention, and what you should be doing. Then get some Dan's steam books from the store here and read them... They are as great of a reading as they are informative and knowledge-building.

    Steam is "your grandfather's technology", and you having steam heating makes you a custodian of the times past. Can't just set it and forget it. Well, you could and it will get to a state it is in now. Awesome thing is that where your system is -- it's all reversible. All of it. On a one pipe, even easier than on more complicated 2 pipe systems. These days you do not need to go down to the basement and shovel coal 2 times a day (thankfully!), but the system still needs your eye on it once a week, just to check it out, and some knowledge to operate it as it did in 1917. Believe us all, this system worked wonderfully when it was installed and plenty kf men knew how to work it back then. All it needs is to go back to its glory day, and you to know how to work it. Do not let one pinhole leak scare you into ripping all of it out. Grab a pipe wrench instead.

    We all need to bring back one word into the mainstream: maintenance. In America today, we all behave as if it doesn't exist. Look at the roads, schools, bridges... It's a discrace. Show me anything else mechanical that lasts without maintenance... And steam is close to it. Even when all out of wack, it still heats in some fashion. That's why its so awesome. Bring it back to its glory day and you won't regret it, not one bit.

    My advice: Do not scrap the steam. Steam needs to be maintained properly and the heat is just wonderfully hot with all that latent btu released from the steam. No comparison to anything else, imho. Just the nature of the beast, but a wonderful, tameable beast.
    Gordo
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 3,700
    Options
    FWIW, I patched a pinhole on a 4" steam line with some magical fixing tape, it got me through that heating season, the next one, & part way into this one. I made a more permanent fix with this. Hopefully, I won't have to re-thread that pipe for a long time, it's 13' in the air!
    MilanD