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Radiator Vents and Valves: 1st Time DIY-er

TAC77
TAC77 Member Posts: 12
Hello,
I own a 90 year old home that has 10 one pipe steam cast iron radiators and two radiators that look like a baseboard steam system. I've been adding water to the boiler about every 10 days during the heating season since I've bought the house two years ago; when it's really cold (single digits) I add water every few days. A repair man showed me every radiator in my house has a problem or two; steam is either puffing out the sides of my vents, continuously escaping through the vent, or water is bubbling up where you screw the vent into the radiator. The valves that are leaking are mostly leaking from the nut located below the valve handle though one radiator is leaking from the nut on the horizontal piece going to the radiator. My finished 3rd floor radiator barely warms up. The pipe coming out of the floor gets hot/warm but the room itself is cold and you can comfortably hold the radiator fins. The repair estimate was $1,300. I was shocked enough by the price but even more so once I realized he wasn't repairing anything; he was simply swapping out my old vents and valves for new ones. I don't know if I'm being taken advantage of because I'm a woman or not but I've decided to take on this project myself. I tried boiling a few of the vents in vinegar and though that helped it didn't 100% fix the problem. So my questions are: 1. How do I know which size vents to buy to balance my system? 2. How can you tell the size of the vents when you are buying them? 3. How realistic is it to remove the nuts from 90 year old valves with a rusty pipe wrench and no help? 4. Which vent should I buy for the baseboard? It looks like the vent there is missing because steam pours out of that end. There is a door that you have to lift up to see where the vent should go. Because of the door the normal bullet shaped ones won't fit.

Comments

  • neilc
    neilc Member Posts: 1,347
    you can try and keep cleaning up the old vents with the vinegar bath,
    and we can discuss tightening the packing nuts on the leaky valve stems, and or the unions.
    But if there is this much defered maintenance we need to ask about the boiler too.
    Often the vents, and water up there, can be due to too high a pressure,
    what do you have for pressure at the boiler?
    Pictures.
    of the boiler gage, pressurtrol, and one large shot of the boiler and piping above,
    also of that baseboard rad with the door open, so we can see the vent space (and its hole?), there has to be a vent to fit there, or we get into some creative plumbing there too.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 16,607
    First question -- where are you located? We may know someone in your area who could help you out.

    Now to other questions. And comments. The valves that are leaking at the nut on the valve stem. That's called the packing nut. Very often (not always!) that can be fixed by simply tightening that nut a bit. This you can do yourself. What you need for a tool, though, is a good quality Crescent wrench about a foot long or so, which has adjustable jaws to fit the nut. A good hardware store -- or even the big box -- should have one. The nut on the horizontal pipe is part of what's called a union. This is in two pieces: one comes out of the valve, the other out of the radiator, and they have machined matching surfaces. That nut is there only to draw the surfaces together -- it is the surfaces which do the sealing. Again, you may be able to tighten that nut and get it to stop. It sometimes helps to rock the radiator very gently while you are doing that. If that doesn't work, you can take unscrew the nut (do this with the boiler off!) and pull the radiator back a bit so you can carefully clean the mating surfaces. A little dish soap on the surfaces (very little) may help in getting them to seal. Then push the radiator back in position and make sure everything is nicely lined up and try tightening the nut again. If that doesn't work for the union, or the valves keep leaking at the stem, more heroic measures are called for -- come back and ask.

    On the vents. They can be a bit more pesky. That is a relatively small pipe, and it has a nasty tendency to break when one tries to remove them. Try with your nice new Crescent wrench, but don't be a gorilla. If they seem recalcitrant, another trip to the hardware store and get some PB Blaster and squirt that on the threads (you'll need to remove all the paint which is probably on there) and let it sit for a while, then try again. Be stingy with the PB Blaster -- a little goes much too far, usually.

    On replacement vents. Can you tell us what vents are on there now? They may or not be quite right, but that will help us get started on what could be used. The one vent on the finned radiator -- there are vents which are designed for that.

    Don't be afraid of the job. There is nothing there that you can't do, given the right tools (don't skimp on that) and patience -- and a little knowledge. Along with the tools, you might get the book "We Got Steam Heat", which is available on this site from the store -- or from Amazon.

    Come back with questions -- that's what we're here for.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • TAC77
    TAC77 Member Posts: 12

    https://1drv.ms/f/s!AmTF3n8Sne6ojRVeDnweGPlx-NNO

    Nelic,
    Here's a link to some pics you can copy and paste to see. The bedroom vent 1 pic is the vent that had bubbling water. You can see that the vent angles back towards the radiator. I took it off and added Teflon tape. It seems to have helped the bubbling water (at least I haven't seen it the few times I've checked) but it's still angled back. Bedroom vent 2 pic has a rust stain on the vent itself about 1/4 in long. I couldn't get the living room radiator cover off (hot) but looking down you can see a lot of rust. The baseboard vent has aluminum foil behind it (from the previous owners; I don't know why). The steam comes out of the knob on the top. The plaster next to it is damaged a bit; I'm assuming it's from the steam. The windows above that vent get fogged up when the heat is running. The rest of the pics are what I'm assuming you asked for with the boiler piping, gauge, and pressure control.

    Jamie,
    I live near Cleveland. I took a look at most of the vents. I have two radiators in my living room. One has "1A Air Medium 4" Hoffman engraved on it. There is some other writing but I couldn't see it without taking the vent off. The other radiator is the one with the cover that was too hot to take off (it's about 7 feet long and has two grab handles under the lid).

    I didn't check my dining room vent.

    My master bedroom has two vents. One is Legend Model T-60; I couldn't see the engraving on it because it's in the corner and writing is facing the wall. The other master bedroom vent is a Number 40 (that's all I could see).

    My first spare bedroom has Ventrite No 1.

    My second spare bedroom has a Hoffman. It has a series of numbers on the cone part with a arrow on the cylinder part. The arrow is set between 1 and 6.

    The first floor bath has a Hoffman No 40 (that's all I could see).

    The second floor bath has a Hoffman 1A N6 with numbers around the cone. The arrow is pointing between the 5 and 4.

    The 3rd floor bath looks like it had a radiator at one point but it was removed. The 3rd floor bedroom has a Variport with some other writing that I can't see. I'm pretty sure it's a No 50 but it could of said 60.
  • neilc
    neilc Member Posts: 1,347
    good work with the teflon,
    you can keep picking at other leaking threads as you can get to them, careful not to have the tape past the end of the male thread, you don't want tape getting into the system or vent, just on the male threads.
    and at the unions as Jaimie describes,
    The first picture you labelled pressure control was the gage I was asking about,
    do you see that needle move at all?
    either up from that rest pin, or anywhere above 2 or 3, or higher?
    (You're trying to keep below 2 psi.)
    What do you see on the gage when the boiler has been firing a bit? or just as it shuts off?
    In a round about way I am asking is the pigtail (looped pipe under the gage) clear?
    The Pressuretrol is the small grey box mounted above the gage, What is it set to? or post a picture,
    under the cover there is a little white wheel, it should be set down to 1, the scale on the front of the cover set to 0.5, or as low as it can go, don't force it though.
    What do you see pressure on the pressure gage?
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 16,607
    Cleveland? Ah... good. One of the best steam guys around is in that area: @gerry gill . Look him up in "Find a Contractor" on this site. If the work is beyond you -- and as @neilc suggested, there may be more to be done than what meets the eye -- he would be a good place to start.

    Most of those vents are, or can be replaced by, vents by Hoffman. The ones with the arrows are variable. Take a look here:
    https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_1_10?url=search-alias=aps&field-keywords=hoffman+radiator+air+vent&sprefix=hoffman+ra,aps,170&crid=3S6Y21OAEYZTW
    and see what matches, or sort of matches.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • TAC77
    TAC77 Member Posts: 12
    Nelic,
    I've never see the pressure gage's needle move. Then again, I only casually glance at it when I go down to check the water level in the boiler. It seems to rest at zero no matter what. The boiler is running now and the needle is still setting at the lowest place (below the first tick mark that would indicate 1 PSI).

    How do I know if the boiler has shut off? Am I listening for a lack of sound from my radiators, looking for the flame under the boiler to be out, or for my emergency cut off light to be on?

    The pressuretrol's scale on the front cover is set at 0.5 PSI. I don't know what the white wheel under the cover is set to because the cover is screwed on in two places. I can unscrew it and check if you need me to.

    Jamie,
    Thanks for the reference. I'm sure some of this is going to go to him but I'd like to chip away at as much of it as I can.

    Both my bedroom radiators, my downstairs bathroom, and my foyer have the vent that looks like the second one in the link.

    One living room vent, the dining room, the upstairs bathroom and my second spare bedroom look like the first vent.

    I don't see one that looks like the vent in my other spare bedroom and my other living room vent (they are the same ones). They look more like a cylinder with a mostly flat top and a nut around the bottom (there is a pic posted of it in my previous posting).

    I also don't see one similar to my attic vent. That one is bullet shaped with a sharper cone part then the other ones have. It has a screw on top that you can take off with a Phillips screwdriver.

    I have no idea what my kitchen radiator had.
  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,518
    edited January 2018
    I think you should let a Pro go over your system, do a maintenance on the boiler, clean/tune the burner and check the Safeties and Pressuretrol/pigtail and Main Vents, which are more critical than even the radiator vents. You can't do that with a "rusty pipe wrench" or without knowing your way around the entire system. Find a good Pro (Maybe the guy you had out knows steam) or click on the "Find A Contractor" button above and put your zip code in. We don't discuss pricing here but in general terms, vents will run anywhere from $25.00 to $35.00 each and valves will run in the $50.00 to $75.00 range, Main vents are in the $75.00 range, plus the labor to install all of the above. If you do these things yourself, you need to invest in a decent tool set and I would suggest you get some of the "How To" books from the store here and learn some of the principles.
    Vents are easy but valves are a bit more of a problem. Of course the valves that are leaking around the valve stem can be repacked but there is a labor cost associated with that too. That is something you might be able to do but even there you need to know what you are doing and have the tools to do the work. The boiler needs to be powered off while any of these things are being done so that it doesn't come on and produce steam and scald you, in the process.
    Find a Pro who will show you how to do some of those things yourself, the next time and invest in the tools you need.
    I don't know how many valves were included in the price you were quoted but you can total the number of vents, the number of valves, the cost of a few tools and I'm sure he probably provided you an hourly labor rate. If the parts and labor rate is reasonably in line, then maybe his quote is reasonable, maybe not.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 16,607
    edited January 2018
    Do call @gerry gill . If he can't help you, he will be able to recommend someone reliable who can.

    @Fred is right, in that someone should come and vet the whole system for you. I'm just suggesting some things you can do on your own -- which is a very satisfying thing to do. So have a go at a couple of my suggestions.

    He erred rather seriously in quoting prices; we don't do that here on the Wall, for the simple reason that prices -- particularly hourly rates -- vary too much around the country.

    You mention the pressuretrol's front scale being set at about 0.5. For a wonder, that's just about right, which is encouraging.

    The best way for you to know that the boiler is off (or on!) is to check for the flame under it. Gas boilers are pretty quiet -- or at least some of them are. However, somewhere there should be a switch which serves as a cutout switch. You don't need to use it except if you decide to take a vent off and change it, but you should know where it is. Seeing if a radiator is hot, or making a noise, may tell you that the boiler is on -- or has been on recently -- but isn't completely reliable. They can stay hot for quite some time.

    On the vents which you can't identify, or which are missing completely -- you can't go too far wrong by looking at a similarly sized radiator elsewhere and using the same vent for starters.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,518
    edited January 2018
    @Jamie Hall , I respectfully take exception. I didn't quote prices, I gave general ranges and I think we had clarification, in the past, that the limitation on pricing discussions excludes pricing on parts/components that are published and generally known in the market place. I made no reference to anyone's labor and/or overhead costs.
    Also, I wasn't being critical of your suggestions to the OP. I was just trying to get the OP to understand that there is a learning process before he/she jumps in with both feet. The OP has to decide what they feel comfortable tackling. The "Rusty pipe wrench" comment was cause for concern, on my part..
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 16,607
    No problem, @Fred -- reading back over your post I see that the problem was mine, not yours -- I didn't notice that you hadn't included labour rates. My apologies.

    The rusty pipe wrench bothered me, too; I'm sort of hoping the OP was referring to the person who came to look at the system, and not themselves...
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • TAC77
    TAC77 Member Posts: 12
    lol I admit that I have a lack of tools but those are easy enough to come by.

    The repair guy spent over two hours at my house starting in the basement with the boiler. He said that I didn't have any leaky pipes or pipes under the concrete that I couldn't see. He didn't say anything was wrong with my main vents, pressuretrol, etc. His estimate was an itemized list strictly for replacing vents and valves which are all (almost) visibly leaking water or steam.

    He didn't include labor prices but based on local parts prices 2/3 of his repair estimate for the vents was strictly for him to unscrew the old vent off and screw the new one in...and I'm sure he can get parts cheaper then I can.

    I also understand that part of his cost was knowledge but that seems like it should be easy enough to come by too. I think my questions were basic enough that I shouldn't have to pay someone into the thousands for that little bit of expertise.


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 16,607
    TAC77 said:

    lol I admit that I have a lack of tools but those are easy enough to come by.


    I also understand that part of his cost was knowledge but that seems like it should be easy enough to come by too. I think my questions were basic enough that I shouldn't have to pay someone into the thousands for that little bit of expertise.


    Yes, part of his quote was undoubtedly his knowledge -- and that's fair enough. That said, however, there is no good reason that I can think of that you can't gain a pretty good understanding of your system yourself -- and no good reason at all that you shouldn't have a go at fixing things yourself. A lot of use do!

    That is not to say that there aren't useful tricks of the trade which, once you see them are so obvious that you feel like an idiot for not thinking of them. We all do that from time to time.

    May I suggest, if you are really into working on all this yourself, that you at least get the book "We Got Steam Heat"? Not at all technical. If you want to get deeper into the hows and whys of steam heat, the book "The Lost Art of Steam Heating" is excellent. Both are available from this website (check the store) or from Amazon.

    And have at it! Come back with questions as you please.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • TAC77
    TAC77 Member Posts: 12
    Thanks for the words of encouragement. I'll look into the book "We Got Steam Heat". I'm going to be in this house for a while so it will be worth knowing more about the system.

    Does it sound like I have the right size vents? Should I buy the same sizes I already have or do I need to make some adjustments? And what am I supposed to do with the kitchen radiator?

    Thanks again for all your advice.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 16,607
    Start with the same size vents you have. Then you may want to make changes later, but that's no big deal. I'd taking a swinging guess at the kitchen radiator, and get a vent the same as some other radiator of similar size.

    Adjustable vents have a lot to be said for them, even if they are more expensive...
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • TAC77
    TAC77 Member Posts: 12
    Hi,
    As a follow up: I bought new vents for almost all of my radiators and the amount of water I've been losing has gone down a significant amount.

    I tried tightening the nuts on the valve stems and the union but they are still leaking. I got the impression that although it took a little bit of oomph to get them to move I could have adjusted them all day without them actually tightening. Solutions?

    I also discovered a new problem in my dining room. I noticed that the hardwood floor under the union is damp to the touch. I don't see any leaks but the small bowel I put under it has water in it. My guess is that steam is somehow leaking out at that joint. Is that possible? How would I fix that?

    Thanks!
  • neilc
    neilc Member Posts: 1,347
    The packing nuts on the valve stems should tighten down to a hard stop, (without applying a whole lot of force).
    This said, I am assuming they are not stripped or cracked.
    If you have them moving freely, (somewhat), then within a couple full turns they should bind down on the valve body,
    Can you remove any handles above them ?
    With the boiler off, try removing a packing nut and inspect the male and female threads, they should look equally "sharp" and defined, or they're stripped, and check the nuts for cracked also,
    either stripped or cracked and now your talking valve replacements.
    While that packing nut is off, and with good threads, you can add a wrap or two of packing rope, try and pull out any old crumbly material in there along side the stem, or inside the nut.
    Then reassemble and "snug" packing nut enough to prevent leakage.

    In the dining room,
    kinda the same thing,
    The union nut should tighten up top a hard stop.
    Gently rock / wiggle the radiator as you tighten the union nut,
    again I am assuming everything is aligned, the nut is not cross threaded, and you have three arms, cause you'll want to back up the union with a second wrench as you tighten the nut, as the rad is wiggled. You may also back that nut off a bit first and just retighten it as above, wigly wigly.

    post a picture of the dining room leak.