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Near-Boiler Piping Help

nescio16 Member Posts: 3
edited February 2020 in Strictly Steam
I know you all have heard this question probably a thousand times, so apologies for the repeat. I just purchased a home with steam heat and am trying to figure out if the system is worth saving. I was hoping to make some improvements to the system over time to show myself that it is as awesome as they say, but I am having trouble getting past this piping.

I'm comparing whats in our basement to all the folks on this site and I'm wondering if it's as bad as I think it is?

Boiler is a Utica PEG-E series, 112MBH, but this piping appears, to my totally book-experience-only eyes, to be all wrong. We get some banging during operation and the boiler surges pretty bad while starting up, but it appears to float in the 2-3 inch below water line range once everything is good and hot. I feel that it is absurdly expensive to run, but this is the first 2 floor house that I have paid to heat. It has 2 ~2" mains, one of them splits into 2 branches. Each branch (3 total) has a condensation return line that is at ceiling height and pitches back to the boiler. There are 3 main vents at the end of each condensate return line near the boiler.

Near-boiler Piping: https://us.v-cdn.net/5021738/uploads/editor/rw/ojdrssmpcmkc.jpg
Main vents: https://us.v-cdn.net/5021738/uploads/editor/xf/f41jxj7dqgf0.jpg

My crazy questions:
1) Is this hurting the efficiency of our system enough where it'd be worth it for me to hire someone to fix it? Is this in the realm of something that a DIYer with some wrenching experience and a lot of patience could tackle?
2) Is it normal to not insulate these pipes? A lot of pics online show these uninsulated, but those pics are also just after installation and those pipes are also steel.
3) The boiler manual says that a skim port should be included as part of one of the elbows for the risers, but I am not seeing one - does that mean this boiler has never been skimmed?
4) Is the expansion and contraction of this copper contraption damaging the boiler?
5) Am I being too much of a stickler for the spec? It seems like this would be a cause for the banging and result in a lot of extra condensate in the system?

There's a bunch of other stuff that I would like to address around vents, but this area is daunting for me. Is it a waste to invest in new vents if hammering and wetness is going to destroy them? I have done some light pipe threading in past jobs as a shop gopher, but never in the steam heat world.

Any help would be greatly appreciated....even if it's just telling me "that is messed up, call someone" or "that is fine, stop reading the spec so closely".


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,454
    Two thoughts strike me first...

    First, steam is astonishingly forgiving.
    Second, whoever piped that never bothered to look at the directions that come with the boiler (but we've seen worse).


    OK. Enough of that. The first question which I would ask you is... do you get satisfactory heat without banging and clanking, and at a reasonable pressure (like the cutout at 1.5 psi)? If so, see thought One above. Or as a more direct answer to your question 1., it isn't hurting efficiency much (some, yes, but a lot? Probably not) and if the system is otherwise working OK, no, it's not worth correcting -- unless you want a neat and rather fun piping job on your own. In which case a good DIYer with the necessary tools and wrenches and all probably could do it, but it would be a learning experience.
    However, on your question 2., yes, all those pipes should be insulated. That will make a difference in your heating.
    Question 3., skimming. It may not have been skimmed. However, to tell whether skimming might be worthwhile, look at the gauge glass when it's operating. If the water level is staying within an inch or so either way of static -- that is, the total bounce isn't more than a couple of inches, I'd not worry about it at this point. It's been there for a while...
    Question 4. Expansion. It's like that the expansion and contraction isn't helping the boiler, true. However, again, it's been there for a while, and while it may hasten the end for the boiler, it may not be worth hiring someone to fix it at this point. Just don't repeat it on the next boiler...
    Question 5. Refer to my first comment again. Is it right? No. Is it giving you much wetter steam than you ought to have? Yes. Is it hurting your efficiency? Yes -- but is it hurting it enough to be worth the cash to fix? Hard question. Again I would say -- if the system is running quietly...

    On the other hand, if you are getting water hammer, there is more to be done here, but I'd not start with the boiler piping. I'd start by tracing all the piping and making sure that everything is insulated -- but before that, that everything is pitched properly, with no sags. Making the steam drier at the boiler by fixing the piping won't cure hammering (usually!), but finding and fixing the places where condensate can collect will.

    Now. Venting. You don't mention whether this is a one pipe or two pipe system. Either way, those main vents are likely to be woefully inadequate -- and working with the venting will pay real dividends in getting more even and quicker heat.

    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • The main venting is certainly not adequate, as those vents are for radiators, and not the mains.
    Main vents must let the air out, being pushed along by the steam rising right now, and not next week. Depending on the size of the mains, I would recommend at least one, if not two Gorton #2 on each return. It will shorten the firing time, and save fuel.
    The other important upgrade would be a low pressure gauge, graduated in ounces, so you know where your pressure stands.—NBC
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,757
    @nescio16 , that system is definitely "worth saving". Where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,380
    What pressure is the boiler running at when making steam? How far up and down does the water bounce in the sight glass?

    That boiler probably needs to be skimmed. When the boiler is cool or just warm, drain it completely and then fill it up to the normal water line. Bring the system up to steam and observe the sight glass, is the waterline less bouncy? If it is the water had oils in it and probably still does. Draining a boiler just moves the oils around it does not get rid of them.

    The only way to get oils out of boiler water is to skim it. That boiler piping is bad, especially for a boiler with side outlets. The only way I can see to skim it the way it is piped is to do so through the upper gauge glass port and this requires a repiping the gauge glass so you have that port available for skimming as well as the gauge glass.

    There are a number of problems I see. The outlets of the boiler are piped in a colliding copper header, that produces a lot of wet steam. All copper piping should be threaded black steel per page 10 of the manual below and I would use the lower diagram not the top one and I would make the boiler header 2-1/2 or 3" to dry out the steam - but not in the middle of winter.


    Side outlet boilers need very good piping to work right and that boiler has bad piping. Doing a near boiler repipe in February is not practical so lets try to improve things for now.

    Is this a single pipe or two pipe steam system? Go over all the piping in the basement to make sure any water in the steam main can drain back to the boiler and make sure there are no bellies where water can collect in horizontal pipes. Those main vents are probably junk by now and should be replaced with bigger ones, How long is the steam main on each of them and what size is the pipe. Whoever put those main vents in made it difficult to work on them, is each of them at the end of it's steam main? Some repiping has to be done so you can get at the vents and use whatever size is best.

    Where are you, we may be able to recommend someone, somebody who knows steam should look at that system.

    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • Hap_Hazzard
    Hap_Hazzard Member Posts: 2,787
    @nescio16, It's as bad as you think it is.

    It should not be piped in copper. (Ironically, the return piping below the water line appears to be black pipe, but this is one of the few places where copper is permissible.)

    The header has no swing arms to allow it to expand and contract independently of the boiler sections. (This is very bad.)

    The system riser comes off a bullhead tee from the header, so accumulated water has nowhere to go except upwards, and there isn't even an equalizer to allow the water to return to the boiler until you get up to the secondary header or submain or whatever you want to call it. (Terminology is intended to describe correct piping, so it kind of falls apart when people improvise.)

    Also, there's only a single riser from the header, which maximizes steam (and water) velocity at precisely the point where you need to minimize it to prevent water from being forced into the mains.

    If you can live with it for the rest of the winter, this could be a nice summer project if you think you can handle it. There are plenty of qualified professionals here who can guide you through it. Most of these professionals have extensive experience with boilers like yours, for which good near-boiler piping happens to be especially critical, and, depending on where you live, some of them might even be available to come out and do it for you.

    There's a link at the top of the page to "find a contractor in your area." If you prefer, you could tell us where you're located and we might be able to recommend someone.
    Just another DIYer | King of Prussia, PA
    1983(?) Peerless G-561-W-S | 3" drop header, CG400-1090, VXT-24
  • nescio16
    nescio16 Member Posts: 3
    Thank you everyone! To answer the questions:

    - I'm in Andover, MA. I checked out the contractor finder and only got one result. I'd be happy to hire someone local for, at bare minimum, a consultation, but a lot of the folks around here don't even list steam as one of their competencies....let alone speciality.
    - It is a one pipe system, but the mains are strange (to me, at least?) in that they go from the boiler to the perimeter of the house, then drop an inch or two and reduce + return, where they are vented before dropping to the boiler return. There are two mains, but one of them splits, so I have 3 branches and 3 return lines. A PDF I ran across on the interwebs called this a "one pipe parallel flow" system. I will need to get back to you on the sizes and lengths of everything, but I will be gathering that this weekend.
    - The system does surge and is generally all over the place until it gets to temp. Once the copper gets hot, the water level stabilizes and floats around an inch, I think. This usual takes a 45 minute run before it stabilizes.

    The points about the near boiler piping being awful but not critical and not a good idea to address in February are heard and appreciated. From that advice, I feel better about limiting my research to the rest of the system for the next month or so, which makes a lot of past discussions on this topic feel more relavent to me. If this venting the mains and looking for condensation collection points yields modest returns in the performance of the system, that will be the needed encouragement to dive into the piping when having heat at night is no longer a hard requirement.

    Is this type of "one pipe, parallel flow" system familiar to folks? Any helpful hints as I start to research it?
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,454
    Since you're on the north side of Boston, try giving @New England SteamWorks a call. (401) 954-3510. Ryan is one of the best in the business. He's also very busy, so if you want to have him come out, the sooner the better and give him plenty of time.

    In the meantime, yes it does sound like a parallel flow one pipe system, Quite common. There is an ongoing debate as to what, exactly, to call the pipes running from the last radiator runout back to the boiler, but it doesn't matter what you call them. They carry mostly the condensate back to the boiler. Somewhere along them between the last radiator runout and the boiler they have to have a main vent or vents, but precisely where on the journey the vent is placed doesn't matter. What does matter is that they have to drop down below the boiler water line (usually at the boiler) before they are hooked together, unlike a two pipe system where the condensate returns can and often do (sometimes must) hook together before they drop down. People get confused. One possible place for condensate to be collecting, though, is where the lines reduce. Is that reduction (you mention a drop there) such that water can flow freely through it on the bottom of the pipes?

    There are two books available from the store on this site (or, I think, Amazon) which might be of interest to you -- "We Got Steam Heat" is sort of a useful beginner's guide, but "The Lost Art of Steam Heating Revisited" has pretty much everything you would need to know.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    GrallertNew England SteamWorksSuperTech
  • dopey27177
    dopey27177 Member Posts: 885
    All of the above information is perfect,
    There is one thing you can do during this heating season and that is replace the vent valves with Gorton D angle vents. this will vent air out of the system much faster than the vents you have.

    The Gorton D vent has 1/8" thread and should work well in the existing bushings.

  • Hap_Hazzard
    Hap_Hazzard Member Posts: 2,787
    Also, the D has the same venting rate as the Gorton #1, which is a popular main vent. You might need more eventually, but this at least puts you in the right ballpark.
    Just another DIYer | King of Prussia, PA
    1983(?) Peerless G-561-W-S | 3" drop header, CG400-1090, VXT-24
  • Precaud
    Precaud Member Posts: 369
    If this is a temporary solution, a cheaper approach is to buy a Maid o' Mist vent in a size that you're likely to use on a radiator down the road (say, a #5), unscrew the orifice (which makes it the same as a #D), and use it as your temporary main vent. I'm using three of them on a cross exactly this way and it works great.
    1950's Bryant boiler in a 1-pipe steam system at 7,000 ft in northern NM, where basements are rare.
  • nescio16
    nescio16 Member Posts: 3
    Thank you everyone. I will definitely pick up the suggested literature and start reading up. I have been procrastinating buying Dan Holohan's book, but it seems like now is the time. I'll also look into the suggested vents, but I really want to learn the concepts behind vent selection before getting too far along.

    I had seen New England Steamworks' web site and thought to put a note in to them. Perhaps I'll do that in the spring when it becomes time for the larger projects.

    I'll post back here if pipe inspection yields anything interesting.
  • gfrbrookline
    gfrbrookline Member Posts: 723
    I live in Brookline, MA and have used and recommended Ryan @New England SteamWorks . He really knows his stuff which is why he is so busy. He is one of the few in the area that actually understands main venting.

    Before him I had one of the largest and most famous HVAC contractors in the area put 1 ventrite #35 on each dry return, the system took forever to heat and the heat was very uneven, as much as 10 degrees between units. I now have 6 big mouths and 4 gorton #2's on the mains, all is within 1 degree and my gas bill considerably lower. The added vents paid for themselves in the first year.
    New England SteamWorksSuperTech
  • New England SteamWorks
    New England SteamWorks Member Posts: 1,457
    edited February 2020
    It's a train wreck. Don't blame steam...

    New England SteamWorks
    Service, Installation, & Restoration of Steam Heating Systems
  • BobC said:

    Side outlet boilers need very good piping to work right and that boiler has bad piping.

    Amen brother...
    New England SteamWorks
    Service, Installation, & Restoration of Steam Heating Systems
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 4,187
    Couldn't help notice what they call that pipe that leads to the main vent...

    1 pipe Peerless 63-03L in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
  • Precaud
    Precaud Member Posts: 369
    edited February 2020
    Not to mention the nearby "REDUCING ELL POINTING DOWN", suggesting that the equalizer (unlabeled) is smaller than the risers or header...

    But it's a great reference drawing, thanks @New England SteamWorks for posting it.
    1950's Bryant boiler in a 1-pipe steam system at 7,000 ft in northern NM, where basements are rare.