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Steam from exterior brick

We recently inherited a beautiful old home with radiator heating.  There is no AC currently and I have been getting bids to install.  Between the attic space and basement / crawlspace it appears we will be able to install heat pumps to provide cooling.  As part of the install we will also have gas furnace heating as part of the system.

While I was at the house dealing with contractors on an unrelated issue I discovered an odd smell in one of the upstairs rooms.  I also noticed steam coming off the 1st floor roof outside the window.  Upon investigation I discovered steam was flowing out of the brick just below the window and a foot or so to the side.  One of the radiators is just inside the window.  I turned off the heat and the steam dissipated.

Is it time to go ahead and remove the radiators before we move into the place?  I like radiator heat but they do take up a large portion of the wall space and are a bit in the way for our electrical upgrades.  We are already going to be paying for the cooling system that includes heat so it is definitely the cheaper option.

To repair we would need to rip open walls and / or floors I assume.

Comments

  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,719
    edited January 2021
    NO! You do NOT want to remove the radiator system.

    No forced-air system will ever equal the comfort and efficiency of a well-operating radiator system. Not only does blown air make you feel colder, but it also blows dust and germs (such as COVID) around. And ductwork will pressurize and depressurize different parts of the building, which increases infiltration and exfiltration, further reducing overall efficiency and comfort.

    The steam leak is a broken pipe somewhere. This can be fixed. Where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    mattmia2LS123SuperTech
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,228
    I wouldn't remove the radiators. I like redundancy. Having two independent heating systems gives you peace of mind and more time to get repairs when something breaks. Steam requires very little to no electricity. Excellent for power outages. Easy to move radiators if you need temporary access behind them.

    I currently have a 100 year old house with 100 year old cast iron ornate radiators. They add to the homes character. A wise person once told me to live in a house and get to know it before making a bunch of changes.

    This site has a steam and radiant bias. You will get a bunch of posts telling you radiant is more comfortable. Maybe, although I'm not sure I can tell the difference. Central AC is a must in my world. But some people really like radiant, so why not give it a try?

    If you post a picture of your boiler, you will get some good advice.

    I DIY.
    LS123
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,899
    No, you will not have to rip up floors or walls to fix a steam leak -- possibly in just one small area, assuming you can actually pinpoint the leak. It may even turn out to be as simple as a loose union. But a trivial problem in comparison to the work which would be required to tear out the whole system -- and the mess and damage which that would create.

    This site does have a steam or radiant heat bias, as @WMno57 says -- but for a very good reason. Comfort. Steam, in particular, is superbly comfortable and efficient and easy to maintain -- and long lived. Everything except the boiler needs very little to no maintenance, and the boilers themselves are simple and last pretty well, especially in comparison to high technology devices such as heat pumps. However, it must be admitted that not that many people are that comfortable with either steam or hot water heat; it is much easier to simply throw in a lot of ductwork and a couple of plug and play units and call it a day -- so neither is as common now as once was the case.

    That said, i you are set on going with forced air, make sure that whoever you get to design and install the system really truly knows what they are doing. Forced air doesn't have to be uncomfortable, uneven, and draughty, though it usually is, but to keep it from being so requires really careful attention to heat loads, register placement, and duct sizing and construction. A good forced air system, unless designed into the building from the beginning, is going to be intrusive (ducts are a lot bigger than pipes!).and not much, if any, less expensive than a good hot water system. And if you already have the steam, which you do, it's going to be a lot more expensive than getting the steam running properly.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    LS123SuperTech
  • Straulin
    Straulin Member Posts: 3
    Thanks for the comments.  I would prefer to keep both but was concerned about how expensive the repair cost would be for the leak.

    We are adding central air no matter what happens with the radiators.  It was worth it to add furnaces in the process to have piece of mind with a backup heat system.  The first quote I received for the installation of the central system is with all ductwork in the basement or attic.  So there wouldn't be and bulkheads.  The steam leak arose after the quote so I didn't discuss the radiator system with them other than to say it worked and we wanted to keep it.   I have another HVAC company coming this week for another quote.  Hopefully they work on steam systems and they can give me an idea of repair costs to the system.
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,228
    Straulin said:

    Hopefully they work on steam systems and they can give me an idea of repair costs to the system.

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    Most ALMOST ALL HVAC forced air / AC / Heat Pump salesmen don't have a clue about Steam Heat.

    Unlike some of the Steam enthusiasts on this site, I understand and agree with your move to central AC with a gas furnace backup. Go forward with that.

    Fixing your Steam system is a niche skill that most HVAC, Plumbers, and even Hot Water Heat tradesmen don't have a clue about.

    Don't waste your money. Get a Steam tradesman for your steam system. You will get far better advice, and be dollars ahead in the long run.

    A Steam guy may tell you, boiler and pipes are toast, this will be $$$$$$$$$$$$ to fix. Or he may say, boiler is fine, all you need is some routine maintenance and a simple leak repair (the steam guy could do a better and less invasive repair). Either way, you will then know the condition of your system. If you had heart problems would you see a Cardiologist, or would you get heart advice from your Dentist, because you already had a dental appointment?

    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/

    You can also share your location in this thread, and you will get a recommendation for a Steam professional in your area.

    You can also post a picture of your boiler and the radiator in the room with the leak.
    I DIY.
    PC7060SuperTech
  • Straulin
    Straulin Member Posts: 3
    I am in the Louisville, Ky area.

    The radiator is not leaking, the leak is coming from between floors and exiting through the brickwork on the exterior wall. In the picture the steam exits from just under the window seal and also from about a foot down and over a foot or so.  You can see one brick with dark mortar above it, that is one of the spots.

    I don't have the best pictures of the boiler or radiator but have attached what I have.  The window in the radiator picture is the inside of the window seen in the brick picture.  
  • LS123
    LS123 Member Posts: 466
    @Straulin , not many moons ago (4 years ago,) I moved in to a home with steam radiator heat, oil fired in the woods of Connecticut. I was happily given a 23K estimate to remove and put forced air / or hot water...

    I listened to the wise people with so many years of experiences, and decided to keep my heating system... It was one of the best decisions I have had made... system has been at the house since late 1940s only the oil burner had been replaced with something that use about .85 GPH and keep the house so comfortably warm. Heating system still works and there has been minor fixing and maintenance.... Over the years I learned a lot about steam heat from wise men / women on this forum and have saved a lot by insulating the main steam pipes and the basement, and any other place that needed small fixing...

    Best!
    \-LS123
    Thank you!
    @LS123
    SuperTech
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,021
    The brick under that window looks wronky. I wonder is there is/was a wood lentil failing that holds the brick there.
    The brick looks to be more just face brick rather than structural.
    Is there a matching window on the lower floor below this one?

    Possibly steam leak for a long time has rotted some structural items.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,899
    Good heavens. Six over six windows and, unless my eyes deceive me, at least some old glass.

    Whatever else you do, don't replace them! It would be an excellent idea to add storms either on the inside or the outside -- don't let some slick sales person replace those windows!!!

    OK. You may indeed have a steam leak in the piping under the floor there, which is tiresome of it. However, unless you actually see vapour, the moisture may be coming from mortar defects in the wall. Further, keep track of how much water you have to add to your system. It shouldn't be more than a gallon a week. If it is, you do have a leak -- or leaks -- somewhere, and that may be one of them. You may have to move the radiator out of the way and take up some floor, unless you can get at it from below.

    That boiler doesn't owe you anything. It's a coal conversion, and the efficiency may not be all that wonderful. If it isn't leaking and is heating the structure, though, don't worry about it. Get the rest of the system up and running well first.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,021
    I see what looks to be a circulator/pump to the lower right of the boiler.

    Could you post pictures of your sight glass and controls?
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,719
    Sure that's a steam system? I see an older Bell & Gossett hot-water circulator next to that Redflash boiler......

    Take some more boiler and radiator pics. Are there little key-operated bleed valves at the top of the radiator end sections?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Larry Weingarten
    Larry Weingarten Member Posts: 3,230
    Hi, I may be off base for reasons others can point out, but instead of going with AC and a gas furnace, how about using heat pump/mini-split technology? I don't expect it would be significantly more expensive than straight AC, and likely less that AC with furnace. It also would give some redundancy, which is always a good thing.

    Yours, Larry
  • SuperTech
    SuperTech Member Posts: 2,120
    One point that I haven't seen mentioned.  Unless you plan on never selling your home and you don't care about the value you have to consider that altering it so dramatically by removing the radiators will hurt the historical significance of it and lower the value.
    There are good and bad things about old and new homes. Old homes are built in a superior fashion and designed to last a lot longer than modern homes.  A cast iron boiler will outlast several forced air systems and others have spoken to the comfort level difference.  
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,719
    edited February 2021

    Not sure about this.

    Watch a Ryland home being built. You'll see the difference.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,899
    edited February 2021


    SuperTech said:

    Old homes are built in a superior fashion and designed to last a lot longer than modern homes.

    Not sure about this.



    You should be. Your doubts are probably valid for houses built since the mid 1950s and onwards, when wood and other materials quality began to deteriorate markedly and craftsmanship began to take second place to build quality and price. However, earlier houses -- particularly those more than say 90 years old -- are generally much better both in terms of materials used and in terms of the craftsmanship used to build them (not, I might add, that there aren't exceptions! I've seen some pretty horrible shacks...).

    As a counter to that thought, however, one must also be aware that many older buildings have been subject to "upgrades" of one kind or another in more recent years. While not all are unfortunate, many were poorly planned or executed with lower quality materials -- or both, and this must also be taken into account. This trend, unfortunately, has not stopped.

    Just to give one example in the area of wood, though. A house built in New England in the early to mid 1800s will have most of the timber derived from local sources. The main structure will be of hardwoods, and will have -- typically -- more than 5 times the strength of a modern timber of softwood lumber of the same dimensions. Flooring will be hard pine, with at least twice the strength of any modern flooring. And so on.

    Windows and doors are probably the worst examples. A window built in the late 1700s can, with a small amount of careful work, be made draught tight, and with the addition of interior or exterior storms will have the same thermal performance as all but the very best triple glaze low e modern windows. The differences are in cost (fixing the old window is much less expensive), longevity (the old window will last another couple of centuries; the triple glaze a couple of decades if you're lucky), and value -- the modern window has none, while the original window is almost priceless.

    Some systems, though, do require upgrades -- most particularly the electrical systems.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England