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New to steam want to know about Maintenance, Water Loss, and Banging

Hi everyone, I'm new on the forum and about 2 years ago I bought a house from 1918 that has what looks to be the original heating system but has a new boiler. Ive been reading around the internet trying to understand how to maintain my system.

My routine is this, every morning I go down stairs and open my drain valve for a few seconds to let the rusty water out. Then on Sunday I flush the boiler out. If I don't do that the water in my sight glass turns very rusty and sometimes black. When I flush the boiler I turn the boiler off using the kill switch wait about 30 mins to an hour then I drain it completely (about about 6 or 7 gallons of water). Then I leave it to completely cool about 3 hours (I want it to cool so it doesnt crack). At this point I fill the boiler up until the sight glass is full to the top, and drain it. I repeat that until no rusty water comes out. At that point I over fill the boiler again and I take the upper valve out of the sight glass and stick the rod from the sight glass in there and try to dislodge any sediment. I keep doing that until its clear. Then I put the valve back in. I do the same thing with the bottom one. Then I pull out the drain plug in the sight glass and make sure that's clear too. Then I drain the boiler again. After that I close the drain valves and turn the kill switch on, letting the low water cut off refill the boiler to make sure that works. Is this a good regiment? Is there a way to keep my system cleaner so I can spend more time between flushes? I bought a flush but cant get the plug out of the boiler to put it in. I also bought winterizer but it seems like the system is to dirty to put that in.

The next issue is I'm using water, its not a crazy amount but I do lose water in between flushes. When I bought the house most of the air bleeds were cracked and spraying water and steam on the wall destroying the plaster. They were universal bleeds from Home depot, so I replaced them with universals. I was reading there are specific ones you can install for each location but the drawings I saw seem like you have to follow the pipes and mine are all hidden. Is there a way to figure it out? The radiators spray steam out the vents kind of often sometimes constantly. The one in the room I am in right now has been steaming the whole time I wrote this. How much is too much?

The last thing is I get a lot of banging, I grew up with hot water baseboard so its a little foreign to me. But my father grew up with steam, and he was over my house and was surprised by how loud the banging is. How much is acceptable? What should I do to fix it? Someone told me its because some of my pipe in the basement is copper instead of the original cast pipe?


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 18,972
    Welcome to the wonderful and fascinating world of steam heat!

    First thing I'd do in your place would be to select the store tab on this site and order up a copy of "We Got Steam Heat" -- it's a nicely written guide to steam heating and it's management. Well worth the price.

    Now to a few specific points.

    It is not necessary to drain the boiler itself -- even a little bit -- every week or every month. Once a year is certainly enough. One thing, in fact, one wants to avoid is introducing any more fresh water than one can possibly help to the system. Now there is one exception: if the boiler has a float type low water cutoff, that really should be blown down every week or so until it is at least sort of clear. We can tell you what type you have i you send us some pictures...

    You don't need a winterizer. You don't need a flush...

    The "air bleeds" -- vents -- shouldn't release any steam or water at all -- but I'm not surprised that the ones from the big box do. They really aren't very good. I would suggest in your situation that you get some VentRite vents ( https://www.amazon.com/Emerson-Swan-Angle-Steam-Adjustable/dp/B072R1RR46/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&hvadid=77721864037296&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvqmt=e&keywords=vent+rite+1&qid=1614039772&sr=8-1&tag=mh0b-20 ) since they are adjustable. There are, however, other good makes, but not as easily adjustable (e.g. Hoffman, Maid-o-mist).

    You do not have to follow the pipes -- although it doesn't hurt if you can. Rather, the idea is to set the vent for the radiator in each room so that that room gets as warm as you like it. This can take some time and some fiddling, as changing one vent will affect all the others (tiresome of them...) but it works. Generally one wants to slow down the vents in rooms which are too warm before one tries to speed up the vents in rooms which are too cold.

    Now another reason for misbehaving vents it boiler pressure. Again, if you can post a few pictures of you boiler showing the controls we can make some suggestions as to how to manage that -- but the general rule is that you don't want more than 1.5 to 2 psi pressure at any time.

    Now banging. Banging isn't necessary! The book I mentioned has some good thoughts on that, but banging is almost always from condensate from the steam not being able to drain freely back to the boiler -- most often because pipes aren't sloped enough. Here I'd start in the basement -- and you mention copper pipes. This tells me two things: first, the pipes aren't insulated -- and any pipe carrying steam should be, particularly main lines. Second, it tells me that someone who didn't know much about steam heat has been working on the system. This is not good. So again -- some pictures, this time showing the piping around the boiler. It may be that that piping is allowing water to get into the steam mains, and that will cause banging.

    And dome back with more questions!
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Aperna1985
    Aperna1985 Member Posts: 5
    edited February 2021
    OK I ran around and took pictures of almost the whole system. The first floor has 3 of those big radiators they take a long time to heat up fully and bang alot, and the 2 small ones are the bedrooms upstairs, along with the newer one that is in the bathroom upstairs.

  • Aperna1985
    Aperna1985 Member Posts: 5
    By the way, I just flushed the system before making this post, so the boiler has been running continuously for about an hour, and that water is already that dark. Also while its running right now the pressure is between 1.5-2psi. But normally if its on for a short time the pressure doesn't register.

    I'm going to buy the book next Monday when I get paid.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 18,972
    That water isn't bad at all. Don't worry about flushing the boiler -- it doesn't need it.

    However -- not your puppy, you inherited it, as it were -- but that near boiler piping is... um... unfortunate. Not going to ask you to have it ripped out and reinstalled according to the boiler manual, as that gets expensive, but it's going to be hard to get really good quality steam out of it. Since the pipes aren't insulated -- yet! -- take the opportunity to put a level on every single nearly horizontal or horizontal pipe and figure out how water from condensing steam might make its way back to the boiler. You may find that the pitch of some of the pipes -- including some of the original iron pipes -- may have gotten thrown off (either too flat -- the pipes should slope at least a half inch over the length of a 4 foot level -- or even pitch the wrong way, trapping water with no way to easily get back to the boiler (if at all!). If you do find such problems, figure out how to correct that.

    Then having done that, you are going to want to insulate all those pipes. Yes, they do heat the basement -- but you don't want the steam condensing in them. You want it up in the main part of the house! Also, insulating them will help steam get to the radiators faster.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Aperna1985
    Aperna1985 Member Posts: 5
    OK, So it looks like I have to kind of start from the top and attach the whole system. Im going to start buying the adjustable air bleeds you recommended. But I was watching an old Bob Vela this old house and he said that the radiators need to be pitched so that if you place a level on top the bubble should rest on the line, so the condensations can drain back. most of mine are level or tilt away from the valve. Is the method of stacking pennies under the feet the best way? Whats the best way to lift the radiators? A Johnson bar? Should I start at the radiators before going into the basement and trying to fix the pitch of the pipes? I checked in the basement and the pipes are actually pitched away from the boiler. Now is one side supposed to be pitched away and one side pitched towards the boiler for some kind of flow? or should they all pitch towards the boiler?
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 3,739
    Please don't call them "air bleeds". There is no component of a steam system called a "bleed" and it will confuse people into thinking you have a hot water system. They are called "Radiator air vents" usually.

    You can use coins (quarters are a better size but are more expensive). You can use wood or plastic shims. You can use pieces of cut plywood, etc.

    You can use a 2x4 to gently lever the end of the radiator.

    There are a variety of ways the mains can be pitched depending on design but usually they start at their highest point just above the boiler, then slope downward to the end where they then drop hopefully to the floor level to return to the boiler (called a wet return). This would describe a "parallel flow main"
    1 pipe Peerless 63-03L in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
  • Aperna1985
    Aperna1985 Member Posts: 5
    Sorry about that. I referred to them as Whistlers when I was younger and a plumber referred to them as air bleeds. I'll call them vents from now on. 

    If I take some more pictures, can you guys tell me if the pipes are pitched correctly?

    Also I have access to a pipe the threader and I'm comfortable using it, Im an electrical by trade and we thread conduit on a rigid 300 often. Is it in my best interests to remove the copper and duplicate everything in black pipe?
  • EzzyT
    EzzyT Member Posts: 1,202
    Everything starts with a properly piped boiler and yours is not so start there. 
  • Grallert
    Grallert Member Posts: 531
    get a box of 1" washers. They're inexpensive and are great for leveling radiators. Shim those rads pitched towards the valves that'll get the water out and protect the new vents it could also eliminate some of the hammering. Save the quarters (a lot of them)for new near boiler piping.