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Old house - insane radiator setup

Hi all, new forum member here. I was pointed in this direction by some friendly Internet strangers.

My wife and I have just moved into a new house. Actually it’s an old house. It’s a brownstone-style townhouse in an urban area that was built in the early 20th century.

There are multiple separate AC units in the house but let’s put that aside. I am more scratching my head about the heating system. Heating in this house is provided by a single pipe natural-gas fed boiler system that is sent to cast-iron radiators throughout the house, usually one in each room. There is only one thermostat (in the master bedroom) that controls the boiler, and by extension the house-wide radiator network.

According to the previous owner, the heat distribution by the radiators is awful. She said in order to get all the rooms in the house heated, the thermostat had to be cranked all the way up.

So in winter, by the time the dining room got to 70 degrees, the master bedroom was at 90. She “fixed” this by simultaneously running the air conditioner in the master bedroom while the radiator was on to lower the temperature to 70.

This sounds insane.

I am trying to figure out my options here. I believe one no-brainer is to replace the radiator valves with special thermostatic valves. In theory I can then turn on the boiler, but lower the amount of heat blasting out into the MBR but raising the heat to the dining room.

So my questions are:

  1. Does this make sense?
  2. I saw somewhere that the TSV in the room with the thermostat have to be on max — but if I do that, then the MBR will be warmed up to 70 but the dining room won’t.
  3. Is there anything else I can do to make this less wasteful? Are there newfangled radiator tech out there that I’m not aware of?

Thanks a bundle!

Comments

  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,622
    Your system clearly has balance issues and probably other bigger problems. Where are you located, you either need to learn yourself or find a steam expert to go over it and figure out why it isn't balanced. There may be experts here that work in your area. It could be as simple as bad/nonexistant or poorly chosen venting or it could be piping problems like near boiler piping that is wrong and throwing water up in to the system or piping that has sagged and is holding water or someone that made incorrect modifications to the system or any combination of the above and a bunch of other somewhat less common things.

    Is the system quiet or is there a lot of banging and gurgling and such that accompanies the uneven heat?

    There is a way to put thermostatic valves on one pipe steam radiators but you have to get it more or less in balance and functioning properly first. They are more the last step if the normal things aren't sufficient.
    CaptainHoneywell
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,823
    Sounds like one-pipe steam. This problem is pretty easy to fix if you know what you're doing. Where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    kcoppCaptainHoneywell
  • CaptainHoneywell
    CaptainHoneywell Member Posts: 18
    New York. Why does it “sound like one pipe steam”?
  • kcopp
    kcopp Member Posts: 4,431
    Got pix?
    Worth a thousand words...
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,823
    From the piping configuration you describe, also the uneven heat distribution. But, we'll know for sure if you post pics of the boiler and some radiators.

    There are plenty of Steam Guys in the NYC area who can help you out. Go here:

    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/state/NY
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • CaptainHoneywell
    CaptainHoneywell Member Posts: 18
    mattmia2 said:
    Is the system quiet or is there a lot of banging and gurgling and such that accompanies the uneven heat?
    Well I haven’t had a winter here yet so it’s all secondhand from the previous owner, but yes I’m given to understand there’s banging going on.

    Just t for my knowledge, what does it mean to “balance” the system? Is is tweaks and cleanups, or is it new piping and something more drastic? I really appreciate you taking the time to educate me, btw.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,622
    It is usually mostly tweaking. it depends on what others have done to it. it isn't uncommon for the near boiler piping to be just plain wrong and need a fair bit of rework to get the system functioning properly. Return lines below the boiler water line can be rotted out too.
    CaptainHoneywell
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,477
    Steam heat is simple but a lot of HVAC people don't really understand it. NYC has a lot of steam heat so look for someone who knows steam.

    That system probably worked fine after it was installed but things change over the decades. Buildings settle (throwing pipes out of pitch) and air vents plug up. If it is a single pipe system the vents on individual radiators may have plugged up over the years. Do the individual radiators have an air vent on the opposite side of the steam shutoff valve? If so what make and model are they? Make a list of each radiators size and vent used. Next look around in the cellar to see if you can find any main air vents on the main steam distribution piping, these could have stopped working.

    Next any horizontal steam piping has to have pitch so water can find it's way nack to the boiler. If the pipes have shifter along with building settling a pipe could be pitched wrong and that can slow or block steam delivery to some radiators.

    Don't let anyone talk you into trashing the steam and replacing it, that is very expensive and fraught with problems of it's own. Most problems can be fixed without having to take another mortgage out on the house tol pay for it. Pictures of the boiler (taken so we can see the boiler and the piping around it) and a couple of the radiators (showing both ends) will let us see what kind of system you have.

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • CaptainHoneywell
    CaptainHoneywell Member Posts: 18
    edited May 2022
    Thank you all. Below are some pictures showing the 1) boiler, 2) piping, 3) radiator with valves on both ends.
    Portgas
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,272
    Those radiators are wonderful! Don't let anyone mess with them -- it's the best heating system you culd have.

    The boiler piping isn't wonderful, but that's not a surprise and is probably workable. Unless my old eyes deceive me, though, the pressure on the boiler is set much too high. It's controlled by the grey box with a clear front, and it looks to me as though the pointer on the scale on the right is set near the top -- it should be set at about 1.5 or 2.

    What you do need to do is to start thinking about venting. Some of this you can do yourself. Do get the little book "We Got Steam Heat", as there is a good discussion in there about vents, but the basic principle is that rooms that are overheating should have "slower" vents. Just changing vents on your radiators will do wonders for the unbalanced heat in your building.

    As noted, there are several very good steam heat people in New York. I can't keep track of which ones work in which boroughs, but I do know that @JohnNY , who is one of the very best, works all over the city.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    CaptainHoneywell
  • CaptainHoneywell
    CaptainHoneywell Member Posts: 18
    Thank you @Jamie Hall. Roger that on the vents (the silver thingies, right?). Do you have any thoughts on thermostatic valves?
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,622
    The near boiler piping isn't in the right order, the risers from the boiler should connect to the horizontal pipe before the takeoffs to the system. It might be workable but it could be part of your problem too. It will be very sensitive to the water quality in the boiler, if it is surging or priming the water will have no place to go but in to the system to cause the types of problems you are descirbing.

    Can we also see a closeup of the pressuretrol to see how it is set.

    Are the valves on the radiators either all the way open or all the way closed? If they are part way they will trap condensate in the radiator. They must be fully open or fully closed on 1 pipe steam.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,622


    As noted, there are several very good steam heat people in New York. I can't keep track of which ones work in which boroughs, but I do know that @JohnNY , who is one of the very best, works all over the city.

    I think @JohnNY 's very effective user name may be too effective. But there are a number of great steam people on here that work in NYC including John.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,272

    Thank you @Jamie Hall. Roger that on the vents (the silver thingies, right?). Do you have any thoughts on thermostatic valves?

    Yes. Don't until you get the venting more even. They are really a band-aid which covers, but doesn't fix, the problem.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    BobCbburdLyle {pheloa} Carter