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Lots of dust coming from steam heat in apartment

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I live in an old NYC building with steam heat, on the top floor. My studio apartment has 3 radiators in the main room, a riser pipe in the bathroom, and a vent on the wall near the ceiling in the kitchen. Every year, when the heat comes on, my apartment gets incredibly dusty. I’m pretty sure it’s coming from the heating system—the walls and floors around the heat sources have by far the most dust. I don’t think it’s just a matter of dust on the outside of the radiators getting stirred up, because my radiators have enclosures around them, and there’s dust coming from the riser pipe and kitchen vent too.

What would cause this to happen? I’ve tried a lot of googling, but as far as I can tell this isn’t a common problem with steam heating. Up close, the dust is blue-gray and has little threads in it, which makes me wonder if it’s coming from the dryers in the basement somehow. There is a lot of hissing when the heat is on—mostly from the riser pipe and the kitchen vent. The sound doesn’t bother me much, but I gather that can be a sign that the system is expelling more air than it should be?

Pics of kitchen vent:


Riser pipe openings:


Dust on wall and door frame near riser pipe:


I could try to ask my super to fix it, but if it’s not an easy fix it will probably be hard to persuade him. If I can’t get it properly fixed, are there any easy and safe ways to contain the dust? I found filters on Amazon meant for furnace registers, like these. But I'm not sure if they’re meant for the kind of vent I have in the kitchen—I can’t find any information about the role of this vent in steam heating systems. And would it be safe to attach that sort of filter material over the holes in the radiator enclosures, or to wrap it around the openings at the top of the riser pipe somehow? Are there other options? I do have two air purifiers, but they don't seem to decrease the dust much.

Thank you!

Comments

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,324
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    The dust isn't coming from the heating system, but is being moved around by the warm air from the radiators. It then catches and settles on various places. The source of the dust could be almost anywhere -- in your apartment or from floor openings in from the apartment below. A vacuum cleaner may -- or may not -- be adequate to get rid of it, but you'll have to keep after it. If it's mixed with cooking grease -- quite likely-- you may need to use a sponge and slightly soapy water.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    bburd
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,861
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    Dust in the condo is a vacuums job!
    EdTheHeaterMan
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 7,852
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    Do steam radiators have vents like that "kitchen vent"?

    Your vacuum cleaner may need to be replaced. I know it is difficult to find good help, But my vacuum cleaner LeeAnn, does a wonderful job for me. My advise, once you find a good vacuum cleaner, do what ever you can to keep her. It is even better if you can get a vacuum cleaner who also does the dishes and the laundry too

    Edward Young Retired

    After you make that expensive repair and you still have the same problem, What will you check next?

    JohnNY
  • wavypigeon
    wavypigeon Member Posts: 4
    edited December 2022
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    Ha, I promise I do vacuum! Admittedly usually not the tops of the door frames. It’s easy enough to clean, but it comes back very quickly--looks noticeably dusty again within a few days. I've lived in other old buildings in the past and none of them had dust anything like this.

    Yeah, the kitchen vent is weird. I think it's because there's another riser inside the wall?

    If it's just that the heat blows around the dust that's already in the apartment, why is there so much more dust closest to the heat sources? It's a dramatic difference--that dusty door frame is about 6 inches from where air exits the riser, while similar surfaces 6 feet away get much less dust. And there's hardly any dust from April through October when the heat's off, despite having AC/fans/air purifiers that I would think move the air around.
  • dabrakeman
    dabrakeman Member Posts: 552
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    The steam heat is not the source of the dusts but if you think the dust might be coming from that kitchen vent (perhaps from some air flow coming up the cavity in the wall and bringing dust with it) then, rig a filter in behind that grate.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,670
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    If the vents aren't closing the moisture may be causing dust to stick to those areas.
  • Long Beach Ed
    Long Beach Ed Member Posts: 1,210
    edited December 2022
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    In NYC, every bathroom and kitchen must communicate with outside air. That vent may be doing that or was designed to do that. The problem may be that it was installed when Coolidge was president and the ducts haven't been cleaned since. Good luck with that. If you're rent controlled or stabilized your landlord doesn't have to do a thing about it.

    The crack around the riser pipe that may admit dust or vermin can be filled with expanding foam or crumpled up newspapers.

    The steam heat is just moving any dust around by convection. Cover the duct with duct tape, check the stove for carbon monoxide output and vacuum up your dust. Any more after that is all on you!
    CLamb
  • wavypigeon
    wavypigeon Member Posts: 4
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    In NYC, every bathroom and kitchen must communicate with outside air. That vent may be doing that or was designed to do that.

    Interesting! The bathroom and kitchen do each have a window to the outside, though--which it sounds like should mean that a vent to the outside isn't required? I managed to pry the access panel next to the vent open, and there is indeed what looks like another riser in the wall. It definitely makes the same sounds as the bathroom riser :) This picture is taken with my phone stuck into the access panel hole, so on the right you can see the inside of the grate from my first post.

    The steam heat is not the source of the dusts but if you think the dust might be coming from that kitchen vent (perhaps from some air flow coming up the cavity in the wall and bringing dust with it) then, rig a filter in behind that grate.

    Yeah, this would make sense--when air comes out of the riser, some dust from inside the wall gets pushed out the grate along with it. I'll try a filter here.
    mattmia2 said:

    If the vents aren't closing the moisture may be causing dust to stick to those areas.

    Yeah, this seems possible too. The bathroom riser and the walls around it also get these gross brown drip marks on them. At first I thought the pipe was spitting out liquid, but after doing more research I think they're surfactant leaching caused by humidity. And they mostly happen around the riser pipe, not around the shower where you'd expect the most humidity.

    The crack around the riser pipe that may admit dust or vermin can be filled with expanding foam or crumpled up newspapers.

    I honestly wasn't sure if those holes were intentional or not--everything is so covered in layers of paint it's hard to tell. That does seem to be where the dust is coming from, judging by the dust clinging to the openings. Maybe air from the riser escaping into whatever is above my bathroom pushes dust into the bathroom via those holes? Is newspaper safe to fill those holes--not a fire hazard?

  • Long Beach Ed
    Long Beach Ed Member Posts: 1,210
    edited December 2022
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    The steam pipe won't set the paper on fire, but technically, by code at least that hole should be blocked with noncombustable material to stop the spread of any fire. If you are concerned, fire-blocking foam is available.
  • bburd
    bburd Member Posts: 917
    edited December 2022
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    Re that wall vent in the kitchen, probably the kitchen was remodeled and the steam riser that heats the room was enclosed. There should be vents at  the top and bottom of the pipe chase to allow air to flow through it, heat up and  enter the room, although this is less effective than a bare pipe.  However, there is probably no access to clean the chase, so it’s likely full of dust. If you add filters, that will reduce heat circulation to the room.

    Bburd
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,861
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    The steam pipe won't set the paper on fire, but technically, by code at least that hole should be blocked with noncombustable material to stop the spread of any fire. If you are concerned, fire-blocking foam is available.
    How does the vent set paper on fire?
  • Long Beach Ed
    Long Beach Ed Member Posts: 1,210
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    Steam and steam vents and steam valves and steam pipes don't set fire to paper. Paper ignites at 425 degrees. Codes generally want openings between fire resistive petitions to be equally stopped.
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 22,158
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    You can get caulk tubes of fire stop at the box stores, to seal around the pipes.
    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
    Long Beach Ed
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,670
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    bburd said:

    Re that wall vent in the kitchen, probably the kitchen was remodeled and the steam riser that heats the room was enclosed. There should be vents at  the top and bottom of the pipe chase to allow air to flow through it, heat up and  enter the room, although this is less effective than a bare pipe.  However, there is probably no access to clean the chase, so it’s likely full of dust. If you add filters, that will reduce heat circulation to the room.

    The chase allowing air to draft over the pipe will probably increase the output over the pipe in the open.
  • bburd
    bburd Member Posts: 917
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    @mattmia2 the chimney effect will increase the output by convection, but put most of that heat near the ceiling; and the enclosure will reduce the output by radiation. It would be interesting to experiment and see the actual effect on room conditions.

    Bburd
  • ChicagoCooperator
    ChicagoCooperator Member Posts: 355
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    Convectors and convective chases with an enclose pipe are major dust centers - just a quirk of the system itself unfortunately (said with experience from my convectors). That said, if you keep them vacuumed they do stay cleaner and spread less.
  • wavypigeon
    wavypigeon Member Posts: 4
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    Yeah, there's unfortunately no way to access the chase to clean it as far as I can tell. But the kitchen is currently too warm if anything, so reducing the heat circulation somewhat might be fine--I'll try adding a filter to the grate and see how it goes. And I'll try filling the holes around the bathroom riser pipe. Thank you all for helping me figure this out!