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Steam Heat & Headaches

Hi all

Long-time listener, first-time caller. Answered a lot of questions between here and Dan's book?

I'll get right to it—I suspect our heating system is causing me headaches when I sleep. There's a mild but distinct rusty/steamy odor that comes from the radiators, which is likely enough to give me a headache (I'm extremely sensitive to a lot of stuff like perfume and dust, which give me similar headaches). I'm working with a couple doctors to see if there's a medical way to deal with the headaches, but in the meantime I'm just trying to eliminate triggers. FWIW, the issue doesn't seem to be from the dry air (humidifier didn't help). My current theory is there's some trace amount of steam and rust getting into the air before the valve in the vent shuts.

Last winter I had the same problem, but as able to remedy by changing the vent on the radiator and buying a HEPA filter. I slept soundly for the rest of the winter after that. This year the HEPA filter isn't helping and I'm waking up with the headaches again. I haven't changed the vent yet as I figure it should still be good after less than a year, but I'm planning to change it anyway since our bedroom is getting a bit too hot at night.

My questions are:
  1. Is there a way to cut down the rusty smell?
  2. Is there a way to be sure no steam is escaping into the room?
If anyone has any thoughts or insights I'd really appreciate it. Thanks!

Comments

  • BillW
    BillW Member Posts: 198
    There will be air in a steam system that has to be displaced by the steam when the boiler fires, and it leaves thru the vents. They shut when the temperature reaches their limit, and the steam transfers its heat, condenses back to water, and returns to the boiler and the vents cool down and open again to wait for the next cycle. Water contains dissolved minerals and dissolved gases and these may produce odors when the water is heated. Algae and other organic matter can also produce odors. Have you painted the rads recently? If so, paint solvent vapors may be off-gassing. Dust and dirt build up on rad surfaces, and the microscopic dust particles may be circulating in the air currents around the radiators. Don't expect to see them; anything small enough to ride those currents is invisible. Hatteras suggested some things for you to do, and I agree with him. The only other thing I can suggest is possibly a water filter on the feedwater line, and a visit to an allergist to find out what you may be allergic to. Good Luck.
  • smoothdeity
    smoothdeity Member Posts: 9
    edited December 2015
    Thanks for your thoughts, Hatterasguy and BillW

    It is quite interesting that the change of vent did produce a benefit.

    The catch is that I introduced the HEPA filter around the same time as the vent change, so the variables weren't controlled. It's quite possible the vent change did nothing and the HEPA filter was the source of help last winter.

    After doing my homework I remembered that changing the vent shouldn't affect how hot the radiator gets (just how fast it gets hot)—but it sure does seem hotter than I remember it. I figure I might try changing the vent anyway to see if that makes a difference just for the sleep trouble. Maybe it's gone bad more quickly than I expected.

    This may require several fill and draining cycles of the boiler and/or the addition of some TSP to attempt to get it to the cleanest condition possible.

    What is TSP? Tried googling around but there were too many hits on that acronym to figure out what you were referring to. (Edit: searched around a bit more and found the answer—Trisodium Phosphate)
    BillW said:

    Have you painted the rads recently? If so, paint solvent vapors may be off-gassing. Dust and dirt build up on rad surfaces, and the microscopic dust particles may be circulating in the air currents around the radiators. Don't expect to see them; anything small enough to ride those currents is invisible. Hatteras suggested some things for you to do, and I agree with him. The only other thing I can suggest is possibly a water filter on the feedwater line, and a visit to an allergist to find out what you may be allergic to. Good Luck.

    The radiators haven't been painted in ages, but we did add a new radiator cover in the past couple years. It's not painted yet, but the top is some kind of composite wood—maybe that's off-gassing somehow. Or maybe there's some glue in the construction. I'll take the cover off for a night or two and see if that makes any difference. And that's as good a time as any to dust off the radiator. Dust is definitely one of the triggers, so it's certainly possible that's contributing.

    Thanks again!
  • vibert_c
    vibert_c Member Posts: 68
    @smoothdeity This sounds similar to my chums story. If you have a white powder that settles around the vent area, it comes from an additive that is in the boiler water. This incapacitated him at work in six weeks. He had to retire to get away from it. Would you like the benefit of his experience? If so send me a private memo.
  • neilc
    neilc Member Posts: 1,304
    op,
    while you're chasing dust, steam, and off gassing , , ,
    Have you checked, are you monitoring, for CO ?
    CO detectors with digital readouts often have a button to push and will show low levels which will not trigger the alarm.
  • neilc
    neilc Member Posts: 1,304
    and if it's allergies,
    your laundry detergent, pillow foam, etc ?
  • smoothdeity
    smoothdeity Member Posts: 9
    Update!

    Changed the vent a couple days ago, and have indeed been sleeping better. However, I did get 3 interesting pieces of information in the process:
    1. The old vent was installed in February 2015, so if it indeed went bad it was in less than a year.
    2. The old vent had some chalky white residue around and beneath the opening. Not too much, but noticeable, and definitely liquid by the pattern.
    3. The new vent immediately started "sputtering" as the air is pushed out of the system.
    #3 led me to check the pitch of the radiator—it looks like it's tilted very slightly *away* from the pipe! So my current hypothesis is that the radiator isn't draining properly, and the water is just sitting inside corroding. When the air is pushed out it's taking some of that corroded water along for the ride. This explanation seems to cover all of the observations and issues so far.

    I'm going to try getting the radiator tilted back towards the pipe with a wood shim and see what happens.
  • smoothdeity
    smoothdeity Member Posts: 9
    @neilc Good thoughts. Actually am monitoring CO throughout the house and especially near the bedrooms.

    As for the other allergies, I switched to unscented laundry detergent decades ago, and have gone through a couple pillows in the process of experimenting but it never made a huge difference besides replacing an old, dusty one with a new one. Interestingly enough, the allergist said I'm not significantly allergic to much of anything—at least in the regular tests he's done. I have some follow up appointments with him to dig a little deeper, including CT scan of my sinuses which I'm very interested in seeing the results of.
  • saewutyo
    saewutyo Member Posts: 1
    Forty-five years of severe headaches in various homes qualifies me as a household toxicology expert, kinda sorta.

    If you had ethylene glycol in your system I'd recommend changing it out for propylene glycol, immediately. BIG difference.

    If your boiler is not in a proper plenum room, you are possibly sharing your air and even exhaust with the unit.

    One common culprit I discovered is a nasty tendency for installers in my area to use rubber hose for the fuel feed. The hose verrrry slowly weeps hydrocarbons, like an essential oil diffuser. Headaches, lack of appetite, mood disorders, diabetes, facial sores (especially around the nose) and eventually death are all symptoms of exposure to #2 heating oil fumes. We got off light with 5 out of 6.

    The wood is a good suspect. So are synthetics in clothing, furniture, upholstery, drapes. Due to my wide variety of poisonings I'm probably more sensitive than most.

    My health's all-time worst offender, after numerous abatements, turned out to be my precious mother's oil paintings which, as much as I cherished, I had to finally move into a closet. Viola! No more waking up with unsolicited hangovers. (It WAS the last thing I tried.)

    That only took half a century to figure out.

    Good luck and don't be surprised if people think you're nuts. You're the one who has to live with it, so take it seriously and don't take "no" for an answer. There are always experiments you can devise that will prove your suspicions in any case.
  • Jacqueline709
    Jacqueline709 Member Posts: 9

    Update!

    Changed the vent a couple days ago, and have indeed been sleeping better. However, I did get 3 interesting pieces of information in the process:

    #3 led me to check the pitch of the radiator—it looks like it's tilted very slightly *away* from the pipe! So my current hypothesis is that the radiator isn't draining properly, and the water is just sitting inside corroding. When the air is pushed out it's taking some of that corroded water along for the ride. This explanation seems to cover all of the observations and issues so far.

    I'm going to try getting the radiator tilted back towards the pipe with a wood shim and see what happens.

    Hi everyone, I know this thread is super old, but I could use your help. I have been dealing with the same issues. I see there is a chalky residue in the vent where my heat comes out, and whenever I turn it on, I feel extremely sick. It has happened in other homes too. I'm not sure what to do about it. I had thought, based on my symptoms, that there was mold. Is the sitting water that could be corroding the reason for this, I wonder? Or is it the additive mentioned by vibert_c that leaves the white color:
    vibert_c said:

    @smoothdeity This sounds similar to my chums story. If you have a white powder that settles around the vent area, it comes from an additive that is in the boiler water. This incapacitated him at work in six weeks. He had to retire to get away from it. Would you like the benefit of his experience? If so send me a private memo.

    I sent you a private message using the email on your profile. If anyone sees this and is willing to help, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you.

    Jacqueline
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 3,018
    Hi there-
    can you find a steam pro in your area to check your water quality in the boiler?

    if you like to sleep in a cool room you can rotate the vent to upside down, then it won’t allow any air out. You can rotate it back in the morning. 
    1 pipe Peerless 63-03L in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
  • Larry Weingarten
    Larry Weingarten Member Posts: 2,178
    Hello, Is it possible to run a plastic tube from the vent to the outdoors? :o

    Yours, Larry
  • Jacqueline709
    Jacqueline709 Member Posts: 9

    Hi there-
    can you find a steam pro in your area to check your water quality in the boiler?

    if you like to sleep in a cool room you can rotate the vent to upside down, then it won’t allow any air out. You can rotate it back in the morning. 

    Thanks for this reply. I just discovered there is no boiler; it is forced dry air. I don't understand how this system works. My father is telling me there is no water to sit and therefore no mold, yet the patterning of the white spots looks exactly like the patterning of mold. When i go to wipe it off, it doesn't budge; it looks like stains showing corrosion on the metal vent.

    Hello, Is it possible to run a plastic tube from the vent to the outdoors? :o

    Yours, Larry

    Makes sense, but I do need the heat as I'm in New England where it gets to be close to zero degrees F for many months of the year.
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 3,018
    edited October 2020
    Larry's response might have seemed strange, but if that were indeed a steam heat system, the vent we are talking about would only vent a little bit of air, and would then allow the radiator to fill with steam and still heat your room.

    But since you actually have forced air, we have to start from the beginning. You should repost your question with this new information in a new thread maybe in https://forum.heatinghelp.com/categories/indoor-air-quality

    Because this thread has been "poisoned" by the incorrect information and will be confusing from here on out. Include pictures of this "mold" material in the new discussion thread.

    And you should re-ask your question, because it makes me nervous that you are getting a "rusty, steamy" quality of air from your forced air system...it makes me wonder if your heat exchanger is rotted out and leaking, or some other problem.
    1 pipe Peerless 63-03L in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
    Jacqueline709
  • Jacqueline709
    Jacqueline709 Member Posts: 9
    edited October 2020
    UPDATE

    I think I've figured it out. There is corrosion in the ducts coming from the furnace, which I read in the articles below can be caused by poor ventilation of the combustion gases used by the furnace to heat the air. So it's not mold, it's the copper and iron particles getting released into the air coming from the corroded ducts. I am one sensitive cookie indeed, but these articles are agreeing that it's dangerous to heat through corroded vents, because if the heat exchanger eventually cracks, carbon monoxide can get released. Here are the articles:

    https://www.aircreations.net/blog/heating-service/furnace-can-corrode/#:~:text=Usually, it happens because of,of the exchanger to corrode.&text=Once a gas furnace is,old, corrosion is more likely.

    https://cleanair.camfil.us/2017/08/22/the-effects-of-corrosion/

    I would bet that people's reactions to copper particles in the air are way more common than the other substances to which we often attribute our reactions. A severe imbalance of metals and minerals in the body can cause susceptibility to infection and sensitivity to normal everyday substances. I had extremely high levels of copper detected in a hair test a few years back, so it's no surprise that even little bits are causing me to feel so sick. Thanks for everyone's help :)
  • Jacqueline709
    Jacqueline709 Member Posts: 9

    Larry's response might have seemed strange, but if that were indeed a steam heat system, the vent we are talking about would only vent a little bit of air, and would then allow the radiator to fill with steam and still heat your room.

    But since you actually have forced air, we have to start from the beginning. You should repost your question with this new information in a new thread maybe in https://forum.heatinghelp.com/categories/indoor-air-quality

    Because this thread has been "poisoned" by the incorrect information and will be confusing from here on out. Include pictures of this "mold" material in the new discussion thread.

    And you should re-ask your question, because it makes me nervous that you are getting a "rusty, steamy" quality of air from your forced air system...it makes me wonder if your heat exchanger is rotted out and leaking, or some other problem.

    I just saw this now. Thank you. Maybe I will start a new thread, as even though what I've found seems logical, maybe I am missing something. Your theory about the heat exchanger leaking is exactly my concern regarding the corrosion. I had a similar problem in a very old cottage last year, but more severe. I was almost certain I was getting low-grade carbon monoxide poisoning, which I'm now reading can be caused from a cracked heat exchanger. I'm a 24 year old artist/art historian, so I really don't understand how any of this **** works, but am only conjecturing based on what I am reading. How can I tell if there is a leak in the heat exhanger? I'll post in another thread as well, but would appreciate any insight you might have on that. Thanks again.
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 3,018
    How to tell if you have a leak in the heat exchanger? You call a trusted professional contractor to inspect your system. Please do that. Immediately.

    And please have carbon monoxide detectors. Don't focus on the symptom (the rust), focus on the cause, which might kill you.
    1 pipe Peerless 63-03L in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
    Jacqueline709
  • Erin Holohan Haskell
    Erin Holohan Haskell Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 1,599
This discussion has been closed.

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