The Quality of Heating Work
"This one's not a problem," he said, and my stomach got a bit queasy. "It's this other one over here. The one that goes up to the second floor. I can't get the radiator hot past its first couple of sections." We walked over to the run-out to the riser and checked it. It was also nearly level.
"Pipe might be too small for the load," I said. "We'll check it against the radiator’s EDR."
The contractor nodded and asked, "So how come the other one over there is working?" He pointed back to the one we had just looked at. "How come that one works and this one doesn't?"
That is the nature of troubleshooting. The latest person on the job becomes the defendant. The only thing I could figure was that the first radiator we looked at was the first one off the main, and there was less condensate at that point in the system, but the truth was, I just didn't know for sure. The contractor and I stared at the pipes for a while; he pressed me for a definite answer he could use with the owner; we looked at each other, and he wound up re-piping that second radiator, which fixed the problem. But I think about that first radiator from time to time. No matter how comfortable we think we are with these older heating systems we really can't ever be. Not deep down.
I own a wonderful book titled simply, Steam-Heating Problems. It does have a longer title on the title page, and that reads, Steam-Heating Problems, or Questions, Answers and Descriptions Relating to Steam-Heating and Steam-Fitting from The Engineering Record (Prior to 1887 The Sanitary Engineer). A compilation of letters sent to the editor during a time when central heating was brand-new. The copyright date on this text, which smells like all of time, is 1888. In here, we find the work of the Dead Men, discussed as they orchestrated it, warts and all.
And here on page 70 is a question posed by an unnamed Dead Man who finds himself on a job, staring at piping that shouldn't work, but does. He's writing at a time before thermostatic radiator traps. The radiators on this system connect to a vertical steam supply main, and a vertical condensate return main, like rungs on a ladder. Each radiator has a straight valve on its supply and return. I can't tell if these are globe or gate valves, and the writer doesn’t tell me. The steam climbs this ladder, rising up the supply main, and then crosses into the return main, although at a lower pressure due to condensation. They called it a two-pipe, air-vent system, and it's a common system for its time. But the true tradesmen piped each radiator on one of these systems with an angle valve on the supply and another on the return. He approached each from a point in the main that was below the radiator, and this aided in condensate drainage, making for a quieter system. Doing it the right way involved more labor and a bit more piping, of course, but it was the correct way to do things.
But not everyone cared about the correct way, even in those days. Listen to the critic's lament:
Q: "I think it is evident that there is a good deal of steam-fitting done that does not represent the best practices, yet gives fair results.
"I recently visited a hotel job where the steam main is carried up from the boiler. The radiator connections are branched off straight from a tee in the risers, making an almost rigid connection. Also, the returns do not come below the waterline of the boiler, but are technically what is called 'dry.'
"The steam main is only two-inch, yet there is at least 1,200 feet of heating surface supplied by it.
"The pressure carried is about five pounds; the circulation is good – a little noisy at times, but that is the only fault.
"Now, here is a piece of work with steam mains too small, with radiator connections that are contrary to all rules, with no reliefs, with no automatic air vents, and with dry returns. In fact, contrary to everything that I have been taught to regard to good work, and yet, I can vouch for the fact that it heats the building comfortably, and that neither the man who did the work nor the man who had it done is aware that it is not a first-class job in every respect."
A: "A very large share of all the steam work throughout the country at large is done in a manner 'just good enough to work.'
"Steam-fitting is like many other trades: its good points are only brought out by comparison. A man may appear comfortably and almost richly dressed in such a suit of broadcloth made by a tailor who never had learned to cut, but nevertheless was a good sewer, and who had the hardihood to undertake any job that came along; the cloth and trimmings being as good as other people's cost the same, and if there was any saving it was on labor alone. Contrast him now with a man dressed by a man who is a tailor and the comparison will be obvious and odious.
"A similar difference exists between the work you speak of and the work done by a steam-fitter who is entitled to the name. At the same time we must bear in mind that heating apparatus were invented to keep us warm, as were clothes, and that unless both are positively dangerous to the owner he should not be frightened about their appearance – unless he is wealthy."
I think back to that near-level, undersized pipe in the basement of that New York City building. It worked; no doubt about that, but it was obviously installed by a man who was not a tailor. The owner of the building wouldn’t know that unless he had something with which to compare it.
As I stood there with the contractor, I wondered whether that problem radiator – the second one we looked at – had ever worked properly, or whether the various owners of this building over the years just accepted the concept that steam sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t work.
That's another challenge facing the troubleshooter: You rarely get to hear the whole history. You often find yourself talking to people who just got there themselves – the new owner, the new tenant. And you wonder how this system ever worked. And what changed? And why is it not working now?
I have such respect for the Dead Men because their work has lasted for so long, but what I sometimes forget is that one of the reasons why this work has lasted so long is because they piped it properly. Most of the mediocre systems went to an earlier grave because they gave enough headaches to enough people. They’re not here for us to see.
But there were people who screwed up back then, just as there are now. And there were those who took shortcuts in the old days, just as there are now. But if the system works, in spite of being poorly designed and installed, and if the installer and the customer are both satisfied with the results, however flawed, and if there's no comparison to anything better, then good enough will always be good enough.
"At the same time we must bear in mind that heating apparatus were invented to keep us warm, as were clothes, and that unless both are positively dangerous to the owner he should not be frightened about their appearance – unless he is wealthy."
A provocative statement from a long time ago, and one that I think raises the current question of whether only the rich deserve true quality. Is good enough truly good enough for most of us? And if so, will mediocrity always be a part of this trade?