The $37 million steam trap
Here’s to preventative maintenance, a practice often overlooked. When the laws of physics and the laws of economics collide, the laws of economics nearly always win in the short run, and especially in this slow economy. The laws of physics, however, don’t care about anyone’s budget, or anyone’s ignorance. The laws of physics just win in the end. Always.
So even if people are putting off preventative maintenance today to save a buck, they’ll pay tomorrow, and through the nose because there’s no escaping Mother Nature. She can be vicious and she’s forever relentless. And when things go wrong, we blame her instead of ourselves. But I think we’re to blame because we’re dopey enough to pretend that Mother Nature isn’t there. Here’s a higher-education example of just that:
James Wright, the current President of Dartmouth, lives in an 83-year-old house that has also been home to the past six
Let that number sink in for a moment.
I read an interview where President Wright explained that when he and his wife, Susan, first moved into the house in 1998, he chose to delay renovations to the heating, water and plumbing systems because it would be “invasiveness.” I can understand that, but here we are 11 years later and you can imagine what’s gone on in that old house since the Wrights moved in. You don’t know “invasive” until you’ve ignored and upset Mother Nature. She never sleeps.
"We live in a wonderful, historic house,” says President Wright, “but it is an embarrassment for an institution like Dartmouth to have a house in this condition, so I am pleased the Board is more than willing to go ahead with some of these renovations."
Parents, grab your wallets.
The house is still using its original heating and plumbing systems, and they’re going to replace it all. They’re switching from steam to hot water because (are you ready?) “The steam system has resulted in significant heat loss, leaks and damage.”
Okay, I’ll go for the leaks and damage. Steam systems will do that if you ignore them for nearly a century, but I think the heat loss has more to do with the building envelope that it has to do with the system itself. But, hey, I’m no Ivy League graduate.
“The current system is not only uncomfortable, it's wasteful," President Wright said. "It's not efficient, and
And he’s been living with this since 1988. Go figure.
And that brings me to the $37 million steam trap.
On July 18, 2007, it rained here on the Isle of Long and in
Later that day, after the rain had stopped, the corner of
“The rain started that,” I said to Marianne when I saw it on the news that evening.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The rain cooled the steam main and the steam inside the main condensed. When you suddenly have that much water moving at that speed, you’re going to get water hammer, and this is what water hammer can do.”
We watched the news together. I mumbled more about the power of steam, and about Mother Nature. Marianne puts up with me when I get like this. She’s good that way.
The steam mains under
There are manhole covers on just about every corner, and this is where you’ll find the steam traps. There’s often steam spewing from those manhole covers and we New Yorkers see this as perfectly normal. ConEd, the district steam company, used to have an advertising slogan: Dig We Must.
And they sure do.
The official report came out on December 27, 2007. A contractor had used sealant to repair a leak in a joint, and the excess sealant had gotten into two nearby steam traps and clogged them. No one noticed this. When the rain arrived and cooled the steam pipes, it created lots of condensate, which the traps couldn’t drain because they were clogged with sealant. The water gathered and launched itself at
From a November 12, 2008, ConEd press release:
“The July 18, 2007 steam incident in midtown
“Con Edison has implemented an action plan in conjunction with experts' findings that includes replacement of all 1,654 steam traps on the system with an improved design; enhanced rain response procedures to include physical inspection of manholes in flood or vapor-prone areas; new repair oversight protocols; remote monitoring; research and development on steam trap design, as well as new steam trap inspection and testing procedures.
“The environmentally friendly steam system serves major institutions in Manhattan below 96th Street, including museums, hospitals, government and commercial buildings, skyscrapers, as well as apartments and private residences. It supplies heat, air conditioning, humidification, and sterilization services. Con Edison's steam system is the largest in the
A steam incident. I like that.
And okay, there were two traps, so the actual cost per trap was only $18.5 million, not $37 million. A bargain!