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The Last Man to Install One-Pipe Steam

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Author
Dan Holohan for Plumbing & Mechanical
Published
March 1, 1990
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About a half-hour south of Albany on the New York State Thruway, just as the Catskill Mountains get their backs way up, there's an exit sign that states, simply, "Catskill."

Swing off there and follow the signs that lead you to the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. You can't miss it; just follow the curve, and watch yourself going down the hill if it's raining.

You'll cross the Hudson River at a place of such striking beauty that in any given season you just may forget the business that brought you here in the first place. There are gnarled apple trees on the side of the mountain hundreds of them. And just below, near the river, are the weathered tracks of Cornelius Vanderbilt's New York Central Railroad.

It's old here, and for the minute or so it takes to cross the river, your thoughts slip into the past. You can't help it. You're on the road to Hudson, a proud old city that holds onto its past like a treasured heirloom.

It's pretty here. There's a town square with an old firehouse and a wooden gazebo that gets a fresh coat of white paint every spring. Lots of them. Some of them were installed before the Civil War. But no one gives them much thought.

I've spent days here, crouched in basements, staring in wonder at old dark shapes. I love this stuff, I really do. It's my pornography. But, you know, I always walk away from Hudson shaking my head. There's stuff here that history has just about forgotten.

It's true. I have a collection of old heating books that were written in the 1890s. The authors of these tattered books speak wistfully about the very systems I spend time staring at in Hudson.

"Here's how they did it in the old days," they say.

The old days! These books were written in the Old Days, for Pete's sake! The authors have been dead for nearly 100 years, but the steam systems are still in the basements. You figure it out.

The funny thing is that no one in Hudson gives those old systems much thought. They'll say, "Oh that thing's always been down in the basement. Long's I can remember anyway."

In Hudson, you'll find every sort of heating oddity you can imagine. If you're into heating, Hudson is Disney World.

Ed Bratton lives in Hudson. He's my friend. Ed installs one-pipe steam heating systems in people's homes. Crazy, eh? What's even crazier is that people pay him a lot more than they'd pay to have him install a hot water system.

"I just tell 'em steam is what the house should have because the house is old. Old houses should have steam heat. It's the way it should be. I like the steam. It's a good system.

"And the people say "Okay, Ed, do it.

"Now this whole idea of installing supposedly "dead technology" into people's homes in 1990 may seem a bit wacky to you. I'll admit it did to me when Ed first told me what he was up to. But then I remembered that this is Hudson. In Hudson, they don't tear buildings down, they restore them. Oh, sure, they call it "fixin' up" not "restoring," but whatever they call it, a lot of those people have hired Ed Bratton to either install or fix up the one-pipe steam systems in their homes.

And you have to see these things when he's finished with them. They're beautiful. They're quiet. They're efficient. They can't freeze. They're, well...classic.

Now I'll admit it takes a few minutes to get over that nagging feeling that whispers in your brain, "Hey, wait a minute. Ed just installed a system in that house over there that should have been laid to rest in the 1940s!"

That's a natural reaction. Believe me, I understand. You're probably used to looking at old steam systems that have seen much better days. Heating guys get prejudiced about steam. They'll tell the customer that steam is a problem, always has been. They'll tell him that the only people who know anything about steam are dead. They'll tell him that the best thing he can do with an old steam system is to put it out of its misery.

"Put in a nice baseboard loop system," they'll say. "And drive a stake through that old boiler's heart before you drag it out of the basement."

But not Ed Bratton. Nope. He puts in one-pipe steam systems. And as far as I can tell, he's the last man in America to be doing so. And you know what? When I tell him that, he smiles. "That so?" he says, "The last man? I can't understand why." And then he gets this twinkle in his eye. "You know, Dan," he says, "anybody can put in a hot water loop system, but it takes a heating man to do steam."

He's a proud man, Ed Bratton, and you know what he's done for me? He's shown me how it was in the old days when Steam was King and the systems were clean and new and loved by their owners. "The systems worked back then, there's no reason why they can't work now," says Ed Bratton, Heating Man.

Back To Basics: Ed has a couple of old Studebakers out in his garage. He's lovingly restored them to showroom condition. "That's what I do with the old steam systems," he says. "If you know what you're doing, you can put anything back together. If you're a good enough mechanic."

When I look at old steam systems that bang, spit and cost a fortune to operate, I think about Ed's brand-new systems. And then [ use the rules Ed uses on the new ones to restore the old ones. Hey, let's face it, the physics haven't changed over the years. And when you come right down to it, there's really not that much to it. Air and dirt are the enemies. Get rid of them and you'll have a pretty good system.

Oh, and of course, you have to realize that today's boilers are very dependent on the piping that's right around them. That piping is designed to dry out the steam. If you ignore the manufacturer's piping specs when you replace a boiler you're going to have problems. Big problems.

Ed makes sure he takes as high a full-size vertical line out of the boiler to the header as possible. Most boiler manufacturers call for a minimum of 24 inches; Ed goes all the way to the ceiling on most of his jobs. That gives him nice, dry steam. Dry steam has more heat than wet steam. It also moves quicker and doesn't bang.

Ed pitches his mains in the direction of flow. That gives him the best efficiency and gets the condensate out of the pipes in a hurry. He makes sure the pipes are sized to carry the load at a certain velocity. That's not hard to figure out. He just looks it up in a book I got him from the Hoffman Specialty distributor. This book, a reprint of the classic Hofftman Handbook, has all the sizing charts you'll ever need whether you're installing a new system or just moving a radiator.

Ed puts a large main vent near the end of every main, making sure it's at least 15 inches back from the elbow and 6 to 10 inches up on a nipple (that's to protect it from water hammer). The main vent gets the majority of air out of the system very quickly and prevents burner short-cycling. You see, trapped air is what causes short-cycling in a steam system. Most guys crank up the pressuretrol to "cure" short-cycling. That doesn't work. It just runs the fuel bill up and makes the system heat more slowly. The customer still has uneven heat, but now it costs him a lot more for the privilege. It doesn't make sense.

If you add a main vent to a steam system you'll be amazed at how quickly the steam moves. It's simple. Air is a gas and steam is a gas. One won't go where the other one already is. Get rid of the air and the burner stops short-cycling.

Ed uses slow vents on the radiators. That's the way they did it in the old days -fast vents on the mains, slow vents on the radiators. That keeps the radiators from overheating and the vents from spitting.

The last thing he does is skim the boiler through a horizontal tapping. He does it with cold water. That gets rid of the oil and stops the water line from surging.

Ed's taught me a lot (and he's only a few years older than me). There's a lot you can learn from the old ways and from guys like Ed Bratton. There's no reason why those old steam systems can't be restored. It's a real nice business. Just ask the last man in America to install one-pipe steam. He "fixes 'em up" all the time.