The bungalow had an old Humphrey space heater, which made me think of my father. He once heated a tiny bungalow that we owned out on then-rural Long Island when I was a child. When I was five years old, he ran a loop of copper baseboard off the water heater and got rid of the Humphrey. I held the flux for him and asked questions. I think of that day when I visit his grave.
The young couple had hired Ed Bratton to install a one-pipe steam system in the bungalow. Ed had talked them into it. He's a throwback. "If you want to restore this place," he had told them, "then you better put in a system that they would have used when this place was built. You can't go wrong with steam. And you won't have to worry about the pipes freezing."
They went for it because Ed Bratton burns white-hot with enthusiasm when it comes to The Steam, and he's hard to resist when he gets that way.
He piped the job with a helper, and he did all the cutting and threading by hand. The guy's got arms like Popeye. Ed explained to me that for pipe the size that he'd be using on this job, you're really a sissy if you don’t do it by hand.
I went to the bungalow a couple of times – once to think it through with Ed, and then to watch the system work. The boiler cycled between three- and eight-ounces of pressure on a vaporstat. Ed had vented the mains and the antique radiators (which he had picked up at a salvage yard) so well that the steam moved from the boiler to the furthest radiator within a couple of minutes. And it didn't make a sound. That's what I remember most. The only noise was the atmospheric burner whumping into action. We stood in the basement and looked at the boiler and the pipes, and we went upstairs and touched radiators, and it was just the two of us that day. And then Ed smiled and said that not many people do The Steam from scratch anymore. And he touched the radiator again with those calloused hands. And he smiled to himself.
I wrote about Ed Bratton in my first book, The Lost Art of Steam Heating, which I published in 1992, and I claimed that he was the only man in America who still installs steam heat.
I had no idea what that would start.
The other day, Mark Hunt, who operates Comfortable Home Technologies in Balston Spa, NY, which is only about 100 miles from Ed Bratton, posted on the Wall at HeatingHelp.com this note:
"Here are a few pictures of a brand-new steam system. The customer found us here on The Wall. They bought an old home that once had steam in it, but someone had removed it years ago and replaced it with forced hot air. Only the first floor had ducts. Most of the radiators were still there, but all of the piping was gone. We put it back.
"We should fire it up today, but it will take some time to get it clean. Rhomar Hydro-Solve to the rescue! We replaced the pressuretrol with a vaporstat, and installed Gorton Number 2, high-capacity main vents at both ends of the mains."
Frank "Steamhead" Wilsey, another throw-back, welcomed Mark into the Steam Installers Club, which made me smile because I realized that there actually was a club forming around these guys. It's still a very exclusive club because not many are willing to get the knowledge necessary to install The Steam nowadays. Steamhead, who runs All Steamed Up, Inc. with Gordon Schweizer out of Towson, MD., are wonderful exceptions. They know.
Matt "Mad Dog" Sweeney ribbed Mark by posting, "You just trumped me. I wanted to take the title, The Last Man in America to Install Steam Heat from Ed Bratton. It was nice to wear the title belt for the last few years, but you boys earned it, Great job, hope you enjoyed doing it."
Mad Dog, also a throwback, had installed steam heat in his own home here on Long Island. Matt owns Triple Crown Plumbing & Heating. He bought an old Victorian and gutted it. Then he took a ride to Somerville, MA and bought a houseful of gorgeous antique radiators from Fran Fehey of A-1 New & Used Plumbing & Heating Supplies. Fran has an amazing stock of old radiators in that place.
Mad Dog used both one- and two-pipe steam in his house (because he could), and created another of those quick-and-quiet systems. I asked him why he had decided to do it all in steam, and he told me that if he could earn the knowledge of The Steam by doing a job from scratch, then he would be able to solve any problem any customer might bring him. And that would make him more valuable. A radiant system warms part of Mad Dog's house, and this part has its own boiler. Something old; something new. I like that.
Brad White, my favorite engineer in the entire world then commented, "Mad Dog, you will likely go down in history as the 'First Last Man to Install Steam Heat.' Sort of an emeritus position if you choose to accept it. 'Let the word go forth, that the torch has been passed, to a new generation.' Or to further paraphrase JFK, 'We do not do steam heat because it is easy, but because it is Hahhhhd.'"
But wait, not so fast with that title, Brad. Here’s Steamhead again: "Actually, it was Rick Mandel and I who succeeded Ed Bratton when we did the new steam system for his daughter and son-in-law. This was about seven years ago, and Plumbing & Mechanical featured that job. Then came Mad Dog, then Dan Foley of Virginia, and then Gerry Gill and Steve Pajek of Ohio. Now Mark has joined the club. Who will be next?"
Bragging rights are wonderful things, so it was back to Mark Hunt who next wrote, "Well, in all honesty, this is not the first complete system I have done. Back in the mid '90s, I did a complete re-pipe of a church from the boiler room (including a new W-M LGB-13) all the way to every radiator. Not sure why they had us tear out all of the piping, as it was still in great shape after nearly 100 years. I do not have pictures of that job anymore."
Another throwback, Jamie Pompetti, who with his father, Big Jim Pompetti, operates Pompetti Heating & Air Conditionings out of Media, PA, posted, "Hey, don't forget us! It may not have been a new system for the house, but we installed a new boiler and put steam in a 1,500-square-foot, two-story addition, all in steam."
Finally, my Michigan friend, Steve Ebels, summed it up, by commenting, "There's a point to be made here, and it's very well illustrated in Mark Hunt's pictures. When 90% of people look at a boiler job like that, all they see is a boiler and some pipe, valves, fittings. It doesn't look like it amounts to a hill of beans. They can't tell if the thing is piped right or wrong, sized correctly or not.
"When those of us who are in this trade up to our eyeballs look at Hunt's piping job, we see a well-thought-out design that will bring years, if not many decades, of reliable trouble-free heat.
"The point is that this is precisely why many people balk at prices. They don't understand that it's not just pipes. It's a collection of properly sized and correctly installed material that, when assembled as it should be, now comprises a system. Put one thing in wrong, or use an incorrect size, and the whole system breaks down. Performance and economy suffer, or it flat out won't work at all. They fail to understand that they are not purchasing piping, boilers and fittings. The skill and knowledge of the installer are of paramount importance to the overall performance of the system. That's the key issue, and it goes completely against the grain of our Turn-Everything-Into-A-Commodity and Dumb-It-Down society. Most people just can't get a handle on the fact that it's more about the installer and his work than it is about the equipment. That is what you pay for."
And that's the lesson that throwbacks teach us. But only if we’re listening.