Tweaking for Dollars
Maybe it’s because of all the traveling I do, or because I live in the suburbs of one of America’s largest cities. Or maybe it’s because of the seminars that I’ve been doing for the past 35 years, and how heating people keep asking the same questions year after year. Maybe it’s because there’s such a focus these days on things that are green and the rising cost of energy.
Maybe all of those things are why my thoughts keep straying toward the old stuff that’s out there. And sure, it’s fair to ask why, in the 21st-Century, anyone would want to heat a building with 19th-Century technology. Why do they continue to use steam in places like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and so many other great American cities.
Let’s face it, there are heating systems available these days that are better than steam. Radiant heating systems, for instance, are more efficient because they operate at low temperature and heat people and objects without heating the air. Low-temperature hydronic systems that use panel radiators and condensing boilers are also very efficient and use less fuel than the typical steam system will use (providing they’re in a well-built, tight building).
Ground-source heat pumps can extract the natural heat from the sun, which the earth stores below its surface. These wonderfully modern systems can heat buildings very efficiently, and they’re getting lots of news lately. But let’s face it; they are costly to install. You have to bury lots of pipe in the ground to get at that natural heat.
Geothermal systems that send water way down to where the rocks are hot are wonderful. But you do have to be living in a neighborhood where the rocks are hot, and at a reasonable depth. And you also have to bring plenty of money to those projects.
The ultimate in heating these days seems to be the Passive House, which involves no heating system at all (humans come with their own heating systems). We measure the thickness of walls in a Passive House in feet, not inches, and the windows are ridiculously efficient. Passive Houses have heat-recovery ventilators to keep the natural heat from people, as well as the heat from any appliances, inside the building. That’s the only mechanical equipment you’ll find. You’d best expand into building supplies if Passive House catches on in a big way.
All these technologies are modern and viable and very interesting. I love reading about them, and thinking about them, but it seems to me that people are going to consider the payback period before making any decisions. People are like that. How much will it cost? And how soon will I get it back?
Isn’t that what you want to know?
If someone has an old steam-heating system, I know for certain that it pays for them to do a bit of tweaking before they think about tearing it all out. You can make your money back very quickly with a bit of tweaking – if you know what you’re doing.
But I also know for certain that many contractors don’t take the time to learn about the older systems, which is a legitimate part of their trade. None of it is that complicated, but it does take time to learn. And there’s opportunity for those who do take the time. You know why? Because those who don’t take the time to learn are out there telling building owners that they have to tear out those old systems and begin anew.
But that may not be practical. And it may not make economic sense.
These building owners cry out for someone who can step in and tweak. I know this is true because they show up every day on our Web site, and I send them to the contractors who have done their homework. Trouble is, there aren’t enough of these knowledgeable contractors.
Take steam, for example. It’s a magnificent way to move lots of Btus from one place to another. There’s really nothing better when it comes to flat-out moving heat, but steam is also an old way of heating. Does that mean it has to go? Because it’s old? The cities of the Midwest are filled with steam-heated buildings. Hardly anyone works on them. The same goes for other parts of the country. All of this work is there for those who have the knowledge, but so many contractors just want to rip it all out and start over, and it’s because they don’t know. They wish all the old stuff would just go away.
It went away in Europe. The European governments passed laws establishing a maximum temperature leaving any heating boiler. That’s how they got rid of steam and the older hot water systems. Do you see a time coming when our politicians will outlaw steam heating and older hot-water systems? Do you think they’ll get around to that? Seems to me they have more-pressing issues to deal with right now.
And could you get the owners of large, old buildings to change from steam heat unless it was against the law? Could you get all of those co-op boards in our big cities to agree to switch to something more modern? I’ve yet to meet a co-op board that is eager to spend money on anything, especially on a heating system. Usually, they arrive at this decision kicking and screaming, and almost always in response to some emergency.
No, unless there’s a law banning it, I think steam heating will be around for some years to come. In the meantime, I’m going to keep thinking of it as America’s low-hanging energy fruit. You can do a lot with a few bucks, and it’s a great business to be in. Fix the traps and get the right air vents in the proper places. Tweak the controls. Insulate the pipes. Check the quality of the water. There’s plenty of money to be made with these old systems, but you have to know what to look for, and you have to have the right attitude about older systems.
And consider all of our historically significant buildings. What if we could get them working more efficiently without changing the entire heating system? Take the Empire State Building as an example. Right now, they’re putting that magnificent building through a $20 million energy renovation. They’re putting reflective insulation behind the 6,500 radiators. They’re changing the windows. They’re replacing the chillers. They’re keeping the steam system. They expect to save $4 million a year when they’re done, and their investment will pay back in five years.
Why tear it all out and begin anew? It makes no sense.
Having knowledge of the old systems allows you to do things that others say can’t be done. That’s a wonderful feeling. To me, working on an old steam system is a lot like working on a classic car. You can rebuild the engine (the boiler). You can work on the body (the piping network). You can fix the upholstery (the radiators). Why junk a classic when, with a bit of thought, planning and work, you can make it gleam?
Besides, being able to do this brings a certain sense of pride. And, if you’re a heating professional, it also brings new business because when you can do what others say is impossible, people will find you. Trust me.
It comes down to how much you know, and how willing you are to learn a bit more. And it comes down to tweaking. It is possible to make those old systems much more efficient, but you first have to believe that you can.
I know that you can.