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Jamie Hall

Jamie Hall

Joined on September 16, 2002

Last Post on August 31, 2014

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I sympathise!

@ December 21, 2008 9:05 PM in Steam radiators and programable thermostats

My place was finished in 1893, with various additions from about 1780 (original) to then. A few thoughts (mostly from my own experience). Windows. The payback on new windows is long. Like, very long -- even at today's energy prices. Don't let a contractor fool you on that. You will do much better to make sure that they are in good condition (there will always be some draughts with old double hungs, but some gentle work can minimize that) and use plastic until you can afford to put good old-fashioned aluminium triple track storm windows on the outside. Much less expensive than whole new windows, and almost as effective. As has been mentioned, most Honeywell digital thermostats have setback capabilities (and you can get some of them in big box stores; they aren't hard to install), and can be set to one cycle per hour, which is correct for steam and cast iron radiators. Not all. Check before you buy! I know the model RTH7500D will work. Putting one in will make a difference, really. The instructions which come with it are pretty good as to setup -- select 'oil or gas steam' (one cycle per hour) (that's well down the menu, but it's there). As to setback, that's kind of debatable with steam; I use a 5 degree setback at night (65 day, 60 night) and it seems to be as far as I can go before the boiler burns more fuel trying to heat up in the morning than it saves not running at night. Good luck!

If it only happens

@ December 21, 2008 3:24 PM in Water Hammer

on one zone, and then only when the other one is pumping, one possibility which occurs to me is that the zone valve on the problem zone may be closing rather slowly. This would allow water to be pushed back (the pump now being off) by the other zone, perhaps, and slamming the check valve on the pump. Just a thought...

several thoughts

@ December 18, 2008 1:57 PM in Vacuum type air vents

and I hope the real experts chime in... But, to get started. Are you sure there ever were thermostatic elements in the outlets to the radiators? Not all two pipe steam systems used them -- some, particularly vapour, used orifices on the radiators to control flow. Provided the pressures are low enough, that works fine. That said, if they really are traps with missing elements, the system won't work properly at all until they are replaced. Can you get new elements? Replacement elements are available for quite a number of the old traps, and much cheaper than replacing the whole trap! Your old boy's notions as to pressure are exactly right. However, no steam system would hold a vacuum forever, and air will get into the system -- that's what the main vents are for. Old systems fired on coal could, and did, run at a slight vacuum when the coal fire was banked. Unfortunately, neither oil nor gas firing works that way; when the burner turns off, it's off, and the system will quickly come to atmospheric pressure -- vacuum vents or no. Nice that the old boy remembers, though -- suggests that he may really know something about steam! Modern main vents do let air in when the burner stops. They also let it out in a hurry when it starts up again. Not to worry. Somehow I have an idea that that 1948 boiler doesn't owe you anything, and may be costing you a lot in terms of efficiency, or lack of efficiency!

All of which

@ December 17, 2008 2:34 PM in A comedy of errors

is why I ride Amtrak whenever possible. As a Pullman porter (remember them?) said once: If you've got trouble on a train, why, there you is -- but if you've got trouble on a plane, why, where is you? Cheer up -- I had to drive to Newark (2 and a half hours each way in the pouring rain) to collect my daughter the other day because Continental cancelled a flight...

electric wiring

@ December 17, 2008 2:31 PM in Electric space heaters versus steam

nbc is right on -- first thing to do is do as much as you can for the steam system. Which given the situation may not be that much. I would be in serious doubt about the capability of your electrical system, unless it is really up to date -- which seems unlikely. First, it is quite likely that the sockets may not be properly grounded. If they are three prong, get a tester -- they're cheap -- and check. If they're two prong, they're not, or if the tester indicates they're not good, they're not. And not safe with a heater (in my view, at least). Second, check the fusing vs. the wire size. Can't tell you how often I've seen circuits over-fused (typically 20 amp fuses on what should be a 15 amp circuit). If you are in any doubt at all about this, use NO MORE THAN ONE space heater on each circuit (not each plug -- each circuit). Keep all combustibles at least 3 feet from the heaters, no matter what they say. And stay safe.

just because it's newer

@ December 15, 2008 4:15 PM in Lead in Domestic Hot Water -- Hot Water Heater?

doesn't mean that someone didn't use lead solder. Unlikely to be the W-M equipment.

afraid I have to agree with Erik on this one

@ December 14, 2008 8:19 PM in Money savings question

although you may very likely save money on heating fuel, it is quite probable that there will be damage -- possibly mold, almost certainly plaster damage and damage to things like books and wall paper -- in the unheated part of the house. This may not be apparent right away -- plaster damage and mold in particular may take years to show up -- but can be frighteningly expensive to repair, once it has happened.

fundamentally, Bill

@ December 14, 2008 8:14 PM in no pressure gas fired steam boiler

you are on the right track... sort of. When the boiler fires up, steam is evaporated (boiled). As Nick notes below, 3 ounces is plenty of pressure -- and you'll not see that on any gauge. What happens next, though, is that the steam rushes out to the radiators, displacing the air through the vents (so the bigger the vent, the faster a radiator will heat). When it gets to the radiator, though, it promptly condenses -- heating the radiator. The only time pressure will actually build in a system is once all the radiators are pretty well hot across, and all the vents are closed. Then pressure may build; how fast depends on how much radiator you have vs. how much fire you have (how much steam is being made). It is quite possible in a system which is sized 'just right' that pressure won't build at all! The thing you were missing is the steam condensing in the radiators... It does sound as though improving the venting might help those two slower radiators. It also sounds, though, as though the whole thing may be slightly undersized. You mention a two hour run time. Unless you are recovering from a big setback, or are working with a very cold day out, I wonder a bit whether you are getting enough heat! If a system is just maintaining the house temperature, a properly sized one really shouldn't run more than 30 to 40 minutes every couple of hours...


@ December 13, 2008 5:28 PM in New Steam Boiler High-Pitched Whine

if it is an oil burner, the pipe feeding the burner from the tank. Your plumber might not hear it, if it's really high frequency. Some of us older folk don't hear that high anymore... eh? What's that you say?

Murphy, good buddy...

@ December 8, 2008 8:33 PM in Steam leak

leaking onto the floor is not normal. No way, no how. It is most likely that there is a cracked section in the boiler, and it is almost impossible to fix that -- much better off with a new one. The home inspection chap should have found that; whether you have any recourse or not I wouldn't know -- I'm a building super, not a lawyer! Do post your location and we'll see if there are any pro's in your area -- there might well be.

I use

@ November 26, 2008 9:09 PM in Cad Drawing

DesignCAD 3D Max 18 -- AutoCAD compatible, 3D, has parametrics for piping if you're into that, a really good library of fittings available... And costs $99 from I've used it for years, professionaly.

not sure where you are located, but...

@ November 26, 2008 9:07 PM in Propane, heating oil ...choices?

around here (southern New England) natural gas is about the same as oil and propane is anywhere from two to three times as much, per BTU. My boiler (steam), which is pretty typical, runs on oil at about 84% efficiency; even a top of the line mod-con won't run enough higher to ever recover the cost of the propane!

And I, on the other hand,

@ November 26, 2008 9:04 PM in cad programs

Use DesignCAD 3D Max 18; reads all the drawing files, is 3-D, has a lovely built in parameter system if you're into that sort of thing, does everything that AutoCAD will do -- except break the bank. $99.00, last I looked. ( for info) I've used it for years, by the way, for everything from a multi-million dollar wastewater treatment plant to (don't laugh) my model railroad!

I wuoldn't use the term

@ November 23, 2008 3:51 PM in A few steam questions

'antiquated', never mind obsolete. A good steam heating system will still equal a good hydronic, every time. Problem is finding someone who can actually work on one without messing it up -- which is why you find what were perfectly good steam systems converted to hydronic. If you can generate a few guys who understand steam heat, I'd say to go for it!

I might add to Rob's comments

@ November 22, 2008 3:57 PM in A few steam questions

yes, steam traps of all kinds (including boiler return) for home heating -- never mind commercial and industrial -- are still easily available. No problem. Steam heating systems both domestic and commercial are very much alive and well. Vapour systems likewise (I have one and love it). Not too many new ones being built (although look around this site and you find some) because they tend to be a bit more expensive to install, and finding someone who even knows how to thread and spin pipe, never mind design and install a steam system is pretty hard to do. Do get Dan's books -- you will surely find them handy as a reference, and one of them (A Pocketfull of Steam Problems) might be cheap enough to have the students buy... Have at it!

if it really is a union

@ November 21, 2008 1:17 PM in Radiators leaking at the union

which it certainly should be... I have seen condensate drip from unions on steam systems where the union isn't together quite square, or drawn up quite tight. Do take it apart and clean it, but if the faces of the union are damaged you may have a bad time sealing it (I have been known to use red RTV silicone, but that's a kludge - if the faces are smooth, don't). Sometimes helps to wiggle the radiator just a bit when pulling the union together...

It seems a bit odd

@ November 21, 2008 1:09 PM in A Steamy Mess

that lowering the pressure setting would stop steam from rising to the second or third floors -- lowering the pressure in an hydronic system might, but not steam. However, steam can only go into places which air can get out of. Are there vents on the individual radiators? If not, the way air gets out is through the traps and into the dry return(s). From there it should be able to get to a main vent somewhere. However, if some piping got changed at some point, it is possible that there is a low point in the dry return which doesn't have a drip. Water could get trapped in there. Now depending on how low the low point is, at low pressure the system might not be able to force air around that water, whereas it might be able to at a higher pressure. Although with some banging... ! I would be inclined to trace the piping very very carefully, starting at the boiler, thinking like steam, air, and water. For instance: Air and water can go through a trap (that's working right), but not steam. Air can go through a vent, but neither steam nor water. Water cannot go uphill! Neither air nor steam can get through a water pocket. And post some pictures!

I'm sure Brad

@ November 18, 2008 12:06 PM in Why is My Pressure so High?

will come back on this one, but I happened to see it. First, lowering the pressure as much as possible will get you heat faster -- and will make very little difference on the cycling after running a long time. Increasing the differential would make a small difference to the cycling at the end of the run time. That said, sounds to me as though you are about as low as you can go with a Pressuretrol. The cycling near the end of the run is almost inevitable, particularly on colder days or recovering from a setback. The long first part of the run is spent getting all the pipes and radiators really full of steam. At some point, everything is full of steam -- and all the traps close. At that point, there is nowhere for the steam made by the boiler to go except condensing in the radiators -- and the condensation in the radiators is not as fast as the capacity of the boiler to make steam (really can't get around that without a modulating boiler), as the boiler has to be big enough to fill everything in the first place. Anyway, when the traps all close, the pressure will rise remarkably fast -- literally less than a minute, usually, from practically none to shutoff. Then, after a few minutes, enough steam has condensed to lower the pressure to your cutin, and off you go again. Quite normal. Don't worry -- be happy! That help?

Well, it depends

@ November 15, 2008 3:53 PM in Turn Gas Furnace On vs Electric Ceramic Heaters in Rooms Used?

We don't do a lot of scorched air around here, Ja, but just so you won't think we're ignoring you... Whether you are saving money or not depends on your electric rates and, to a certain extent, how well you can control which rooms get heat from your old furnace. There may be some dampers on the air ducts or registers which let you shut off certain areas -- in which case, unless you're electricity is really cheap, you may be better off running the furnace. On the other hand... if the furnace is really old, you may not be! Hard to say. What one can say is that tightening up the house -- fixing air leaks, putting storm windows on if you don't have them, insulating where you can -- that sort of thing -- will save you money and make you a lot more comfortable. And one last thought: be careful of those electric heaters: they can set stuff on fire. Nothing -- but nothing -- flammable within at least 3 feet in any direction except the floor they sit on.

I might add

@ November 14, 2008 9:23 AM in How hot should the condensate line in the boiler get?

that condensate pipes, even at 180, are way too hot to put a hand on. Get a good thermometer, as Brad says, before you panic...

no surprise...

@ November 14, 2008 9:10 AM in Two Pipe Guidance

Steamhead is right. First thing to do you are doing: get the pressure down. That is critical in any vapour system. However, you have a another problem: those valves which were replaced probably don't have orifices in them! The orifices were critical to this type of system, in that they only allowed as much steam to pass as could be condensed by the radiator. In your present situation, those nice hot radiators are getting more steam than they need, and that is getting into the dry return a sailing merrily out the vent -- which is what that pipe to the attic is. That vent pipe is fine. Next project is to throttle the various radiators so that each one gets only enough steam to get it hot. The outlet elbow should not be hot; Warm, perhaps, but not hot. If it is hot, close the radiator valve some and try again (not all radiator valves throttle nicely... one can hope that these do). Radiators which are getting half hot aren't really a problem, and I wouldn't worry about them until you get the radiators which are really really hot throttled down. May take some tinkering, but after a while you'll have a lovely vapour system, and the water and heating bills should come down nicely. Just warn the owner to keep his hands off the radiator valves once you get them set!

but if you are thinking of wood

@ November 12, 2008 8:40 PM in Radiant Heat run by water heater trouble

check your local air quality regulations; in some parts of Colorado they are pretty tough on wood heat (for good reason)