By Robert Kroll
Winter is winding down. The flush of leaf buds is emerging. We’ve survived the cranking, clanking pipes of the cold season—many of us shivering, others of us living in sauna-like hells of our own (or our steam boiler’s) making.
When taking over the reins as superintendent of our Brooklyn brownstone cooperative in January, 2019, a cold month, one of my first conundra was: how in hell does one heat this drafty place? The 15 people living in our five-story walkup tenement were shivering. Within an hour, that problem was resolved by turning on the boiler via the early 20th century analog device known as the Heat-Timer EPU-CH™. You flip the timer switch from “summer” to “winter”. You flip the boiler “on-off” switch to “on”. You keep your damn hands off the rest of the settings and watch helplessly as the choo choo leaves the station, bound for swelter town.
I had been told by my predecessor (super) that I should set the dials on the Heat-Timer, and let her rip. “Don’t futz with it.” We give maximum heat during the daytime hours and less at night when we’re bundled in our stocking caps and cuddling under comforters. That’s that.
When it gets too warm inside, you use the “double hung thermostat”—i.e. open the window to cool things down. Two hours later, you do the opposite. If you are in an apartment on the lower floors, close to the boiler, you are maddeningly hot; if you are on floor five, you put on your winter sleeping gear, plop under the covers, and pray that you wake up the next morning without icicles on your nose.
I take my role as “super” very seriously; it is my job to see that everyone inside the building is comfortable and happy. Can this be achieved with a 19th century invention like steam heat? Most New Yorkers have come to terms with steam heat and find solutions other than relying on radiators. I was prepared to follow that scheme until I was referred to a steam heating genius, Dan Holohan, who literally wrote the book(s) on how to make everyone happy, save energy, and silence the clanking pipes connected to steam boilers. The Holohan bible is “The Lost Art of Steam Heating” (1992), a 288-page tome written primarily for the clueless plumbers who get called to tame these cast iron dinosaurs and make them function as their long-dead inventors intended.
Holohan was inspiring to me. He gave me hope, a prayer, and a method for analyzing the vagaries of the boiler and its tentacles and how to “think like steam” and “balance” the vapors such that they reach the uppermost crannies of the building at the same time as they hit the lucky, if over-heated, few at the bottom. There were bumps along this path. Once, I took it upon myself to replace the boiler’s pressure gauge and add a needed “pigtail” (a helical pipe under the gauge that keeps water from entering the gauge). I nearly flooded the building with cold water spritzing out of the radiator vents on several floors by turning on the wrong valve. I was assured every steam boiler rookie had made that mistake…not the end of the world. Very humbling.
One key piece of information from Holohan: unlike the 60 psi boilers of yesteryear (1800’s), today’s steam boilers operate at one-half pounds per square inch pressure. They don’t go “boom” anymore. They hiss. Softly.
The lost art of steam heating, according to Holohan and others still alive, has not been completely lost, but has been preserved by those who have restored many of these previously well-working steam systems to their original glory. What is this system but a large kettle that is connected to tea pots in every apartment, modulated by air vents that release cold air and trap the hot steam? When the boiler turns off, the steam cools and condenses into water and needs to return to the kettle. If all that happens, bliss ensues. The art is knowing what to replace, what to restore, and how to get the radiators to dump the condensed steam back into the pipes leading to the boiler. In our building we were able to do this in a matter of a single day. Immediately afterward, I began getting messages from deliriously happy co-op dwellers that they were getting hissful heat for the first time in memory. Yippee. Job done.