Get a Jump on Winter Heating Problems

Who can honestly say that they have never had their heating system shut off in the middle of December in New York City?  Not many people, to be sure.  For the many New Yorkers that have had the problem occur, they remember it well and usually ask themselves what preventative measures could have been taken. The easy solution to Winter’s heating woes is to have your building’s steam system checked now before the freezing temperatures arrive.

Reasons to Check the Steam System

There are two advantages to checking a steam system now, rather than either waiting for it to break down in the middle of the heating season, or not checking it at all.  First, preventing a breakdown will save time, money, and aggravation.  No one wants to deal with the wrath of a building’s tenants if the heat or hot water suddenly shut off.  Additionally, emergency repairs will certainly be an expensive (and sometimes intrusive) proposition. 

The second reason to check the steam system is that by doing so, it is possible to greatly increase your heating system’s efficiency.  In many buildings, a lot of money is wasted by inefficiencies in the heating and hot water systems.  We have seen buildings’ heating bills decline by thousands of dollars after tuning up the high-pressure steam system. In fact, in one building the heating bills declined by forty percent; these are savings any building could use.  Of course, there is no guarantee that checking the steam system will result in savings on the heating bill, but the checkup is worthwhile. 

The Nature of the Steam System

One might ask, “Why should I get the steam system checked?  How could a test now prevent an accident in January?”  To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand a little about the nature of the steam system and the parts that need to be checked.  Steam is used by all buildings in New York City for both general heat and to create hot water.  The steam comes from two sources:  Con Edison steam pipes in the street, or boilers in the building’s basement. The two systems are similar, except that Con Edison steam comes into the building at extremely high pressure; this high pressure must be reduced by specialized valves before the steam can be used by the building.  The steam flows through pipes throughout the entire building, providing heat and hot water to each apartment. 

Problem Areas of Steam Systems

There are two main areas that are potential sources of problems within a building’s steam system.  The first area is comprised of various steam controls throughout the system.  For the most part, these are valve controls that regulate the flow of the steam, and therefore the heat available to each apartment.  If these controls become worn with age they may break during the Winter. 

Many mechanical devices tend to break when they are used infrequently, and these controls (which are used for just one third of the year, at most) are no exception.  If they were to break, there could be serious damage to the entire steam system.  For example, if a regulating device were to malfunction, enormous quantities of expensive steam could be wasted.  Or, if a pressure control were to malfunction, pipe damage could result from the buildup in pressure, just as the lid on a pot of boiling water can be dislodged by the buildup of steam.

The other area of the steam system that should be checked is made up of all of the building’s steam traps.  Steam traps perform a simple, but necessary, task in the steam system.  After steam heats a radiator, it condenses into water as it cools.  Steam traps regulate this process and separate the condensed water and air from the steam.  Without the steam traps, the heating system would not work.  The problem with steam traps is that they are very sensitive, and they often fail; in fact, the average life of a steam trap is between three and five years. 

Hidden Troubles Decrease Efficiency

If a steam trap fails in the closed position, a portion of the building’s heating system will be shut down. If this is the case, it is obvious that there is a problem that requires repair. However, when a trap does experience a problem, it usually fails in the open position. In this case, it is not immediately obvious that the building has a problem. The result will be an increase in the heating system’s inefficiency. Steam will flow uselessly to the outside, and the building will now (in effect) be heating the Great Outdoors. More money will be spent by the building on the heating bill at the end of the day. So, routinely checking a steam system can greatly improve the efficiency of a building’s heating system. Just because the heat is on, does not mean that the steam system is running efficiently and without issue.

Steam traps are in two different places within a building.  First, there are large, central steam traps located in the basement.  These should be routinely checked as part of the steam system checkup by an outside plumbing and heating contractor.  Second, steam traps exist at every radiator in every apartment.  A building’s staff can check these steam traps in conjunction with the outside checkup. These inspections are quick and simple, so all of a building’s traps can be checked with ease.

Now is the best time to check your building’s steam system.  The heating portion of an HVAC system, including heat exchangers, tube bundles, and their respective controls, pumps and water make-up devices should also be checked. After a proper checkup, the probability of a break-down that will leave the building without heat and/or hot water in the middle of the Winter is greatly reduced, and the building may even save a good deal of money in the process. Checking the steam system is a wise move in many ways and can make the difference between a happy Winter in New York City and one fraught with trouble.   Call now to schedule your Fred Smith Plumbing & Heating pre-season maintenance and check out the quality of our service by viewing our steam video above.