Originally published at: https://www.pmengineer.com/articles/96422-dave-yates-on-the-lam
An anecdote about a tenant and a 100-year-old steam system.
Judge Roy Lam could easily have been mistaken for a hang-em-high judge from a Clint Eastwood western movie! His demeanor could have scared-straight even the hardest of criminals. While arguing a case before another District Magistrate Judge where the deadbeat customer’s lawyer clearly sensed he was losing the case, he announced I had chosen the wrong venue (District Court for our business area) and should have filed charges against his client in her district. I asked him if he would really want to have me bring this case before Judge Roy Lam? He, realizing that would be a fool’s errand on his part, wisely threw in the towel. We secured full judgment and, finally, got paid.
Judge Lam wasn’t always a client, but after arguing a few deadbeat cases before him, he started using our PHVAC services. He had several stately row home apartment buildings in our downtown business district with antique one-pipe vapor steam systems. Vapor steam systems operate on just a few ounces of steam pressure instead of pounds as many became when the original boilers were replaced that incorporated a pressuretrol. Replacing the pressuretrol reduces steam pressure, which also reduces operating costs. Why? Great question! As steam pressure rises, its volume is compacted and more energy is required to produce more steam to fill the same void. Vapor steam systems are also quieter.
Across town, Michael Miller’s row home was equipped with a steam heating system dating back to the late 1800s. He called asking for help because every time the thermostat called for heating, his dirt floor basement turned to mud! The vaporstat had been replaced with a pressuretrol and the increased pressure caused condensate to overflow open risers on the wet return line. A vaporstat resolved the issue.
During the run for heating, the feed-water makeup valve has been triggered by the low-water-cutoff and maintained the water level inside the boiler. All that returning condensate now floods the boiler, resulting in noises only The Gods could create or a no-heat call because the standing water column is high enough to trip off the vaporstat’s upper pressure limit. It’s not uncommon to see water squirting from the steam vents once the internal condensate rises above the steam vent
Meanwhile, a more-than-a-century-old coal-to-oil-fired boiler became a mid-winter no-heat call at Judge Lam’s row home apartments. Arriving at 2:30 a.m., I opened the boiler’s doors only to be confronted by a solid wall of soot. If you’ve never seen the inside of one of these cast iron 100-year-old behemoths, you could easily pass a football through the heat exchanger sections! I knew I had my work cut out for me and knew full well I would look every bit like a coal miner before getting this old beast cleaned up. Once cleaned, the next task was determining why the boiler had filled with soot. An oil company’s service card was hanging nearby, which indicated the boiler had been cleaned and tuned up regularly. The card also indicated they had just completed the annual service that week! In a pig’s eye!
After replacing the oil filter — which was anything but new — and installing a new oil nozzle, it was time to check combustion. At 100 psi, the nozzle will no longer be delivering its designated gph (gallon-per-hour) after a year of run-time or longer, if overlooked by the technician. It will also create a fuel-rich combustion, which produces soot. The real culprit, however, was incorrect air shutter adjustment in this case, which created a sooty fuel-rich combustion and lots of soot. Setting up combustion with proper CO2 and O2 set to the burner manufacturer’s specifications ensured the impacted soot event would not reoccur. Checking in with Judge Lam the following day gave me better insight as to how mad he could become! Suffice it to say the oil company had to reimburse him for my bill and for the excess oil he had been burning with the sooted boiler. Even a thin layer of just 1/8-inch soot will reduce operating efficiency by around 10% because soot is an insulator and inhibits heat transfer.
Judge Lam called on another date a few years later and was madder than a wet hen! A tenant got the Judge in hot water by filing complaints with the city codes department about insufficient heating in that apartment. According to Judge Lam, the tenant had previously run the heat well above the codes-required 68° F, which was why Lam had us install lockboxes over all apartment thermostats. Tenants often beat lockboxes by placing a bag of ice on top, causing the boiler to run longer and heat their apartment above the 68° F thermostat setting. (During air conditioning season, they would put a hot cup of liquid under the lockbox!) In this case, however, just the opposite was happening and codes had given Lam a written warning for insufficient heat. To say he was fuming would be a gross understatement. Lam asked me what the tenant could be doing to cause this under-heating issue?
Was the boiler flooding? No. In one-pipe steam radiators, users often attempt to regulate over-heating by partially turning off the radiator valve. Doing that causes condensate (condensed steam) to build up inside the radiator because incoming steam prevents the condensate from leaving the radiator until the thermostat is satisfied, steam stops flowing, pressure drops and then the condensate all returns to the boiler. During the run for heating, the feed-water makeup valve has been triggered by the low-water-cutoff and maintained the water level inside the boiler. All that returning condensate now floods the boiler, resulting in noises only The Gods could create or a no-heat call because the standing water column is high enough to trip off the vaporstat’s upper pressure limit. It’s not uncommon to see water squirting from the steam vents once the internal condensate rises above the steam vent.
Was the lockbox still securely in place? Yes.
Are the radiator steam vents in the vertical position? Lam said every time he responded, they were. I felt pretty sure the tenant was simply turning the steam vents upside-down, which renders them useless. Where air is trapped, steam cannot go! No-heat is the result, which explained why the codes inspectors had found room temperatures well below the minimum required 68° F. If you’ve ever been around one-pipe steam radiators, you may have noticed them hissing as they allow air to escape ahead of the live steam. Lam decided an unannounced no-knock raid was in order and he wanted me there. He wasn’t the kind of guy you said no to, so I met him at the apartment building precisely when he told me to be there. The codes inspectors were due an hour later, so this was the time to catch the tenant red-handed. Quietly ascending the stairs, keys in hand, Lam barged in with me right behind him. Sure enough, it was cold inside the apartment, and the tenant had deliberately turned the steam vents upside-down: exactly as I suspected.
I’ve heard some really good swearing in my time, but the Judge was in the top 10 while chewing out that tenant and gave him strict orders to be out of the apartment before end of that day! Back on the sidewalk, while waiting for the codes inspectors, I suggested to Judge Lam (idiot that I am) that he couldn’t legally get away with kicking the tenant out without due notice. Let’s just say I got the look!
When the codes inspectors arrived, guys who I knew very well, I explained what we had discovered and they told us that every time they had done inspections, the radiator steam vents were in the vertical position and hissing. They too suspected the tenant had been pulling a fast one and thought maybe he had been leaving windows open only to close them once the inspection appointed time was upon him. Once I provided a letter on my company stationery To Judge Lam and the codes inspectors, all charges against Judge hang-em-high Roy Lam were dropped.