The Devil in the Pipes

The Call

The parish administrator called to tell me how cold it was in her church. It was also noisy. This got my attention because this is the same church where my parents have gone to 8:15 Mass every Sunday for the last 50 years.

She reported that the school building was toasty warm, but the church just hadn’t reached 68F on a cold day this year. She wanted me to meet with her, a building committee member, and the mechanical contractor who installed a new underground steam main last year.

At this parish, both the church and the school are heated with one steam boiler, which is located in the school. I didn’t know this because I went to grade school there, but because I’ve visited this parish many times through the years for a boiler replacement, the removal of a vacuum pump, and the addition of a condensate pump. When I was in grade school, I didn’t know what a boiler was, much less where to install it.

We met in the parking lot between the two buildings, not far from where we used to flip baseball cards against the wall during recess, until the nuns cracked down on our gambling.

The parish administrator introduced me around the group. The committee member told me he was a friend of my parents. The mechanical contractor was pretty quiet. You could tell he didn’t want to have to dig up that new line. A janitor was there to show us around.

The Troubleshoot

We went in the back door— the same door I used when I was an altar boy. The church still had the same smell of funeral incense from 40 years ago.

We walked down the back steps to the undercroft (all Catholic churches in Cincinnati have an undercroft; most people just call it the basement).

The janitor was leading the way and talking about a loud water hammer noise, like the Devil himself beating on the pipes with a sledge hammer. He took us to the kitchen, where the underground steam main enters the church.

It’s a downhill run from the school to where the main appears through the wall, about four feet off the floor. It then elbows up to the ceiling to begin a traditional two-pipe distribution system, with a pumped return.

A drip leg with a float and thermostatic (F&T) trap is installed off the low point to drain both the condensate that’s carried down the underground main and the condensate from the vertical rise to the ceiling.

I asked if the drip leg or F&T trap had been serviced since the new underground line was installed. I got a lot of blank stares.

I explained that the condensate has to pass to the condensate pump to keep the steam main free of any condensate build-up. If enough condensate accumulates in the low point, steam has a hard time making it through. If it can, it makes a heck of a racket as it slams the condensate around in the pipes.

The F&T trap had not been inspected for as long as anyone familiar with the system could remember. Traps at low points can quickly fill up with the natural debris of the inside of a steam system. Manufacturers used to provide a cleanout plug in the trap body for this purpose. I suspected all the work putting in the new steam line stirred up a lot of debris. I recommended that the mechanical contractor open up the trap to see if it was plugged.

The janitor mentioned that he was hearing some noise from other traps in the system. He and the mechanical contractor went to make a list of traps that might need repair. The parish administrator, committee member, and I moved off to talk about the importance of a trap maintenance program in another room of the undercroft.

The Follow-up

When the mechanical contractor called to order the trap parts, he confirmed my suspicions. The drip trap was almost completely plugged. This caused the condensate to back up into the underground line. The steam could only get through the flooded line when the Devil pounded on the pipes with his hammer.

This erratic flow of steam wasn’t enough to get the church up to temperature. He had also found two more F&T traps that needed to be cleaned out and repaired. He called the next day to say that the church heated up quickly and was now as quiet as a church mouse. He was very glad he didn’t have to dig up that line.

The next week, I got a call from my mother. She asked if I was the nice man that the priest had referred to during the Sunday sermon, the one that came to fix the heat and drive out the Devil. I took full credit. It’s not often that I’m praised from the pulpit.

Patrick Linhardt is the sales manager at Aramac Supply in Cincinnati, OH. He often lends his sleuthing skills and technical expertise to local contractors in need. His newly-released book is Linhardt’s Field Guide to Steam Heating. To order, visit steamupairoutwaterback.com or call 513/703-5347.

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