by Dave Yates
SO THERE WE WERE — the landlord and me, staring at his once-beautiful steam boiler and Warren-Webster air eliminators. The boiler had been replaced in 1976 and the air eliminators dated to the home's construction in 1910.
The crack across the bottom of the cast-iron sections was large enough to fit your fingers into, so repairs were out of the question. He already knew this from the hordes of contractors who had visited before my turn at bat. It was mid-September; he was clearly anxious to make a decision and weary of meeting with contractors.
Needing something to separate me from the crowd, I began asking him questions near and dear to all landlords.
"High heating bills, eh?"
"Good grief!" he exclaimed.
"Tough to balance the heating between apartments?"
"I come by here in the winter because the first-floor tenant is complaining about being cold and the third-floor tenants have the windows open because they're roasting!" he said. "Seems like I can't win."
The angst in his voice was palpable.
A System in Dire Straits
I already knew he had a two-pipe steam system from the study of what I'd seen in the basement. But you have to get out of the basement if you want to understand steam systems and find out what alterations may or may not have been introduced over the years. I had begun formulating a plan and needed to verify it was feasible before getting his hopes up.
Most of the radiators were the slenderized variety, and they were connected along both the top and bottom. The inlets were piped to the top with a variety of vapor and newer style packing gland valves, and each radiator had a bellows trap at the outlet. Can you see where I'm going with this yet?
The risers were next to check and, sure enough, the second- and third-floor radiators were "stacked," meaning that the
second-floor radiators were branched off between the first-floor ceiling and the second floor's beautiful inlaid parquet flooring. It had been lovingly restored by this landlord, who took great delight in my compliments.
The Temperature Wars — Been There Before
It didn't hurt that we could compare notes about our having the identical type flooring in our own early-1900s' row-house offices with apartments above. Apartments that housed elderly ladies who liked the early 1900s steam systems to keep them in 89F comfort while they ran about in cotton housedresses. We could have raised tropical plants in that building.
The day we moved our offices into that building's first floor was the day I reset the thermostat to 78F, thinking it was a suitable compromise — even though we remained uncomfortably warm. I figured we'd tough it out until spring and then deal with the issue. Wrong! The next day, an angry lynch mob of geriatric ladies marched in demanding their heat be restored. If not, they were moving out.
The Sales Pitch
By now I was ready to return to his basement. I'd seen all I needed to see to offer him something none of the other contractors had thought to do. Sometimes, that's all you need to gain potential sales and customers — show them you have their best interest at heart.
A bit of education was in order first, so I explained how his original vapor system had been installed and why the radiators had been oversized. How no one at that time in history understood why people got sick and how they assumed it was from stale air, so radiators were sized to accommodate leaving the windows open an inch or two during the winter. I'd also seen that every window — all 26 of them — had been replaced with new energy-efficient ones.
I had him hanging on every word; this guy obviously loved learning about the history of when steam was king and central heating was still in its infancy. I had also spied a gas line meter rack in the basement with spaces already provided for three additional meters beside the existing landlord meter.
I'd already measured each of the radiators and the convector someone had substituted for a radiator on the third floor. In a matter of minutes, I knew the square footage of equivalent direct radiation by checking in my Burnham Heating Helper booklet, which fits nicely in my back pocket and goes along on these types of estimates.
A quick mental check of boiler prices, along with recall of other similar jobs, and I was ready to give my sales pitch with budget numbers. No sense wasting a lot of time if he fainted dead away upon hearing what the medicine costs would be to cure his ailments.
The Hydronics Cure
Demolish and remove the existing boiler and all related piping within the basement; install three small hot-water boilers sized to the actual heat losses of the three apartments (which confirmed the radiators were oversized — even for hot water — before we started); pipe up the radiators for each of the three floors utilizing reverse return to balance the flow; pump away from the expansion tanks so we only ever needed to bleed the radiators once — during the initial purge cycle; install new thermostats; and run new gas lines. Exactly what we'd done for our own tenants.
"When can you start?" he asked.
Demolition began the following day. The tenants now pay for their own heat, so no more double-hung zone valves and suddenly they became energy misers. All it took to gain the sale was the ability to think outside the box and present a sales pitch based upon education received from manufacturers who, more often than not, are eager to teach us the needed information. Be a sponge for knowledge — then go soak up the sales! n
Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler Inc., a contracting company in York, Pa. He also writes a monthly column on plumbing for CONTRACTOR magazine. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].
Next month’s hydronics feature article, will be written by contributing author, Tom Quatroni, Expert Services, Port Chester, NY. Quatroni shares his perspective on Proper Heat Load Calculation for Hydronics Systems.