by Dave Yates, plumbing contractor

With a teenage son in the house, Zits is our favorite comic strip. Teenagers are so full of life and promise for the future — while, at the same time, seeming to know all the answers! Parents, on the other hand, are incredibly stupid; we know that from our continuing education in the school of life. I can look back on 1979 as my year of hydronic adolescence; a teenage mentality regarding what was left to learn.

The year I chose to go it alone was 1979: no one to tell me what to do; I was going to be my own boss! By way of background, I had been an apprentice at the firm I now own during the time the city district-steam plant in York, PA, shut down. The steam was a by-product of generating electrical power and was piped out to businesses and residences within the downtown area.

Steel piping housed within logs for insulating purposes served as the main transmission lines and a super-highway for cockroaches! Billing was accomplished by metering the condensate. During the spring, summer and fall of 1976, we installed a constant stream of steam boilers. Steam was always a part of what we did anyway, given that ours is a downtown firm dating back to 1900.

But the very first steam boiler I installed after striking out on my own was perhaps the steepest learning curve of them all. As a teenage adolescent hydronics “expert” with all the answers, I hossed that hunk of cast iron into the customer’s basement without any assistance (young backs often are attached to weak minds). I closely examined the old boiler for its piping arrangement on this one-pipe steam system and quickly set about duplicating it, fitting for fitting.

I should also add that I had no need to go upstairs and check for a connected load. The old boiler had done just fine all those years and contained enough water to flood a city block. I matched its rated capacity.

That first firing brought on the familiar smells associated with a new boiler: pipe dope sizzling; oils burning off cast iron; and flue piping too hot to touch. What a wonderful thing being a teenage adolescent hydronician was! Right up to the moment a head of steam was built.

As I stood dumbfounded, the water dropped like a stone within the gauge glass and could be heard coursing like a crazed drug through the main artery of this one-pipe steam system. And just like that first car accident a teenager has, I had to acknowledge I wasn’t invincible — not where steam was concerned. But, like a teenager, I remained stubborn.

Backtracking, I remembered how carefully the mechanics I’d worked with had been about skimming off their steam boilers. Surely that was the answer. No dice. No matter how much I skimmed that boiler, the water launched itself up into the main. And such a hammering it made!

So I did what any sane teenager does after coming to the realization he’s done something horribly wrong but can’t figure out what it is. I called in a friend, Roy Sanders, who had a reputation for being something of a wizard with steam systems. Roy is one of those plumbers who always greets you like a long-lost friend. He willingly stopped by the jobsite with me.

Roy took one look at my installation and asked me why I’d piped up the boiler as I had. “Because that’s how the old one was installed.” In the manner a father would gently chide a son, Roy asked me where the instructions were and, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, they were sealed within their original packet.

He opened them up to reveal a carefully crafted drawing of how this model steam boiler was to be properly piped. While I was staring at the drawing and trying to figure out a way around completely re-piping my handiwork, Roy told me how he’d done many similar things during his long career, and not to feel too stupid.

That was the day I learned to follow steam boiler piping diagrams; to look beyond the boiler room and understand I was dealing with a system, not just an individual component. The straight 2-in.-riser-meets-3-in.-main was replaced with the needed offset and 3-in. header that also included an equalizer. A Hartford loop was included and the brand new 2-in. check valve was removed from the wet return. That system went into proper balance from the startup and still functions like a champion to this day, quietly and without so much as a moment’s hiccup of water into the main.

All adolescent hydronic “experts” need a Roy Sanders. When your turn comes along, I hope you’ll be as kind-hearted as Roy was to me. A little kindness and encouragement go a lot farther than do withering recriminations. Merry Christmas, Roy, I’ve never forgotten that day!

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, PA. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at behler@blazenet.net. He also writes a monthly column on plumbing for CONTRACTOR.