We recently got a call from a renovator/owner with problems at his 10-flat building near our local urban university.

He had purchased the building last year and was complaining of lousy heat and high bills on his steam system. We agreed to meet the next day.

He picked me up in an older truck overloaded with water heaters and copper pipe, made a U-turn across four lanes of traffic, and headed toward campus.

I spent five years at this college switching majors before enlisting in the Air Force, so I’m familiar with the neighborhood. However, as we got closer I noticed how the area had changed, with plenty of new construction and renovation. The bar where we drank is now a used bookstore. Another hangout had become a coffee house.

Taking a call on his cell phone, the owner calmly informed an employee that there was a warrant out for his arrest for moving violations in the very truck in which we were driving. Suddenly, we crossed two lanes of traffic to make a right turn. Luckily, it was a short ride.

The Troubleshoot

We somehow arrived safely, parking illegally in a lot across the street. As I walked into the boiler room, I was surprised to find three boilers sharing a common supply header.

A huge vertical boiler feed tank dominated one corner of the room. This thing almost reached the ceiling. A float and thermostatic (F&T) trap sat above it.

A pump below the tank was piped to a solenoid valve for each boiler. The owner kept wanting to fire up the boilers, but I wanted to look around.

It took a while to figure this one out because the owner kept bothering me with lots of questions, plenty of comments, and very little useful information. He finally left to unload his truck, leaving me with enough quiet time to see the problem.

The wet return was piped from the floor all the way up to that F&T trap near the ceiling above the boiler feed tank. All condensate from the system had to go over the top of this particularly tall tank, through the F&T trap — which shouldn’t have been installed there — before it could be pumped back into one of the three boilers.

This high point in the wet return was above the level of the existing dry return. Consequently, the dry return was always flooded with water. Air from the mains and the radiation couldn’t pass through the dry return to be vented. Typical for this job, the vents had also been removed. Since the air couldn’t get out of the system, steam was having a hard time finding its way to the radiators. No wonder the heat was uneven and the bills high.

Naturally, the owner wanted to fix it on the cheap. He was considering taking out the steam system and installing individual furnaces-and air conditioning units for each apartment. I suggested trying to save the existing system by making repairs one step at a time.

The boilers were only a few years old, the traps at the end of the steam mains were installed when the boiler feed tank went in, and most of the radiator traps looked new. If he could get the “flood” out of the dry return and have a vent installed for a reasonable price, he was willing to give it a try.

I found an easy way to pipe the wet return into the bottom of the boiler feed tank, eliminating the over-the-top route and the F&T trap. This would re-establish the dry return for air to travel through. There was a union at the end of the common dry return where a main air vent could be installed, allowing the air to get out of the way of the steam.

Neither fix would be too difficult or expensive, a good first step to see if the system could be saved. I recommended a few good contractors on the ride back to the shop.

I also recommended that he purchase my field guide. Although the guide is designed for service technicians, I thought he could use some of its basic information to learn how the heating system in his building should work.

The Follow-up

The owner did two things right: He bought my book and selected the right contractor.

This contractor does great hot water and steam piping, in black iron, not copper. He’s a one-man shop, doing the work himself, and taking great pride in a job well done. We talked about the repairs at the sales counter when he came in for the main air vent, pipe, and fittings.

When I called him the other day to find out how it went, he informed me that the system was heating quite well now. However, because I could tell he wasn’t entirely happy, I pressed him for more information.

It turned out that the owner shorted the bill by $150. He included a note with his check commenting that he thought he had been overcharged.

I could understand why the contractor was upset. He had restored this guy’s system to good working order in a timely manner, at a reasonable price, thereby saving the owner operating costs and tenants. Unfortunately, his thanks was the hassle of re-billing this onerous owner for his fair compensation. I guess sometimes, no good deed goes unpunished. u

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.