This past weekend, Teague took some time out from his day/night/weekend job to clean our boiler and preform some general maintenance. We have a one-pipe steam heating system, which is highly efficient when it’s running properly but requires quite a bit of fidgeting & futzing. We spent many a night falling asleep to the clangs, gurgles and pings of radiators that were not well-adjusted before we figured it out all.
What we’ve learned about steam heat thus far:
- Steam radiators don’t need bleeding. I grew up in a house with hot water radiators. On hot water radiators, turning the bleed valve a few times lets the extra air out – air which is taking up space that water should be in. It stops the hissing and spitting and evens out the heat. So every time our started acting up, my first response was to let some air out. Eventually I realized that trapped air should get forced out the air vent, the small metal tdirectly above the supply valve at the top of your radiator. This vent can get clogged up by hard-water scale deposits, so try poking the hole with a pin or paper clip. Not working? You can also shut the radiator off at the supply valve (base of the radiator), carefully remove the vent, and boil it in white vinegar or soak it in CLR to get rid of all the deposits. Still no luck? Better replace it. (We have replaced 4 of ours so far.)
- Clanging? Banging? Pings? You don’t have to live with them. Our radiators used to make all sorts of noises. Mostly loud banging and knocking. It’s caused by water getting “stuck” in the pipe, sitting their chilling between firing cycles and then being hit with fresh new steam. One fix? A little tilt. The proper pitch for our system is one inch for every 20 feet. We shimmed out 3 of our radiators, tilting them toward the drain pipe by sticking wood shims (or in one case, ceramic tiles) under the back feet. About 1/4″ should do it. This cut down tremendously on the noises. We also found a pipe in the cellar that had wiggled loose from the bracket that held it, leaving it free to jump around however it pleased. When we tied it back where it was supposed to be, this stopped it from hitting other pipes nearby. Fixing the pitch also took care of a radiator that originally only got hot about halfway across.
- Got orange rust in your sight glass? Time to drain it. The “sight glass”, or water level tube, on the front of our boiler, gets pretty nasty looking after a while. When we notice the sludge building up, it’s time to drain it until the water runs clear. This is a very simple one, and having a clean level means you can actually see where the water level is at. It should be right around the middle.
- Burner flame yellow? It should burn much hotter than that; there’s not enough ventilation. Something (possibly your flue) is probably clogged or rusted, or your gas pressure might not be right. It’s not only inefficient, it’s dangerous because it can cause “flameout”. Get a pro over to get your system back on track.
- Insulation counts. If your lines don’t have any insulation on them, they might be cooling too quickly – adding to that pounding problem. We insulated everything we could reach in the basement. Saves on energy costs and sleep deprivation! Want to stop losing heat to the wall behind your radiator? Try a piece of foil-coated rigid insulation behind it. Nobody will notice it, and it’ll help direct heat away from that uninsulated plaster… ;)
- Touch one, you’ll have to touch another. It’s pretty much a guarantee with old heating systems, and old plumbing in general. Move a radiator so you can sand the floor? Hook it back up and somewhere in the system you’ll find a new little leak or get some new banging. Turn off the radiators in unused rooms and the same will happen. Plan on spending some time “tuning” your heating system each fall, tweaking things till it the whole thing works in harmony.
- Make sure they are all attached (an “oops” we’ll be laughing about for decades to come)
Need more tips? HeatingHelp.com is the site I refer to most often – it’s full of useful (and easy to understand) articles, not to mention their “Question wall”.
Curious as to why that steam boiler is so big? Blame it on lazy men and big oil! Our friend Tom pointed us to this article a few years back. It’s a very interesting read.