A regular poster on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com began a new thread with this:

“I have heating (plumbing, fire suppression, etc.) shops in New York and New Jersey. This is very much steam country, and we repair and replace steam boilers and systems all week long and have been for decades. All that is fine, but what I find incredibly odd is the polarized perception of the automatic water feeder. There is no such thing as installing a boiler in New York City without an automatic water feeder. Absolutely no homeowner, in any borough, social status, ethnicity, age, mechanical capability, etc., will entertain the installation of a new steam boiler without a new automatic water feeder included.

“Cross the Hudson River to New Jersey and I cannot give them away. Absolutely everyone is convinced they are piped into the system for the sole purpose of flooding your home. Some people get instantly hostile at the mere suggestion they might want to have one installed, or if they see it listed as an option on the proposal.

“I sometimes try to explain that they are not prone to failure, can be disabled at any time, and, in the unlikely event they do feed unwanted water, it is most often a failure to maintain the low-water cutoff, which is the only place from which they receive a feed command.”

This part of New Jersey certainly has its share of steam heating systems, so what’s going on here. Is it geography? The people? Something in our trade traditions?

Other Wallies weighed in and it got very interesting. Listen first to this homeowner.

“I'm in much greater jeopardy of a flooded basement from a burst washing machine hose. Our washer and dryer are in the basement, along with our boiler. Our steam-heating system is pretty much designed to keep water in. I did once have a leaking boiler-fill valve during the off-season. I noticed a puddle by the kitchen radiator. The washer, on the other hand, could be dumping many more gallons of water on the basement floor before anyone noticed it.”

Next on deck, we have a very good steam guy who works in Northern New Jersey:

“No automatic feeder can take the place of manually feeding water into your steam boiler. When you feed water by hand, you’re doing it because you know the boiler needs water. If you have an automatic feeder and you have leaks in the system, the feeder will just keep adding water to keep things going along nicely. You think everything is great, but it’s not.

“There are feeders that have automatic counters to show how many gallons of water are going into the boiler, but if you’re not paying attention because you think everything is automatic, you’re going to need a new boiler.

“I’ll install an automatic feeder if the customer insists, but when I’m faced with a flashing display, showing how much water the boiler has taken on, and the homeowner is now replacing the boiler for the third time in 20 years, I see the auto feeder as the problem. Without it, they will either be tied to adding water all the time, or do the right thing and get the leaks repaired. I’ll sometimes tell them that if they want everything automatic, then it’s time to switch to a heating system that requires less maintenance, such as a hot-water system. And this may be their best choice because, in some cases, they need a lot of system work, such as steam main or wet-return repairs. And let’s not forget pipe insulation, main and radiator vents. We have to consider what’s best for the customer over time.

“On another note, the water in North, New Jersey is extremely hard, with total dissolved solids up to 550 ppm. So that’s my reasoning in a nutshell.”

So is it a mix of water quality and long experience with what happens with customers in the real world? Hmmm.

A homeowner had this to say:

“I dislike them because they encourage people to ignore their steam boilers and they are another point of failure. Steam boilers are simple and I like to keep them that way. If you have to visit a boiler every once in a while, you are much more likely to notice something is wrong with it before it causes a real problem. I've lived without one for 74 years and will continue to do so.”

That certainly reinforces what our New Jersey steam guy said. Here’s another homeowner:

“My old boiler here in New Jersey had one when I bought the house. The boiler had been experiencing excess water loss and replacement probably for a decade or more. I believe the auto feed allowed the former owner to become complacent. I had a good contractor out to look at my old system when he was still in business and he expressed disdain for the auto-feeder. I never bothered to put one on my new boiler.”

A Wallie who posts every day on HeatingHelp.com is the caretaker of a 7,200 square foot historic house in Connecticut. He has this to say:

“I think it very much has to do with what an individual has been led to believe is an intolerable risk, which has little to do with what the actual risk is. I am very much in the automatic-feeder camp, particularly for properties that need secure heat and can't be visited frequently by an expert. Granted, auto feeders do fail to close properly, but very rarely. Granted, the low-water cutoff may fail and cause them to feed (which is a safe failure, by the way). The risk is there, but as has been noted, so is the risk of a washing machine hose failing, and also a hot water tank leaking.

“If one is unhappy that auto-feeders can lead people to ignore the water being fed, that's OK, and it is a risk. But that risk can be entirely mitigated by using a feeder that has a meter on it, and suggesting people read it now and then. Some even will.

There is no such thing as installing a boiler in New York City without an automatic water feeder. Absolutely no homeowner, in any borough, social status, ethnicity, age, mechanical capability, etc., will entertain the installation of a new steam boiler without a new automatic water feeder included. Cross the Hudson River into New Jersey and I cannot give them away.

“The best thing to do is to help yourself and your clients evaluate what the various risks are and then determine how acceptable they are in a rational way, and go from there.”

I once worked for the McDonnell Miller rep in the New York/New Jersey-metro area. M&M taught us to tell customers that a feeder was not a convenience item, but a backup to the low-water cutoff. This goes back to the 1980s, when probe-type LWCOs were just starting to appear. The concern was that, with an automatic feeder, the customer would think the steam system was now fully automatic, and they wouldn't blow down the LWCO each week, or ever. M&M also taught me that an auto-feeder is not there to maintain the normal waterline in the boiler, but only a safe, minimum waterline.

It still doesn’t explain the geography disparity between New York and New Jersey, though. Let me give the final word or our original poster. He’s a very smart fella when it comes to steamy things:

“Several of you have described steam heating systems as being hands-on, maintenance-intensive, or other descriptors that paint a fairly undesirable picture of steam heat. By doing this, you are supporting the HVAC industry's general characterization of steam heat — that it should be ripped out and replaced with forced air.

“I don't see it that way at all. We run steam boilers for up to four months each year. A change in the typical behaviors of the system are often enough to alert a homeowner of a need for attention and an annual service by a qualified service provider is most often enough to bring the system back to baseline.

“Hydrolevel’s VXT feeders are the only device I would consider installing in a residence due to its feed-volume options, delay settings, and, of course, its gallon counter. Keeping a simple record of gallons fed once a month should be enough to prompt service — if required.

“Steam heat is a remarkably simple system and keeping track of water usage is a straightforward task. Why not automate the one thing left for a homeowner to do, besides blowing down a float-type LWCO?

In writing this, I’m keeping in mind that many of the non-industry people who post on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com are steam enthusiasts and they love to put water in their boilers by hand. But something as simple as an automatic water feeder, in my experience, makes steam heat more palatable. My clients would never consider being without one.”

Those being his clients east of the Hudson.

Go figure.