"Is A Watt Really A Watt" Revisited

Please pardon the tardiness of this “thank you” note. It is a little over a year since I wrote you regarding heating a small basement office (“Is a Watt Really a Watt?” June, 1996). The delay was entirely your fault.

Let me explain. I followed your advice and installed a cast-iron radiator, which turned this little basement into the most comfortably warm room in the house. Consequently, all last winter, whenever I would come downstairs to work in the office, I would be gradually joined by the rest of the family, stopping in “to see how I was doing” and to warm up.

As you well know, in a scorched air house, radiant is king. In fact, my wife would sometimes just sit in front of the radiator, warming herself and reminiscing of times past when, as a child, she had steam radiators that went “hiss-click, hiss-click.” Anyhow, as time went by, papers piled up on this nice warm desk, in this nice warm room, heated by this nice warm radiator. Unfortunately, a thank-you note was becoming warmer and more compressed at the bottom of the pile. Last night, after discovering my letter to you had been published, I decided to locate the original letter and realized that I had never properly thanked you. So consider yourself Thanked for the good advice. I thank you, my son thanks you, both daughters thank you, and especially my wife (“hiss-click”) thanks you.

Dan’s Reply: Hey, you’re welcome! Enough already!

You know, I wanted every PM reader to see this follow-up letter because a while ago, the people who peddle Toaster Technology were trying to talk this guy into using electric heat in his basement instead of hydronics. They told him a watt was a watt, and he would be just as comfortable with electric heat — and he’d save money on the installation, of course. You can save money by heating with Sterno, too, if all you’re interested in is a cheap installation.

This guy didn’t buy what they were selling, though. He hooked up his cast-iron radiator to a dedicated electric water heater (and just so I don’t give Ed Nordstrom apoplexy, No, he didn’t also use the heater in question to make his domestic hot water). He would have given himself radiant heat, but he said he didn’t want to raise the basement floor. Now, the whole family prefers the warmth of the cast-iron to the vile scorched air that stomps around upstairs. See? Hydronic heat brings families together, and that’s good for America. Be patriotic; hug a radiator!

Dead Men Pipefitting

I have some old-timers telling me that only black cast-iron fittings should be used for the near-boiler piping on a steam system. Others say black malleable is fine. What can you tell me about this? Does it matter?

Dan’s Reply: Yep, it matters. The reason the Dead Men used cast-iron fittings and not malleable for steam heating was that cast-iron will conveniently break when you rap it with a hammer. Malleable fittings will just send the butt end of the sledge rocketing back toward your thick skull. The Dead Men wanted to make sure they could take those pipes apart at some point in the future without endangering life and limb. That’s why they chose cast-iron. Don’t forget to bob and weave.

There's Hope In The Heartland

I live in Ohio and have purchased and read four of your publications, which I still use as reference manuals from time to time. I hope this story will warm your insides like a fine-tuned hydronics system will.

My customer bought a home seven years ago and it had a hydronic system with three zones. When I first repaired the system two years ago, the circulating pump located on the return, in front of the Filtrol valve, was shot so I quickly replaced it. I hadn’t yet read any of your books at the time. My customer said, “I hate this system and I hope someday to go back to a nice horizontal furnace that was originally put in this house. Look, the ductwork is still hooked up.” I told her how beautiful radiant baseboard heat can feel and how comfortable the house should be, but she said, “I hear that all the time from other people, too. They say the same thing, but they’re all full of it!”

Well, Dan, she wasn’t lying. One part of her house went only to 58 degrees when the outdoor temperature dropped to 15 degrees. The boiler was cycling on high-limit all winter long.

After I fixed the circulator, two years passed before she called me again. The 20-year-old boiler was making popping sounds and I knew it was full of scale, so when I returned, I made a suggestion that it be replaced. “What about that furnace I mentioned?” she said, but I took your advice, Dan, and said, “Let me take some measurements and look at the whole system. I’ll see if I can make it better.” I said this because I had read your books, Pumping Away and How Come? and I let them sink into my noggin.

Anyway, she decided to trust me and she let me do the work.

I already knew how the piping should be for the supply and return at the boiler. I traced the rest of the system piping, and I even did a heat loss calculation on that cold addition (the one with the big 36-inch television sitting over there in the corner). I used my book, Hydronic Heating and Cooling Manual by the National Joint Steamfitter-Pipefitter Apprenticeship Committee. I found out that the radiant baseboard was 6,000 Btus anemic. The piping manifold was one-inch, and there were no baseboard tees anywhere. The 125,000 Btu boiler only needed to be 100,000 Btus.

I told her that when I was done, all I wanted for her to say was, “Larry, I am a converted Wet Head.” She does have a sense of humor, by the way.

I bought all the goods, replaced the boiler and piped it according to your recommendations in your book, Pumping Away. I used a Filtrol expansion tank and put the circulator on the supply side of the boiler. I built a manifold of 1-1/4-inch X 3/4-inch tees for the zone valves, and I placed the baseboard tees strategically for purging from both directions by isolating the supply and then the return. I added the 10 feet of baseboard to the cold room, and insulated all the horizontal pipe in the crawl space. I put an automatic air vent on the boiler. I purged the air, filled the system to 12 psi, and fired it up.

One week later, I returned to check on things. I heard those heavenly words from my customer. “Larry, I am now a Wet Head!” she said. It was 20 degrees outside and the boiler didn’t fire until an hour-and-a-half later.

So, no more waterfall sounds in the middle of the night. All the thermostats are set at 65 degrees, and everywhere you go in the house, it is comfy cozy. I had to pass this on to you, Dan, after reading your “Forum” articles in the November issue. Thanks for the education. I’ve used your Lost Art of Steam Heating book to make myself look immortal just like that other guy. And by the way, I asked you to autograph the book when you were in Cleveland a couple of years ago because I told you it would bring good luck. Guess what? It did!

Dan’s Reply: Great story, isn’t it? In the January PM, I answered a letter from Larry Drake of the Radiant Panel Association by saying, “I believe that if an individual contractor sits down with an individual customer, that contractor can be so compelling that the customer will choose hydronic heat. I’ve seen contractors do this time and time again, and I believe it’s the attitude they bring to that conversation that makes all the difference. If they go in thinking they’ll never win, they never will win.” I think this Larry, the one from Ohio, proves my point every day. Never give up.

Innovative Thinking

I just read Larry Drake’s response to your column (January, 1997). Two years ago, I vacationed at Disney World in Florida and was very impressed with the Innovations West building at EPCOT. Here, companies such as Delta, Masco, General Electric, and Honeywell display the latest in energy-saving and comfort-providing products. GM even has an electric car there.

Here is the perfect opportunity to show radiant heat and hydronic heating systems, and maybe compare them to scorched air. How about it? I have always believed that people will prefer, and be loyal to, the first products they learn about and work on, as long as they have a good experience with them. I have been on the Advisory Committee for the local vocational/technical school for 20 years and believe there is an opportunity to show radiant heat by maybe pouring a simple 10 foot by 10 foot sample, or installing it in the homes the tech schools build.

Can we use your influence to get the hydronics industry to go in this direction and maybe help us?

Dan’s Reply: I have no influence; I just howl at the moon. When Larry Drake of the Radiant Panel Association and I exchanged our letters in the January issue he noted that the hydronics industry “can’t afford the weapons of mass advertising, sponsoring the Super Bowl, major TV campaigns, political lobbyists, and the like.” Well, I guess if I can’t get on the Super Bowl I might as well go and kill myself?

But before I do, maybe we can scrounge up some tubing for the kids in the votech schools. And maybe someone in charge of some organization like, oh, I don’t know, the RPA? Maybe they could write to Disney about what their members have to offer in the way of energy savings and comfort? You know, maybe get crazy excited about what the manufacturer members have to offer and then go talk to Disney? He wouldn’t have to go on the Super Bowl. He’d just have to write a letter. And never give up.

I stood in a booth at the National Remodelers Show in Indianapolis last fall with my friends from Old-House Journal magazine. There were about a gazillion people there because this show is every bit as big as ASHRAE, and every one of those people remodel houses. For two days, they asked me about hydronic heat, and I did my best to sing its praises. I howled at the moon because there were no other Wet Heads in the house to help. It would have been nice to see the Radiant Panel Association at that show. But I suppose that if you can’t advertise on the Super Bowl, well, what’s the use? OOWWWWWW!

How To Save A Landlord Some Money

I am a landlord and I need your advice. My firm had a Weil-McLain steam boiler installed to replace an old boiler. Our building is a one-pipe system. There are two return lines that handle the building. We had a major problem with surging in the boiler and the boiler also kept shutting off on low-water. The contractor informed us that the system was not balanced and the problem was with the return lines and the float & thermostatic traps. The contractor then removed the two F&T traps and installed one Bryant steam trap connecting both returns to the Bryant. Enclosed is a rough drawing of the piping layout. I have steam and water shooting from one air valve on one return and water only from the other return. Is this a correct connection?

Dan’s Reply: When you have two circuits on a one-pipe steam system and you want to use a condensate pump, you have to use two steam traps — one at the end of each circuit. The original installation was correct. The contractor who installed the single trap to replace the two traps was wrong. He should now go out of business and take a menial job selling soggy pretzels on the streets of Frankfurt. Steam is obviously getting around one of the circuits faster than it’s getting around the other. It’s jumping from one pipe to the other because there’s nothing to stop it. It’s meeting the condensate that’s flowing along with the steam and causing the air vents to squirt like Super Shooters. Another consideration with one-pipe steam is that those end-of-main traps are handling not just the condensate from the main and the risers, but also the condensate from all the radiation. This means that with one-pipe, the end-of-main steam traps have to be very large — often larger than the lines they serve. Did your contractor size the traps based on the connected load at the right pressure differential? Or did he just install a trap to match the line size? Is he into symmetry? Ask him.

Anyway, you’ll have to get two properly sized traps to make this one work. Put one at the end of each circuit, like the Dead Man had them. As to the surging, it’s most likely coming from dirty water. This condition is common after a new boiler goes in. It’s why companies such as Weil-McLain go to such lengths to print cleaning instructions. Who reads the instructions? The guy at the ad agency who proofreads the technical writer. That’s it. Someone should give the system a thorough cleaning at this point.

What The Heck Are Those Things?

I have a question about some Bell & Gossett fittings that I have run into on quite a few hot water heating systems. One is an “Airtrol Boiler Fitting,” found in the supply piping from the boiler. The other is an “Airtrol Tank Fitting,” found in the bottom of the compression tank (bladderless, I assume). Are these fittings to remove air from the system and put it into the compression tank, or to assure a cushion of air in the tank at system fill-up? Are there other components that are to be used in conjunction with these? Can they be used separately? I’m very interested to find out what they are for! I’m from the Midwest, not known for its hydronic heating. Normal installations I run into have one shutoff valve in the system (to what purpose, I don’t know), no manual air bleeder valves, no shutoff ahead or behind the pressure reducing valve, no boiler drain to drain the system for repair, among other system set-ups that “work” but are a headache to service! I look forward to your reply and appreciate any help you give a Wet Head at heart — stuck in the scorched-air Midwest.

Dan’s Reply: A friend from Kansas recently described himself as a MID-WEsT HEAD. I told him I wish I had thought of that first. In any event, you keep learning about hydronics and you’re going to be a totally fulfilled person. Mark my words.

Bell & Gossett has sold these Airtrol (a shortening of the words “air” and “control”) since the 1950s, I believe. The boiler fitting is a dip tube that sinks deep into the boiler to a place where air rarely goes. B&G made two kinds of boiler fittings — one went in the top of the boiler, the other went in the side of a side-outlet boiler. The fitting works in much the same way as the built-in air separators many boiler manufacturers include in their cast-iron boilers nowadays. They use the boiler as a point of low velocity, sort of a “wide space in the road” for the water. The water slows as it moves through the boiler, and the air that’s entrained in the water comes out of solution and rises to the top of the boiler. Modern boiler manufacturers catch the air by making the water duck under a baffle to get out. The air, being lighter than the water, can’t duck under that baffle so it gets trapped and vented from the system through a boiler-mounted automatic air vent.

The old Airtrol boiler fitting forced the water to go down and enter the bottom of the dip tube if it wanted to get out of the boiler (and it did because the circulator was running). The air, being buoyant, got stuck up at the top of the Airtrol boiler fitting and, from there, rose into the compression tank where it entered the other fitting that has aroused your curiosity.

The Airtrol tank fitting’s job is twofold: First, it allows you to set the proper water-to-air ratio inside the steel compression tank when you’re first filling the system. That would be two-thirds water, one-third air. The fitting does this with a tube that sticks up through the bottom of the tank. The tube looks like a copper straw. You fill the tank until the water overflows from the tube. Then you close the small petcock at the bottom of the Airtrol tank fitting and you’re all set. When you heat the water, it squeezes the air cushion and keeps the relief valve from popping.

The fitting’s second job is to prevent gravity circulation between the water in the compression tank and the water in the system. Gravity circulation is the reason why steel compression tanks lose their air cushion. The air gets absorbed into the cooler tank water and then falls by gravity into the system piping. The hotter system water rises up that same pipe to take the place of the cooler water that’s falling down. As soon as the cooler water gets into the system piping, it lets go of the air it absorbed in the tank and sends it scurrying out into the system. An automatic air vent catches the air and vents it. When you lose that slightest bit of air, the system pressure will drop. The feed valve then opens to replace the missing air with cold water. That, eventually, is what causes the tank to waterlog. The Airtrol tank fitting has an internal baffle that keeps the hot water from rising into the tank. If the hot water can’t go up, the cold water can’t go down. It’s as simple as that. If you can stop gravity circulation, you can keep the air inside the tank, and out of the system piping.

And yes, you can use the two fittings separately, but they work much better together.

Just like you and me. Thanks for the great questions!