A brand-new residential steam system in this day and age?

The old yellow farmhouse sat in a small valley off the highway north of a little town. You couldn't see it too well from the road because of the jungle-like front yard. If you went down the driveway, you could tell the house had seen better days.

When the property went up for sale a young couple bought it. They decided the house needed a complete overhaul. New windows, doors, insulation, wiring, well, septic, plumbing, walls - and a new heating system.

Rick Mandel and I stood in the small basement of the house. It was time to start up the new heating system for the first time.

"You ready, Rick?"


I threw the switch and bled the fuel unit, and the oil burner roared to life. We let it run for a few minutes.

"OK, I'm smaller than you, Rick, so I'll take the shallow crawlspace. You take the other one - the one with lots of room. The boiler should be putting out steam in a minute or so and we need to see if the main vents are properly sized. We should get steam at the end of both mains at about the same time, and about a minute or so after the boiler starts steaming."

"Right É Do we have steam yet?"

"Sure do. Let's go!"

Wait a minute - steam heat? In the heyday of underfloor radiant systems, not to mention blasted forced air.

That's right! A brand-new, one-pipe steam system. New boiler, new pipes, new everything except the radiators, which were good used ones. Everything sized to the heat loss of the house with new insulation, doors and windows.

We took our places. The steam did exactly as it should. Then we went upstairs and found that the steam was coming into all the radiators simultaneously, and nothing was banging or hissing.

About a half-hour later, the new system had the house nice and cozy on a cold February day. It was a very special moment.

Rick owns and operates R&M Plumbing & Heating in Baltimore, Md. He loves to work on old steam and hot water radiator heating systems. So when his daughter and son-in-law bought that old farmhouse in the country and wanted radiator heat, he knew exactly what was needed.

"We were afraid that a hot-water system might freeze up, since power failures in that area can last a while," Rick said. "That's not a problem with steam, and there are also fewer moving parts. The radiators can be smaller and there's less piping to install. So we put in a steam system. My grandson is going to be very comfortable in that house."

I'm the other half of the team, and also into steam heating. About half the houses in my neighborhood have steam heat, and most of these are one-pipe systems. Some of these houses were built as summer homes with the steam systems added later to convert the houses to year-round use. Rick and I did the same basic thing on this job, except we replaced a very decrepit forced-air system.

When a steam system is properly installed and vented, it's quick, quiet and efficient. Besides, old houses and steam heating go hand-in-hand, don't they?

The new steam system features an oil-fired boiler, dry returns in the crawlspaces feeding wet returns in the basement and master venting. It also has the capacity needed to heat a projected addition to the house, if and when it is built. Designing it was easy.

I did the heat-loss calculations, sized the radiators from that and we decided where they would go in the rooms. Then we figured where the pipes would go and sized them from the radiators. Of course, we had to make a few changes when we actually installed the system because of what we found in the building. But we kept everything within specifications.

The system has a total pressure drop of 1.5 ounces from the boiler to the furthest radiator. It only needs a 14-inch "A" dimension to operate and we have twice that number. The Dead Men would have been proud of such a low pressure drop. Needless to say, the Pressuretrol is cranked all the way down.

The radiators are smaller than we're use to seeing in steam-heated buildings. That's because we based the heat-loss calculations on a fully insulated house with new, energy-efficient windows and doors. Those old buildings weren't insulated, and the windows and doors were primitive. So the Dead Men needed bigger radiators to handle the load.

At the end of that cold February day, Rick and I shut down the new heating system and drained the now-dirty water from the boiler and returns. Suddenly, I said "Ssshhhhhh."

"Huh?" said Rick.

"Listen carefully. Do you hear it?"

"Hear what?"

"It's the Dead Men calling to us from the other side. They're all cheering!"

(Editor's note: In a recent e-mail message, Frank advises all Wet Heads visiting Yellowstone National Park to stay at the Old Faithful Inn "as it has steam heat.")