Pittsburgh Steam SystemsSteam heating is one of the oldest heating technologies, but the process of boiling and condensing water is inherently less efficient than more modern systems, plus it typically suffers from significant lag times between the boiler turning on and the heat arriving in the radiators. As a result, steam systems make it difficult to implement control strategies such as a night setback system.
The first central heating systems for buildings used steam distribution because steam moves itself through piping without the use of pumps. Non-insulated steam pipes often deliver unwanted heat in unfinished areas. Therefore, pipe insulation in these areas is usually very cost effective. Care should be used to install fiberglass pipe insulation that can withstand the high temperatures of these delivery pipes.
Regular maintenance for steam systems depends on whether the radiator is a one-pipe system (the pipe that supplies steam also returns condensate) or a two-pipe system (a separate pipe returns condensate). One-pipe systems use automatic air vents on each radiator, which bleed air as steam fills the system and then shut automatically when steam reaches the vent. A clogged air vent will keep a steam system from heating up. Air vents can sometimes be cleaned by boiling them in a water and vinegar solution, but usually need to be replaced.
In two-pipe systems, older steam traps often stick in either the open or closed position, throwing off the balance in the system. If you seem to have problems with some radiators providing too much heat and others providing too little, this might be the cause. The best approach is often to simply replace all the steam traps in the system.
Steam radiators located on exterior walls can cause heat loss by radiating heat through the wall to the outdoors. To prevent such heat loss, you can install heat reflectors behind these radiators. You can make your own reflector from foil-covered cardboard, available from many building supply stores, or by mounting foil onto a foam board or other similar insulating surface. The foil should face away from the wall, and the reflector should be the same size or slightly larger than the radiator. Periodically clean the reflectors to maintain maximum heat reflection.