New York City’s Historic Steam System

Let Me Remind You…
About New York City’s Steam System

Everyone knows what happens if you put a whistle-top kettle on the stove, half-full with water, and turn the heat up as high as it will go. When the water starts to boil rapidly, it produces steam, when that steam escapes through that whistle, you know it’s done and time to make tea.
But what if you boil water to 305-450 degrees Fahrenheit in a closed system with strategically placed vents, like radiators and other systems of pipes throughout a building? You now have heating, cooling, steaming and in some instances, even sanitization.

Harnessing and controlling the power of steam is not a new invention by any means. The ancient Romans were one of the first to use steam to heat up their homes and baths.
A few hundred years later, in 1882, some businessmen in New York City started the New York Steam Company, providing steam heating/cooling to over 300 buildings. The city gave them a contract and they built the first boiler plant at the site of the world trade center.

But in 1888, a blizzard blanketed the city in snow, knocking out power lines and forcing everyone inside, trying to stay warm. This tragedy was an eye opener for officials. They saw how efficient steam power was for the 300 buildings and they extended the contract to service over 1500 buildings in NYC, which happens to be the same number today. Some saying closer to 1800.

Using steam instead of coal reduces carbon emissions (though I’m not certain they were overly concerned about that at the time), and changed how we see NYC today. If it weren’t for the steam system, the skyline would be dotted by buildings covered in chimneys and the power grid would be far more extensive and less eco-friendly.

1888 blizzard leaves the city blanketed in snow


NYC has the largest steam system in the world, larger than the other major steam-using cities put together.
Some of the more notable buildings that have always used steam include the Empire State building, The Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller. Apartment buildings in NYC still have steam heating/cooling systems.
Having steam used in these buildings allows for other buildings like hospitals to divert the use of electricity for modern machinery like MRI’s and Xrays  etc. and using the steam for heating/cooling, sanitizing and laundry.
Museums even use the steam technology to help regulate the humidity in the galleries in order to help preserve the artwork, restaurants use it to sanitize dishes and laundromats use it for pressing clothing.

The great part about the steam system is that it can be tapped into without requiring your own boiler. Kind of like just attaching a pipe under your sink to drain in more than one place.
Obviously, it would be efficient to have your own boiler system, especially if you’re not near one of the boiler plants, and even though the entire system is completely interconnected, some places do have their own system. NYU has the largest privately-owned facility. These smaller plants are called “co-generation plants”.

But with the massive power of steam being forced through the pipes comes disaster. A user on a forum* said that he was speaking with a ConEdison employee about why residents on a massive stretch of the city didn’t have water leading up to Hurricane Sandy. The employee said, “ they’re doing it so that floods won’t hit the steam pipes and cause explosive rupture, with flying manholes to boot.”
Despite being made from heavy metal and getting serviced monthly, there’s still room for error, or fluke accidents, usually caused by a compromised pipe that’s decades old, affected by something called “steam hammer” or “water hammer”, which can lead to a faulty steam trap and cause explosion. this usually occurs when the hot steam is traveling through the pipes and runs into something cold, like water. These have happened a few times in the past. A couple notable ones happened in 1989, and another in 2007.

1989 steam pipe explosion


So next time you’re in NYC, If you see one of the iconic orange and white stacks in the street, shooting steam out the top, that means they’re working on some pipes below. If you’re lucky, you might have seen an (illegal) art installment by an artist, Mark Reigleman II,  who makes small houses to put over the stacks and it looks like steam is coming out the chimney. Though the city is aware of him, they haven’t been able to catch him yet.  

Mark Reigelman art installation: “Smokers”



fun fact: 1 gallon of water will produce 8lbs of steam.

Sources:
Untappedcities.com
NYtimes.com
Thevintagenews.com
AmNY.com
LaughingSquid.com (photo only)
*Boards.straightdope.com


As always, thank you for taking the time to read! Have a great day!



Kristina Moore is the Author of The Pecan Trees, available on Amazon.

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