Steam Boiler Water Level Issue

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Old 02-12-14, 07:05 AM
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Steam Boiler Water Level Issue

Hello, this question has probably been answered here before though after searching the forums I was not able to find precisely what I am looking for so I am posting my inquiry.
I purchased a home last winter and the previous owner had a brand new Weil-McClain SG0-4 steam boiler system installed only three weeks before closing. I only had a chance to see the system in action for about a month before we were able to turn the heat way back. So I didn't get a full season to gauge how the system works.
Anyway... I have now and I am a bit concerned that I am going to be spending more time in the basement with this beautiful new boiler than with my wife and kids. I'm not entirely a newbie at heating systems since I was intimately involved in installing two of them in the past (one boiler and one furnace) so I understand the basic concepts.
Here is the issue, this boiler has a built in water heater so this is how we get our hot water, hence my wife's concern (cold showers). This works quite well when we do not need to heat the house (make steam) though when heat is called for, the water level drops below the "Water Level" line behind the glass every single day and sometimes twice a day. When this happens, it is unable to heat the water in the water heater therefore sending cold water to the faucets. This is quite frustrating since I then need to go down in the basement and slowly fill the boiler to the correct water level multiple times a day. The system does have a Cycle Guard Low Water Cut-off (which works quite well) though it does not have an automatic water feed valve to help maintain the water level when it drops below the line.
So finally my question. Is there something I can do here. Can/Should an automatic water feed valve be installed. I spoke to the gentleman that did the install on this unit and he said he did not install one because he does not recommend them. He had his reasons that seem logical though I am getting tired of what he states "its good to check on your boiler everyday".
Last year the winter was quite mild so heat was not called upon as much so this was not a major inconvenience. This year however the temps are frigid and I am constantly down there filling this thing to try and keep hot water flowing. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 07:29 AM
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Well what do you want to do?

The installation guy is right, you should check it multiple times a day. Do you though? You and your family are the ones that have to live with it? Do you feel safe with the system enough to check it say once/day? Maybe morning, noon, and night to be safer?

The big boilers at my work are technically supposed to be checked every 20 minutes around the clock. Entirely for safety and operational reasons.

They all have automatic water level make-up valves as well.

For you, I'd recommended having one installed if code allows it for your area. Why not? Like you said, it doesn't have enough capacity to cover your demands. You could probably even buy one online, install and adjust it yourself and save some cash.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 08:15 AM
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The installation guy is right, you should check it multiple times a day
No... something is wrong. There should be no reason that one should have to check a residential steam boiler multiple times a day...

Why are you losing that much water? Where is that water going? If you have to feed that much water you are eventually going to have problems...

Can we see more pictures please? Show ALL the piping around the boiler and stand back with the camera to get a wide shot that shows everything.

SOME systems have issues with 'slow returns', where the steam that condenses in the system takes it's sweet azz time getting back to the boiler. This will cause issues with low water in the boiler, but if one waits long enough it will come back up. If this were your issue, the fact that you are adding water when it gets low should mean that at some point when there has not been a heat call for a period of time that the boiler will end up being OVER full.

Are all the steam vents on the radiators working properly? None are hanging open and hissing away after the steam hits them?

What are the pressure settings on the pressurtrol control?

Heating domestic water with a 'thankless coil' in a hot water boiler is bad enough... the WORST way to make domestic hot water... a TERRIBLE waste of fuel... doing the same with a steam boiler in my opinion is even worse.

Get a REAL water heater for starters and abandon that 'thankless coil' inside the boiler.

I have no idea why your guy doesn't 'recommend' an automatic water feed... he must be some kind of Luddite or something, or stuck in his ways and won't change with the times. I bet he doesn't own a microwave oven.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 01:57 PM
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gm,
What your contractor told you couldn't have been further from the truth.
First, from the little bit I can see in the pic it looks like he installed this like a hot water system.
Steam boiler installs are a game of measurements. The near boiler piping is critical and I don't like what I see with yours and that's only with the small pic.

Your supply header is suppose to be a minimum of 24" above the normal water line to deliver dry steam. For now let's leave that alone.
More important to you is hot water.
From what I can see your return pipe is going right into the bottom of the boiler. I don't see any Hartford Loop and No Equalizer line.
If you can post more pics of all the near boiler piping, supply and return we can dtermine your problem.

For now, without the equalizer, when the boiler makes steam your water goes right back into the return, which I can explain at another time if you want.

As far as that auto feeder goes, I install one with every job and once there in they love them. That's not to say you should never check your boiler but it takes the edge off.

As far as checking the boiler multiple times a day, this is the 21st century.

One more thing, your hot water coil, which is inside your boiler must be submerged in water to get domestic hot water.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 02:23 PM
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Thank you both for your responses.

Steve:
I would prefer to not have to have to attend to my boiler everyday and sometimes twice (though rare). I understand that it is important to check on it on a regular basis (perhaps weekly) for safety & maintenance reasons however this current schedule seems a bit much.

NJ Trooper:
I have been wondering if something might be wrong. The normal scenario is the heat is basically off all day and most of the night. During this time the thermostat is set around 55 so it only comes on sporadically. In the morning the heat kicks on at about 5 AM and is set to 65. The house heats quite quickly and seems to work well. Come 8 AM its common to find that the water has dropped about an inch below the water line so the domestic hot water is cold.
I manually fill the boiler and everything is good to go for the rest of the day.
On the weekends the heat is used a bit more so the boiler needs to be checked more often.

I did read Dan Holohan's book and found it quite informative. The Pressuretrol was set cut-in at just above 1 and cut-out at 1. I dropped the cut-in to .5 as he suggested though I haven't tested the system yet.

I also had a radiator in the upstairs that was not heating past the valve even though it was wide ope so I replaced the vent and seems to be working fine now.
There is only one vent that hisses (though not loudly) however it is a different style than all of the others. This vent hisses the entire heating cycle. I checked all the other vents and they seem to be working OK. For the most part the system is pretty quiet and as I said it heats 3000+ sf very well.

I did find it interesting that he goes into considerable detail on the Hartford Loop though there doesn't appear to be one on this system.

Adding water back into the system does not raise the level after a period of time. It remains this level until another heating cycle completes which often drops it down.

I also understand all the negatives associated with this form of tankless hot water system. It sucks... Eventually this will be changed, however I don't believe that the hot water heating system is the culprit for the water level in the boiler though I could be way off base here.

The installation guys only concern is that feeding water is better done manually so the homeowner can keep an eye on it.

This system is just over a year old so an internal leak seems unlikely but I guess it could be possible. None of the return pipes are under the concrete floor and there are no visible leaks anywhere.

There are two returns back to the boiler and there is a main vent on each. I have not checked these yet. I suppose that these could be an issue.

Ill attached a few more pics to show a wider perspective. I apologize for not rotating all of the pics upright.
 
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Last edited by gmaheu; 02-12-14 at 03:11 PM.
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Old 02-12-14, 02:56 PM
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Spott:
Thank you for responding. I noticed the same thing after reading about the Hartford Loop and the Equalizer Line. They are not there. Its very strange. Apparently this guy must have cut some corners.

I would like to hear your thoughts and any information that you can give me. As I said in the other post, we purchased the house only a year ago and the system was put in three weeks before we got the keys so I just assumed it was all OK. It does heat the home very well though I just cant seem to keep the water level consistent for more than a day.

Aside from the lack of Hartford Loop and Equalizer (which i did read will not prevent the functionality of the system though can be unsafe) I also wonder why he connected one return in the front of the unit and one in the rear. Couldn't he have connected these two together and just put a check valve in (which neither one has) to at least help keep water from backing out the boiler? Would the lack of check valves one these returns have anything to do with my issue?

I do agree... its the 21st century and these things are not archaic pieces of equipment that need constant attention. Some, I understand but...

The hot water is actually why I notice the issue. When the water drops below the line, the coils are not submerged result, cold shower. Not much fun.

Here the images rotated for a better view. I also added two more photos below showing the header piping.
 
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Last edited by gmaheu; 02-12-14 at 04:25 PM.
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Old 02-12-14, 04:46 PM
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I can promise you one thing, if you don't get that piping fixed right away, you're gonna be buying a new boiler soon.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 04:51 PM
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gm,
It's just s I thought. He piped your boiler as a hot water boiler and not steam. This guy doesn't have a clue. He went beyond shortcuts. You ought to let him read your book. OK, I got that off my chest.

All the near boiler piping is wrong and must be redone. The only positive thing is he used black iron.

Your right, he should have joined both returns into one but not into the bottom of the boiler.

Start with the supply going into the header(where the union is). The headed elbows into the main supply. That tee going in 2 directions should be 2 separate feeds off the header. Where the elbow is going up to feed the supply should be going down to your return in the boiler. That is your equalizer and that's why you're loosing your water
The equalizer kepps equal steam pressure between the header and through the equalizer the bottom of the boiler to prevent the water from going into the return.

With the equalizer and the Hartford loop no check valves are needed.
This can get extremely long.

Off of your equalizer you install the Hartford loop and your 2 returned would go into there.

The way you're piped you will have nothing but headaches.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 04:58 PM
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The boiler may be leaking and the water is going out the flue.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 06:08 PM
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Either the previous homeowner installed that himself or had some moron slap it in. There's no way they got inspected and on top of that, who inspected the house? Probably the guy who installed it.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 07:09 PM
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Yeah no doubt to the moron. The guy actually does this for a living apparently. I didn't have an inspection since I knew the previous homeowners my entire life and I knew the home well. I grew up across the street. Unfortunately the old lady got taken for a ride. We did get a great deal on the home so this certainly wouldn't have been a deal breaker. A bit annoying for sure but I'll get it piped right.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 07:43 PM
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Hopefully this was the installers second steam boiler. First and last. As many have stated nothing is correct other than boile ris in basement and piped in black iron.
I also could spend time explaining how it should be but pictures are worth a thousand words
Follow the link and look under the steam tab for piping and piping problems.
Comfort Calc
I will kinda agree with him on the auto feeder. First I would install a feeder but it is for emergency use only and does not take the place of regular checks which should be once a week. Steam boilers really should not use much water if all is right. I only use one type of feeder and that would be the Hydrolevel VXT due to a built in water meter so one can see how much water is added. The second feature is it can be adjusted to feed water back to the normal water leve of 26-7/8" on that boilerl. If the water feeder does not feed back to the normal water level the boiler will never operate at the proper water level. When piping a boiler measurements are taken from the manufacturers normal water level. Let the autofeeder run the show and the measurements are off.
Flood the boiler into the piping above the boiler, not the whole system, and wait about 30 minutes and see if there is water on the floor. Water is going somewhere or the boiler would be overfilled.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 08:00 PM
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Thanks rbeck:
Great info, that site has great diagrams. I also downloaded the manufacturer manual and it has the steam piping diagram that is exactly the same as what I have seen there and in the book.
SGO Page 19
Unbelievable that he didn't even come close to looking at the manual that came with the thing.

Just one question, if I flood the system which I am definitely going to try, how will I know when I have added enough water. Will this send water out the release valve. I assume that I should kill the power before flooding.
Thanks again.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 08:03 PM
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Unbelievable that he didn't even come close to looking at the manual that came with the thing.
No... I'm sure he looked at it... just before he put it on the floor to kneel on so he didn't get his pants dirty.
 
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Old 02-12-14, 08:55 PM
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I don't know what flooding the boiler will do. He only looses water when it heats for steam.
It's fine all summer for domestic water.
The relief valve will not go off. It releases on 15 lbs. pressure.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 12:43 AM
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The installation guys only concern is that feeding water is better done manually so the homeowner can keep an eye on it.
Install a make-up water meter, it is about $100 more or less, depending on where you buy. ALL steam boilers should have make-up water meters.

If you have one or more air vents that do not close when the steam hits them that is a source of water loss. The fact that you only lose water during heating calls means it is a steam leak or a condensate leak above the water line of the boiler.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 04:41 AM
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Yes, turn power off, fill the boiler until the water gets into the piping, let stand for 30 - 60 minutes. When completed drain to the proper level and turn power back on.
How to tell when the water is in the piping, good question. I usually fill the boiler kinda getting an idea how long it takes to fill from current water level to the top of the glass. Then determine how much longer. Dependent on the pipe temperature sometimes you can tell by feeling the pipe. It is very important to get the water level above the boiler. You do not want to feed enough to fill the system to the radiation. To get it up into the mains is what you want but not to the radiators.
As Furd stated a meter is great and if your going to add an auto feeder that is why I like the Hydrolevel VXT as there is a water meter built in with a digital display.
Reason to flood the boiler is to show the possibility of any leaks above the water level.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 09:28 AM
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I had one vent that always hissed through the entire heating cycle and I noticed that following each of these cycles the top window sash on all three windows in this room had a layer of frost almost completely covering the window. No other room in the house showed this so this got me thinking that there could be an issue here.
Today I went to FW/Webb and as I was about to purchase a new vent for that radiator (they wanted $25.00/pc) an old friend came in who has been doing this stuff since I can remember. He did the entire steam system at my parents house many years ago. Fortunately he said he had about 10 of these vents at his shop almost brand new and he would give them to me. Needless to say I followed him there and I just finished replacing some of the ones that were wonky including the one that hissed. He and the gentleman at the store also suggested (along with flooding) to take a flashlight and look in the damper to see if I could visually see what would look like white smoke (viable steam) going through the flu and out the chimney during a heating cycle. The guy also suggested sticking a flat piece of metal in there while the system is in a heating cycle and hold it there for a few and pull it out to see if there is any condensation on it. I did both of these things and there is no (white smoke) steam going out the flu and it is dry as a bone in there.

UPDATE: With the heat cranked up I found that the radiator that had the hissing vent still hissed even with a new vent (I tried more than one) though after the radiator heated about half way the hissing stopped so the vent seems to be working.

We are currently getting hit with a bit of a snow storm so I wont be able to perform the flood until tomorrow.
The biggest question I have had through this is can just not having the Hartford Loop and Equalizer installed cause a water loss to the system. The system does not fill back up over time due to slow condensate return because the level in the glass never goes above where I filled it. Only drops.. I read in Mr. Holohan's book that though unsafe, this straight pipe setup was the only setup used prior to their invention. A check valve was used prior as well but those were found to be fault when gunked up.
I'm trying to narrow this down an I am without a doubt installing the Hydrolevel VXT and will be building the correct header, Hartford Loop and Equalizer according to the manual though I'm still wondering if the current setup is the culprit for the dropping water, a leak in the boiler, or vents.


The entire system is exposed (no returns under ground) and has been in the house for well over 50 years and I assume was functioning well other than the older boiler that was replaced. My neighbor and her husband lived here for at least 50 years before I bought it and they meticulously maintained this beautiful house. The entire basement (full no crawl space) is dry under every pipe/ I see no leaking anywhere around or under the boiler or in any room in the house.

I have to say this has got me stumped.
 

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Old 02-13-14, 10:07 AM
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I highly doubt you're losing all that water through a vent. Is that a rad vent or main vent? What type of vent did you out on the mains? And the rads? A missing equalizer would definitely mess up the level inside the boiler, but you would notice it go back to normal after it shut down. If you can see your chimney, then see if your getting white clouds from that, typically checking with a piece of metal isn't the greatest thing because condensation is formed as a part of the combustion process, that alone won't tell you much if it does indeed have condensation on it. The way that boiler is piped, I wouldn't doubt there being a leak above the water line.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 10:49 AM
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The vent seems to be working ok now. The one that seemed to be hissing quite a bit was a rad vent. The two mains have vents sticking up from them though I do not know if they are working correctly. I suppose these may need to be looked at as well.
The radiators all have adjustable float style vents and the mains are a bottle style with just a small hole and they are not adjustable.
I went outside and checked and there is some white smoke/vapor coming out of the chimney. It doesn't look like an excessive amount but I wouldn't know how much if any is too much.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 11:35 AM
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Just noticed that one of the main line vents was hissing feverishly through the heat cycle. The other main line vent is silent.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 02:56 PM
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So now I'm at a complete loss. I spent the last few hours flooding the system and monitoring and all bone dry.
I shut the power off and let the system cool. I took the sheet metal top off the unit and removed the round cover over the top flue. Looking over all of the fingers with a flash light everything looked good, no noticeable abnormalities. I then filled the boiler up into the main lines and l let it settle for a little over an hour. I frequently looked down through and underneath with the flash light and nothing changed, no drips anywhere. I drained the system back down to the fill line, checked again and still dry. I put it back together, fired it up and all seems fine.

Like I said, I'm at a complete loss.
 
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Old 02-13-14, 03:58 PM
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I went outside and checked and there is some white smoke/vapor coming out of the chimney. It doesn't look like an excessive amount but I wouldn't know how much if any is too much.
I don't think this is going to tell you anything really useful. In cold weather you are always going to have steam from the chimney... how much is too much? Who knows? Unless you're a habitual 'plume watcher' and know exactly how much is 'normal' for your system, what reference do you have to compare it to? Nothing!

Just noticed that one of the main line vents was hissing feverishly through the heat cycle
I guess that's another source of water loss. Is your basement super humid? Could be why!

One source on-line for a water meter. I've bought meters from them, good service, shipping, etc.

www.watermeters.com
 
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Old 02-13-14, 08:39 PM
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NJ, this is kind of what I was thinking. If i go outside right now and breathe, white vapor comes out of my mouth. I guess I understand the logic in a way however, any warm air coming in to contact with much colder air will produce these results. Are there boilers/furnaces in NH in the winter that do not produce anything visible coming out the chimney. Not a rhetorical question or trying to be rude since I seem to be reading both here on this forum as well as Heatinghelp that this visual method is recommended as a gauge to prove a hole or crack above the water line in a boiler.

Ill change out the main vents just to be sure though I guess since I cant really pin point the leak, I am just going to keep feeding water until the thing goes to s**t. Finding a leak certainly wouldn't seem to be rocket science though this ones got me stumped. No visible water anywhere. Oh well. Perhaps next time I will install it myself the right way and not use a POS Weil-McLain.

By the way... thanks for the link.
 
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Old 02-14-14, 04:27 AM
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Now that's not nice, this is not Weil Mclain's fault. You proved the boiler is not leaking even though this is one of the worst piped steam boilers I have seen in a long time.
The water is going somewhere. When that boiler fails the next boiler will take on just as much water and I guess that will be a POS also.
I realize this is just in frustration. Any added ice outside? Any radiators that have been eliminated? Have you check the attic for steam when the boiler is running.
Do you have static electricity (shocking) in your home. Many homes without a humidifier this winter is dry enough to create static electricity. Anywhere on your walls you see paint problems that could be caused by moisture?
 
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Old 02-14-14, 06:22 AM
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True that rbeck... not W-M fault.

ANY boiler is only as good as it's install. If it's installed for crap, it will work like it.

Water vapor is a byproduct of combustion. I doubt that you will find a fossil fueled combustion system anywhere that will not emit steam from the chimney. In order to use it as a gauge for water tightness and to prove or disprove a leak, one would have to have a very solid reference point to judge from. If one has never observed the plume from their chimney, how would one be able to judge if it's 'normal' or not?
 
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Old 02-14-14, 06:53 AM
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gm,
You would know if it had a leak by looking at the chimney.
It happened to my brother and it looked like they had just elected the pope.
It really comes billowing out and the only place he didn't have snow was around the chimney.
Believe me , you'ld know it if you saw it.
 
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Old 02-14-14, 07:38 AM
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Yeah your right rbeck & Trooper not W-M's fault. Just got a little frustrated after two day's trying to track this down. The boiler though piped completely incorrect for the purpose does run well and it puts out a significant amount of heat.

The heat in the house is dry almost too dry, not humid at all, no problems with paint on walls and the attic it finished (other than the chimney) and I am seeing no problems up there. The only deviation from this was in that one room that had the hissing vent (frosted windows) and that seems to have been resolved. This morning the level in the glass is exactly where I left it following the flooding. Perhaps after changing all those vents (also found one valve leaking a bit and tightened) and running these tests may have done something. Ill keep my fingers crossed. Maybe change those main vents as well.

Thanks spott, the plume is definitely not as significant as you describe. It puffs a little but that's it.
 
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Old 02-14-14, 08:07 AM
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Just make sure you repipe that in the offseason, before you're replacing the whole thing in a year or two.
 
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Old 02-14-14, 09:28 AM
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No doubt, putting together a parts list now. I've done a considerable amount of copper though very little iron so when I get down to it I'm sure I'll have questions. Not really looking forward to bashing that big T apart.

Speaking of that big T - why was it not such a big deal to send the steam up only one supply when it was going in two directions back in the day and no longer recommended. Is this simply due to the addition surface space in having two pipes over one.
 
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Old 02-14-14, 12:31 PM
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why was it not such a big deal to send the steam up only one supply when it was going in two directions back in the day
It actually has been wrong since day one if that's the way it was.

One should always strive to pipe in such a fashion that the flow of steam doesn't have to 'split' into two different directions. Having two risers off one header the steam is always going the same direction.

I'm sure there are other reasons too...
 
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Old 02-14-14, 12:42 PM
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Its was probably a tad less important back in the day, but today's steam boilers are basically hot water boilers trimmed for steam. Low content and no real place for the steam to flow inside today's boilers. Near piping must go beyond manufacturers specs nowadays to allow for dry steam. You don't want to give it a reason to pull up any water in its journeys.
 
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Old 02-14-14, 02:13 PM
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I see.... thank you both.

Well so far so good. Ran the heat most of the day today (more than usual due to testing) and the level is maintaining dead on. If I make it two days like this than maybe I'm in the clear until I get it piped right.
 
  #34  
Old 02-14-14, 04:08 PM
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As stated befoew the one supply into the two mins was always taboo. The problem was the steam was made so slow due to flame temperatures and water volume it was not as much of an issue. Today we make steam very quickly and the steam leaving the boiler is a higher velocity which will suck up more water. You never want to send steam into the branch of a tee except in the boiler header.
The website I sent you too earlier will show how to pipe two steam risers. The boiler piping mustbe adhered to to meet the ASME code and steam dryness. A manufacturer must produce boilers that can produce steam 98% dry. When the steam chests, the area above the water level, were reduced the piping than becomes part of the certification. This is normal for steam but the boiler piping on hot water boilers are not part of the certification. If the steam boiler piping is followed the steam will meet code. There are ways of making the steam even drier such as a dropped header. The more piping and fittings the steam travels through will remove even more moisture.
Gald things seem better.
 
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Old 02-16-14, 09:49 AM
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Thanks

Day 3 not a drop of water added to the boiler. I can confidently say at least for the time being that something worked. Thank you again to everyone who helped and threw in their 2+ cents. Your feedback to posts from people like me who know very little on this subject is invaluable.
 
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