A steam heat system is a house heating system that, as the name suggests, provides heat through steam. Once widespread, this system is out of vogue when newer, more efficient home heating systems were introduced. It can still found in many older apartment buildings, multi-family dwelling, and business buildings. That is because, for all their energy inefficiency, they are more reliable and easier to maintain than the more modern heating systems. Furthermore, upgrading a heating system in any building is a complex, expensive procedure. If you own a building with a steam heating system, and you don't want to upgrade, you will need to understand how it works and how to repair it.
Steam Heat System Basics
The steam heating system is made up of a water boiler, a burner, the pipes, and radiators and/or convectors. The way a steam heat system works is fairly straight-forward. The boiler heats the water, turning it into steam. The steam then travels through the pipes to the radiators and/or convectors in each room. This allows the heat from the steam to spread throughout each room. With the energy spreading, the steam cools and condenses back into water, which returns to the boiler to be heated again.
Heating the Boiler
The burner can heat the boiler in several different ways. In most building, boilers are heated using either oil, natural gas, or electricity. Generally speaking, the electrically heated boilers are more expensive to run than gas-heated and oil-heated boilers, but they are much easier to maintain and don't cause quite as much damage as the other two when they do break. Electrically heated boilers are usually found in larger buildings, especially office buildings, while gas-heated and oil-heated boilers tend to be found in smaller, older apartment buildings and multi-family homes.
Radiators vs Convectors
For the purpose of steam heat systems, radiators are heat-transferring devices in which the pipes that transfer steam are exposed, while convectors are heating devices in which the pipes that transfer heat are partially shielded. Both come in many different shapes and sizes, Generally speaking, convectors are safer to touch, since they tend to be cooler than radiators, but you should still be careful with both.
Maintaining Your Steam Heat System
While the steam heat systems are relatively easy to maintain, they need to be carefully maintained in order to make sure they keep working. Each and every part of the steam heating system must be checked at least once a year. This includes checking the boiler and the pipes for any signs of wear and damage, especially in the spaces between the pipes and the parts that connect the pipes to the boiler. This is something that you should leave to a qualified service professional.
The more day-to-day maintenance is something you can take care of by yourself. For the most part, this involves watching boiler gauges. The boiler has two gauges: the pressure level gauge and the water level gauge. If the water level gets too low, the building won't be heated, and the boiler itself will keep getting hotter and hotter. You should add more water as soon as possible. If the pressure level gauge gets too high, the boiler is in danger of exploding. You can avoid this by temporary loosening the air valves until the pressure drops back to normal levels. You also have to make sure that the valves are oiled regularly. Without that, they may not be able to work properly when they are really needed.