Q. We are trying to decide what to do about our boiler, which is ancient. Our plumber, whom we’ve used for years, says he won’t work with our steam system. He suggested a new wall-hung boiler that he says is very efficient, but even though the boiler part is less money, the radiators will all have to come out and new piping will have to be put in, at a very high cost. What would you suggest, and why can’t we just change the boiler?
A. This problem gets me steamed. Among the types of heating you can use in your home, steam is the most efficient. Thirty-seven percent of all fossil fuels burned in the U.S., just for commercial purposes, are burned to create steam. Huge steam plants are hiding among other large buildings in every major city in this country, and yet, little by little, the interest in passing steam knowledge to the next generation is dwindling, enough so that many plumbers say they don’t touch steam systems.
What steams me more is that the evolving technology makes it so environmentally friendly, through the implementation of zero-emission, closed-loop boilers using only hydrogen and oxygen as the fuel source, but training to get this technology up and running is nearly nonexistent. Our education system is geared toward inflated college tuition for white-collar positions that foster the need for more foreign laborers to do manual work, and more people unable to land a job for the oversaturated white-collar job market. Industrial-arts classes have been eliminated, and even though not everybody is college-bound, the education of people to fix our cars, run our factories and install steam boilers is lacking. Most manual jobs have evolved to computerization with more sophisticated technology, yet we are not preparing people to address these professions.
Steam accounts for such a high amount of our economy, from food processing to pulp and paper, chemical production, petroleum refining and energy production, that I have to wonder why we can’t do better. I had a steam system in my home and was persuaded to convert to a water system. That system has never been as efficient, as energy-saving or as uniform as the steam system was. I changed systems because the entire home was renovated — otherwise, in hindsight, steam was still the better choice.
Wall-hung boilers are “tank-less,” meaning that they have a small cauldron in them that you can hold in your hand, and when a faucet is turned on, for example, the water begins to flow toward the faucet, through the tiny cauldron (much smaller than the ancient boiler’s cauldron), and instantly heats. Since the water heats in an instant, these boilers don’t require a wasteful hot-water holding tank that heats up every time the thermostat says it’s cooling, even while you’re away from the house. There are plumbers who still do steam systems, and it’s worth it for you to call them. Good luck!
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