Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why Is My Unit so Cold? / Hot?

By Jim Digre

Winter officially arrived today but all of us who live in Chicago know that Ol' Man Winter always comes to the party early and stays longer than appreciated. He's like an obnoxious relative that comes to visit during the Holidays. You know he's coming and you dread his untimely arrival but after a few visits, you learn how to deal with him. Just like your annoying relative though, winter does have some good aspects if you look for them. I mean who can say that a fresh snowfall isn't pretty or that skiing, sledding and ice skating aren't fun activities? However, the primary problem with winter is that it's COLD!

Because many of you condo owners live in buildings that are 60 to 90 years old you run into the problem of keeping a warm and cozy home when the Ol' Man decides to send out Jack Frost to demonstrate how cold he can make it. The building's heating plant and how it works isn't something the average condo resident gives much thought to until it gets seriously cold. Because many of the old condo buildings in the Chicago area still employ steam radiant heating systems and even if there is a new boiler in the building, the problem of proper heat distribution to the various units can be a problem for the association and its residents. Some owners complain of inadequate heat and, when the system is adjusted to better heat their units, others complain that it is too hot. What do you do?

If you've experienced living in a building with a central steam heating plant, you are no doubt familiar with the various noises that this type of system makes. The comforting hiss of air escaping the relief valve (that silver thing mounted on the side of the radiator) and the occasional clanking of the pipes from their expansion and contraction is your indication that the system is running and heating your unit. But, when the clanking of the pipes sounds like someone is beating on them with a hammer or hot water starts to spit and sputter out of the relief valve, the sounds aren't so comforting and something needs to be done. Very loud banging in the pipes is indicative of problems in the system that should be addressed by a qualified and experienced heating expert that knows the ins and outs of steam systems.

As a unit owner though, there are some things that you can do to help yourself if your unit is too hot or cold. If your unit is too hot, there is a simple solution...turn one or two radiators off. Just remember that steam radiators can not be adjusted by turning the valve partially on or off. If you want to create the above mentioned problems partially closing the valve to your radiator will do it! This happens because the steam condenses in the radiator while it is heating your unit and the water needs to flow back out the pipe (in a single pipe system) that the steam came up. A partially closed valve will not allow the water to properly drain from the radiator back to the boiler. When the steam comes back on it has to force its way past the collected water causing those clanking noises. Water collected in the radiator may then be forced out the air relief valve and on to your floors. If water is spitting out the relief valve and the supply valve is completely open then water is collecting in the radiator either because the radiator it clogged or it is tilted away from the supply pipe. Put a level on the top of the radiator and check to see that it is level or slightly tilted towards the supply pipe. If not, put some shims under the legs of the radiator opposite the supply pipe and that should solve the problem. If not, you may need to have the radiator flushed out or replaced.

Radiators that are not heating up when the system is running present a whole different problem. If the air relief valve is not working properly, the air pressure in the radiator will not allow the steam to enter. That is the first thing a unit owner should check after making sure the supply valve is turned on all the way. If you know the boiler has been running for a while and you don't hear the air hissing out of the valve or the valve isn't clicking open and closed, then it needs to be replaced. The valves are easily obtained at companies that service steam systems or your local hardware store. They are not expensive and easy to replace. Just make sure the supply valve is off when you change it or you could receive a serious burn from escaping steam when you remove the valve.

Rather than go into the complexities of a steam system and all the other reasons that a particular unit is not heating properly, I would suggest that the association of any building with a steam plant search out and find a reputable HVAC company that is experienced and knowledgeable in the operation and engineering of steam systems. There are many air vents in a steam system besides the ones on the radiators themselves and checking for their proper operation and sizing can go a long way towards making your steam heat system operate at maximum efficiency and keep everyone warm.

Dowling Properties is in the business of helping condo associations solve day to day operational problems and have been doing so in the near-west suburbs for over 25 years. For information about our services and how we might be of help to your association, please call 708-771-0880 or visit our web site at

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