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Energy Detective: The Case of the Covert Condensate

The Case of the Covert Condensate

Jane was at her wit’s end. As her co-op’s resident boiler expert, she prided herself on taking excellent care of the heating system. Usually, it ran smoothly and efficiently, but lately she had been making endless trips to the basement to add water to the boiler, sometimes as much as two or three inches a day.

Jane realized that adding a lot of new water into the boiler was a recipe for waste and for a boiler’s early death. New water contains dissolved oxygen, metal’s enemy number one; as soon as it enters the boiler, it starts looking for a bit of metal to chomp on. Enough chomps and you’ve got a leaking boiler tube, or worse.

At least she knew there was a problem.

Many boards simply install an automatic water feeder and have no idea how much new water enters their boilers – until the tubes or sections begin to leak.

Under Jane’s leadership, the board members did more than simply recognize the issue: they eliminated the most common cause of new boiler water. After it has given up its heat in a radiator, the steam condenses into water and returns to the boiler as condensate through condensate return pipes. These are typically buried beneath the basement floor to avoid a tripping hazard. When these pipes leak, they can only be repaired by being dug up. In the case of Jane’s building, the pipes had been dug up and repaired not once, but twice. Infuriated by that, the board soon wised up and constructed shallow concrete troughs for the pipes and covered them with a fiberglass grid.

The grid made pipe inspection easy, and Jane checked them all. She and another board member also inspected all the above-floor condensate returns, and found nothing. Frustrated and confused, Jane gave me a call.

Just like in the movies.

The Pipe Connection

Remember in The French Connection when police detective Popeye Doyle and the police mechanic tear apart the French celebrity’s car looking for hidden drugs? After hours of fruitless searching, the mechanic turns to Popeye and says he’s looked “everywhere” in the car, then pauses and adds: “...except for the rocker panels.”

Turns out, Jane and her fellow board member had looked “everywhere” except in the oil tank room. In fact, he had stuck his head into the room and looked in one corner where there was a condensate pipe, but he couldn’t see all 10 feet of the pipe because the oil tank itself blocked his view.

It’s no surprise, really, that he did not want to venture into the tank room. It smelled, it was dark, there was almost no clearance between the filthy tank and the waterbug-covered walls, and the only way in was through a narrow, square access door about three feet off the ground.

Luckily, I rarely turn down a chance to ruin another T-shirt. Armed with a flashlight and clad in heavy boots, I made my way through the access door. In order to see the entire pipe, I had to traverse the entire perimeter of the tank. In so doing, my two wishes were granted – my T-shirt was ruined, and I found the leaking pipe.

The next day a plumber came in and replaced the leaking section of pipe, and removed most of the wet sludge underneath that undoubtedly contributed to the corrosion. Jane was able to cut way back on her nocturnal boiler room visits, and I went searching for a new T-shirt.

 

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