City Launches “Better Steam Heat” Campaign

Kaya Laterman in Bricks & Bucks

New York City

Steam Heat

It’s a chronic wintertime problem in many New York City buildings: while some residents are bundling up in sweaters to ward off the chill, their neighbors are flinging open their windows to let out excess heat.

Uneven heat in apartments can be the result of a steam heat system that’s old and needs to be upgraded, tweaked, or perhaps simply cleaned, says Jenna Tatum, a senior policy advisor at the city’s Office of Sustainability.

To that end, the New York City Retrofit Accelerator program, introduced last year as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal to create more energy-efficient buildings and reduce greenhouse gas levels, is launching a Better Steam Heat campaign in December. It’s intended to encourage building owners, including co-op and condo boards, to use city resources to upgrade their steam heating systems, whether they generate their own steam or buy steam from Con Ed.

“We estimate that about 80% of the steam systems in buildings are not fully maintained,” Tatum says.

Certain units in a building will get more heat than others because the air inside the steam pipe can get trapped, which results in uneven heat distribution, explains Ali Levine, a policy advisor at the mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The goal is to get the same amount of steam to each apartment at the same time.

The program is free and starts with an email or a call to the city’s Retrofit Accelerator office at 212-656-9202. Once a connection is made, an energy-efficiency advisor will help board members determine what needs to be fixed. This could include installing radiator valves so each tenant can adjust the amount of heat that comes into the apartment, or adding a sensor to the system so that both the outside and inside temperatures are read, which enables the heating mechanism to automatically adjust how much steam to produce.

“An upgrade doesn’t necessarily mean replacing the boiler,” Levine says. “It’s about finding out which system part to replace or add.”

The city’s efficiency experts will also provide a list of vetted contractors and help board members find financing and tax incentives.

Take 720 Greenwich Street, a pre-war, 157-unit co-op. Starting in 2007, the co-op board and its property management firm, Douglas Elliman, made repairs and improvements to the steam system, which included replacing broken air vents and steam traps, and fixing the back-pitch of steam distribution piping, allowing for faster and more even steam distribution (read: no more clanging pipes). Additional upgrades were made in recent years, including the installation of double-pane windows and painting the roof with a coating to deflect heat.

As a result of all the upgrades, according to the city’s One City Built To Last Technical Working Group report, the building uses less natural gas per square foot for heating than 90 percent of all multifamily buildings in the city with one-pipe steam distribution systems.

The Better Steam Heat forum and kickoff event will take place on Tuesday, December 13th at 9 a.m. at the Building Energy Exchange at 31 Chambers Street in Manhattan. City officials and energy-efficiency experts will be there, while a panel discussion will cover the process and challenges of upgrading a steam system.

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