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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

BUILDING OPERATIONS

HOW NYC CO-OP AND CONDOS OPERATE

They Always Call Me Too Late

Tom Sahagian in Building Operations on January 9, 2020

New York City

Sectional boilers, boiler leaks, co-op board, boiler corrosion, makeup water.

A puddle under a boiler is a sure sign of trouble (photo by Tom Sahagian).

Jan. 9, 2020

Maybe the co-op board thought the boiler leak would fix itself. Maybe they were ignoring the boiler makeup water meter. Or maybe they thought the puddle under the boiler wasn’t important.

Whatever they thought, instead of calling me back in May of last year when the problem first became apparent, they called me in December – you know, in the middle of the heating season, the busiest time of the year for heating contractors – and asked me to oversee the replacement of two of the boiler’s 10 sections.

Where do I start with something like this? While I commend this co-op board for having a water meter on the boiler makeup line – most of my clients chafe at installing one, even though it’s really cheap insurance – the meter is useless if you don’t pay attention to what it is telling you. From early May through late December 2019, this meter revealed that the boiler took on an average of 167 gallons of fresh water a day. Considering that this particular boiler is not active from June through September, that’s an extraordinary amount of makeup water. It’s the equivalent of completely flushing out the boiler twice a day, every day.

At first I didn’t believe it. Then I noticed that the way the meter dial was set up, it looked like maybe the meter reading had two decimal places, so the makeup would be only 1.67 gallons per day. I say “only” 1.67 in comparison to the absolutely outrageous 167, but really even 1.67 gallons of makeup a day is way too much, if not in the breathtaking category. I contacted the meter manufacturer and they confirmed – no decimal places. The boiler really was using 167 gallons a day.

Just as an aside, in addition to corroding the boiler and wasting lots of energy, this leak(s) cost the building at least $500 in water and sewer charges. In boiler-speak, old water is good and new water is bad – because new water causes corrosion.

So the client is in a real bind – on the one hand, the boiler has taken on so much new water and sustained so much corrosion that parts of the metal sections are probably about the thickness of a DVD and on the verge of springing multiple leaks. On the other hand, as I wrote in these pages about a year ago, it’s essentially pointless for any board in New York City to replace its boiler; much better to repair the existing one until you can afford to convert to electric heat pumps

This building might be really lucky and get away with only having to replace a section or two. But before they spend a dime on boiler repairs, they absolutely must locate all leaks and completely eliminate them. If they don’t, they’ll just start destroying the new sections (or, heaven forbid, the new boiler) as soon as the system is fired up again. 

Oh, and did I mention the latest leakage figures? From January 3 through 7, the system averaged 1,010 gallons of makeup a day. So far, the managing agent has ignored my pleas to stop the leaks first. Maybe he thinks they’ll just fix themselves. 

Tom Sahagian is a consultant, teacher, and writer on energy efficiency.

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