The Heat is On A Look Inside Your Building's Heating System

There are worse places to be than New York City in the winter — Minneapolis, for example, or Anchorage. Thanks to the North Atlantic current, the Big Apple doesn’t tend to freeze as hard as some other northern cities, but it still gets darned cold, and if your building suffers from heating problems, darned cold is cold enough. Most managers and board members tend to leave heating issues to their supers or building maintenance staff, but when the pipes are hissing and residents are up in arms and suffering from hypothermia, it can be helpful to understand what the problem is and how it might be fixed.

The Hot Zone

Even in a small building, producing enough heat to keep everybody comfortable takes quite a bit of fuel. That fuel can be oil, gas, or electric. The vast majority of New York City’s buildings are steam-heated, meaning that oil or gas is  heated in a boiler and, the resultant steam distributed throughout the building.

“Electric heat needs the least maintenance,” says Peter Grech of the New York Superintendents Technical Association (STA). “And with electricity, there are no leaks and no mess. In most cases, problems with electric heat don’t affect the entire building—if something goes wrong, the heat usually goes out in just one apartment at a time. So maintenance-wise, electric heat is a no brainer, but it costs so much to produce, it’s rarely used. Even if you take into consideration the maintenance, leaks and repairs involved with steam heat, electric heat would still cost more.”

And that’s why most of us have big, hulking boilers in our basements. In the most typical New York apartment building setup, fuel—usually oil or natural gas—is ignited in the boiler’s combustion chamber and produces hot gasses, which then pass through metal “fire tubes,” heating water on the other side of the chamber and producing steam. The steam then rises naturally through the building’s heat pipes and risers, into individual radiators, heating them up and making everything cozy.

Burning fossil fuels for heat and hot water comes with its own set of maintenance challenges, however. And as anybody who’s ever shivered through even one January night without heat knows, when there’s a problem with the boiler, it’s a big problem.


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  • Here in Chicago, I do light building maintenance in some older buildings. It's amazing how little building owners know about steam heat systems. I see the windows open in winter and I know it's a steam-heat building. I don't imagine it's really hard to get the heat distributed evenly. Problem is poeple just turn off at the mention of technology. If it's more than turning a switch on or off, they don't want to hear it. Try to explain and people just tune out. These are some really politically correct people who would recycle every scrap of tin foil. Never mind about saving a thousand dollars worth of heating fuel.
  • This article is really interesting and enlightening. For six years I have been cold every winter here in my steam-heated rental apartment in Chicago and have been complaining. The reason they don't turn the heat up is because some people are so hot that they open the windows and for the landlord that is an indicator that it's warm enough here. The manager doesn't live in the building, so has no idea or even cares about how cold it can get. On a normal day the temperature in the cold apartments barely reaches 65 degrees, and many get warm by turning on the gas stove. When it's very cold outside it's even worse in here. Maybe this article will convince the landlord to have the boiler checked and do some upgrades- though I doubt it as that would cost money.
  • I live in a pre-war apartment in NYC on the first floor above the boiler. The noise and vibration from the boiler below wakes me up at night. Is there anything to do?
  • i live in colorado and its been - temps and we have boiler heat in the apts. but its cold and told managers and they said its because of the -temps and can't do anything about it... i can't believe this.. i'm sick of living like i'm in a refridge. is this wrong or am i being a terrible tenant? i'm 60 yrs old and cold
  • Will it hurt to partially wrap the radiator with insulation in order to limit the heat entering the room?
  • I didn't know what the advantages and disadvantages were to having a boiler versus an electric heating system. That definitely explains why my apartment is really hot and my friends apartment is so cold. I will have to ask our apartment manager what he can do to help the problem. It may be worth it to rent heating systems until the problems can be solved.
  • OMG my building has an old boiler that services 5 buildings that are part of a company and my apartment building is closer to the boiler system than some of the other buildings and is boiling temps and too hot and i cannot breathe and wake up entirely wet. i have to open the windows and the freezing cold comes on me and my 3 dogs which have breathing problems and trachael damage where they are hospitalized and on serious medical plan. what should i do since we are all sick and it is not getting better. i purchased my coop apartment a year ago and it was 850k for a one bedroom with high maintenance 2100 and this is a disaster!!! please advise me what to do since i have tried to speak with the management and the board and no one cares. i called the attorney general and 311 and no one responds either:(
  • The radiators in old steam heated buildings can be outfitted with adjustable vents to control the volume of steam entering during each boiler cycle. Warmer units can have smaller vents so their radiators heat up slower, and cooler units can have larger vents so those radiators heat up faster. Adjustable vents are available. The vents are the small nozzle like things screwed to the opposite end of the radiator as the pipe. There are vents on the steam lines from the top of the boiler around the basement and back to the bottom of the boiler. These need replacement every 5 years as they corrode from calcium in the boiler water. When they corrode shut, water hammer occurs. when they stick open, steam escapes. Escaping steam means more water has to be added to boiler and more corrosives come into the system with the added water. When boilers, steam lines and radiators are maintained properly, buildings 125 years old to 50 years old can be evenly heated. Boiler operators who keep a boiler water treatment program have very little corrosion problems throughout the entire heating plant and save the building owners money. Unless radiators have been removed, there is no reason one unit should be colder than another in a properly maintained one or two pipe steam system. Phil E, Minnesota Chief C license.
  • Very interesting and so very different from how we heat here in northern Canada. I’m afraid we would freeze to death up here if we were relying on steam heat. There are some that use water boilers but it can prove to be very costly. Tenants who are overheated will leave windows open while they are out, resulting in freezing all the plumbing and flooding the entire building. Tenants who are cold leave electric heaters unattended resulting in burning down the building.