S-S-Steam Heat


By Jim Hornsby

Every Fall my steam heat comes to life. Those more accustomed to the genteel world of central air won’t appreciate the significance of that, but if you have steam — and a number of people still do — I picture you with an understanding smile, a knowing nod of confirmation that says we are akin, time travelers in a bygone era and surviving heirs to a noble science that in its day gave civilization its steamboats, calliopes, home spas, travel irons and (my personal favorite) the song lyrics, “I’ve got cling, cling, fsssss, fsssss, steam heat, but I need your love to keep away the cold.”*

Heat-transfer technology goes way back. If you are rusty on the early work of Otto von Guericke and the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, I can sum it up for you by saying that a bunch of guys did a bunch of stuff in a bunch of laboratories and yadda, yadda, yadda, came up with the steam engine. The steam radiator, I’m guessing, came soon after one of those guys burned his fingers a few times and said, “This #@%!&# thing is hot enough to heat a house.” The rest is history, or physics if you want to get technical about it, but I don’t mean to turn this into a scholastic dissertation; I just want to tell you about my steam heat.

I like steam. It’s cozy warm in the wintertime, and in addition to the physical comfort, it provides the warmth of companionship. You can count on radiators for a variety of internal belching and gurgling noises that put you in mind of a large dog or maybe that odd uncle who stays after dinner and nods off on the couch. And occasionally radiators will entertain you with a song — a “whump, whump, rickey-tickey, ffonnggg, ffonnggg” kind of music that sounds like New Age as it might be played on a partially submerged xylophone. Not “Top 10” material, I suppose, but pretty good for a household appliance.

I do admit that there are times, especially in the wee hours when I’m trying to sleep, that radiators are annoying. I have three in my apartment, and when they all begin clanging, hissing and puffing together, it’s like the cast from Thomas the Tank Engine® just came in from a late party. But despite all that and despite having to constantly fiddle with valves, windows and supplementary heat to keep the temperature uniform, I would miss the steam if it was gone. It has presence; personality; charm.

Central air, by contrast, has no presence. It lurks about clandestinely in closets and attic space, occasionally humming to itself and mysteriously sending out heated air. For all its convenience and efficiency, it is not the least bit entertaining, and it has no interest in being your pal. Once you set the thermostat, it prefers that you go away and mind your own business. Some may see that as a plus for a heating system, but I am concerned that such rude standoffishness sets a bad example for the other appliances. I could tell you stories about my toaster……….

I’m not trying to influence your choice of heating; to each his own. There are multiple options, and if pressed to recommend one in particular, I would probably go with the amorous warmth of that special somebody you cuddle up with when it’s cold outside. Like the song says: “The radiator’s hissin’ still I need your kissin’ to keep me from freezing each night.”*

*From “Steam Heat” from the Broadway musical The Pajama Game, score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross

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