Steam pipe explosion

Adam Bloom

The History Of The Manhattan Steam System, And What It Would Take To Update It

July 20, 2018 - 1:43 pm

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- The steam pipe explosion in the Flatiron District this week is exposing another troubling reality – there is yet another transportation system in New York City showing its age.

WCBS 880's Steve Burns on Friday looked at the history of Manhattan's steam pipe network and what dangers may lay ahead for it.

Right around the same time Thomas Edison was experimenting with electricity, Birdsill Holly (1820-1894) was experimenting with water as an energy source. We have him to thank for modern pressurized fire hydrants.

But Holly soon found water in another form – steam – was a good heating source. The upstate engineer’s ideas were soon brought down to New York City, and the United Bank Building at Broadway and Wall Street was the first to be connected to the city’s steam system in 1882.

The network grew quickly, as did the applications.

“Not only heating, but heating water and cooling air conditioning, and it does service a number of hospitals for sterilization, said NYU Planning and Public Administration Professor Rae Zimmerman.

Zimmerman noted that steam was advantageous for a few reasons. It negates the need for individual boilers in each building – instead using giant boiler plants – and it is generally more environmentally friendly.

“There are fewer emissions than what one would expect from fossil fuels,” she said.

The pipes were extended all the way up to 96th Street, bringing steam to some 2,500 buildings.

The New York Steam Company merged with Con Edison in 1954, and today, the company says it operates 105 miles of pipes with service to more than 100,000 establishments.

“New York City is very dense. Its infrastructure is dense, and heavily interconnected,” Zimmerman said.

Early on Thursday morning, a steam pipe exploded and sent a volcanic eruption of steam and asbestos into the air at Fifth Avenue and 21st Street in the Flatiron District.

Zimmerman said one explanation for steam pipe explosions is the ominously-named water hammer – cold water getting in contact with the steam and creating a pressure problem.

The pipe that erupted Thursday was 86 years old, but Zimmerman maintains that might not be the biggest issue.

“I am actually more concerned with the environment,” she said. “There’s a lot of street vibration and disturbance due to construction.”

Of course, another glaring problem is the asbestos lining the pipes. Zimmerman said it is there as a barrier against outside contaminants.

“It’s very difficult to look at substitutes for that, unless putting them in their own separate channels, and that would involve a lot of digging up,” she said.

That is the issue, Zimmerman said. Any major changes to the sprawling system would mean shutting off heat to buildings and tearing up streets.

She suggests Con Ed invest more in sensors to detect when the more vulnerable sections of the system may be in danger.

“That is not involving a lot of new construction, but at least putting some safeguards in place,” she said.