The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Ralph Couey

November 20, 2010

RALPH COUEY | Steam heat takes some warming up to

— I grew up in the Midwest, Missouri specifically. Out there, temperature extremes are much broader than here in the delightfully temperate Laurel Highlands. Summers are hot and humid. It’s not unusual at all to have a week to 10 days of 100-plus degree heat, accompanied by humidity that has to be felt to be believed. At the other end of the spectrum, winter will bring the same week to 10 days of below-zero cold.

This vast disparity in seasonal temperatures places a heavy load on climate control devices.

Nearly everyone in Missouri has a forced-air furnace. Some of the more well-heeled will have a heat pump, the crème de la crème of home HVAC. Moving to Pennsylvania, however, I encountered a real culture shock: Steam heat.

You must understand that I had never lived in a house with steam heat. This whole boiler and pipes thing was a total mystery. After we bought our house, I corralled the former owner in the basement under a maze of pipes while he patiently explained how everything worked.

The first thing I had to understand was proper pronunciation. I thought they were RAY-diators, so named because they RAY-diated heat. Not here. I quickly discovered that the proper way to say the word is RAT-iators. No one knows why the word is used this way; probably the same reason one of the bodies of water that flows through downtown is the Stony-CRICK.

I was clueless on how to use hot-water heat. With a forced-air furnace, you twist a dial, and…Voila!  The heat comes on. But with the RAT-iators, you have to go from room to room, lean over until your face touches the iron, and turn a valve. Falling back on my Navy experience, a valve is either all the way on, or all the way off.

Following that dictum, the first night, I was up at 1:30 a.m. trying desperately to cool down a bedroom turned sauna.

Nobody told me that you only turn those things a wee bit at a time. My response was to turn the valve all the way off, which meant that three hours later, I was up again trying to warm up what was now a meat locker.  

Not that I got a lot of sleep, since all night long, a ghost, specter, or spirit had gotten into the walls and was vigorously swinging a sledge hammer. I thought the house was coming apart.

With a forced-air furnace, the only maintenance is changing the filter once a month. Now, every year I have to go through a process called “bleeding the RAT-iators.” The reason for this is easy to understand, even for a mechanical dweeb like myself.

Air in a steam line makes the pipes rattle and pop when heat is applied. If you don’t want your home sounding like a Civil War battlefield, then you must bleed them at least once a year.

I think …

This task requires a tool known as a RAT-iator key. This is a small silver wrench-thingy that you use to open the bleed valve at the top of the RAT-iator with the highest elevation in the home. For us, this is the unit in the attic bedroom. That key has become a problem. It’s hard enough to keep track of something that small, especially since it’s only used one day out of the year. So, it’s not so much about where it’s stored, but if I can remember where I put it.

Last year, after buying my third key in five years, I decided the best thing would be to leave it where I used it. So using a piece of baling wire, I attached the key to the attic RAT-iator.

Problem solved. At least that problem.

For most Laurel Mountain men, RAT-iator maintenance is probably second nature. For every job there is a system that works. I’m still looking for that system. It wasn’t until this year that I figured out that I could position my wife downstairs, and me in the attic and communicate by cell phone. This eliminated my annual autumn aerobics while I sprinted up and down three long flights of stairs trying to bleed the RAT-iators.

The good thing is that we all get smarter as time goes on.

Even me. And I think I’m at the spot where I can manage our heating system pretty well.

Wait a minute. Is that gas I smell?

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset. He is an occasional contributor to The Tribune-Democrat.

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