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Sometimes the Good Guys Lose

The Energy Detective doesn’t always get his “man,” as it were. It happened just a few weeks ago when my pal Manny, a contractor, came to me with a frustrating problem. A client’s co-op was using a lot of boiler makeup water and did not know why. One leak had already been found underneath a first-floor apartment, and everyone thought the problem was solved. But Manny had noticed that the water meter on the boiler feed line was running backwards and had recommended installing a new one.

With the new meter in place, it became clear that the excessive makeup had continued. The new number-one suspect was the condensate return pipe that ran under the beautiful lobby floor – it must be leaking too, right?

“Generally, a good working assumption,” I said to my friend.

“Sure,” Manny replied, “but if it is leaking, they’ll just dig up the floor again, replace the pipe, and bury it again…” His voice trailed off.

“…until it leaks again, and they have to do it a third time,” I added.

“Yes,” he sighed. “A few years ago, they replaced the buried steel pipe with copper pipe. Now someone – I can’t find out who – is telling them it was the wrong material.”

“You can replace steel with copper as long as you don’t allow contact between the two dissimilar metals, which is easy,” I said. “If this fairly new copper is leaking, it is most likely for a different reason. Did they by any chance re-cover the copper with dirt and then re-bury the pipe without making it easy to re-inspect?”

“Natch,” my friend said with a chuckle. “Look, I’ve already visited the building several times. The board president thinks he knows more than I do and yet keeps trying to squeeze more free work out of me. The super is a nice guy, but he is not an expert on heating systems. When they dug up the apartment floor, they only took a few photos; they didn’t measure anything and just repaired the leak and buried the pipe in the dirt again – just like they did in the lobby.” I winced at that – such simple things, and no one thinks to do them. “No one has any information that can help me.”

“How about drawings of the steam system?” I asked. “Any of those?”

Manny snorted, and we both laughed. “Okay, well, there’s a few things they can do.”

The key actions to take were:

1. Eliminate the conditions that cause the leaks.

2. Keep track of how much new water is going into the boiler.

3. Make it easy to find and repair any leak that crops up.


The building had previously tried No. 2 by installing a boiler makeup meter, but they had made two key errors: the original makeup meter was probably damaged because it sent hot water for the boiler makeup (it ultimately didn’t matter because the building had stopped logging readings anyway).

It wasn’t until Manny started taking readings and noticed that they were going backwards that the building, at Manny’s insistence, installed a new meter (and began sending cold water to the boiler). The new meter showed that the leak was still about 70 gallons per day. Since it should have been more like 70 gallons a year, Manny was concerned, and so was I.

The water content of the boiler is about 800 gallons, so every two weeks they are completely refilling the boiler with new water! This is bad – very bad. It means, among other things, that a lot of dissolved oxygen is eating away at the boiler metal almost continuously.

I told Manny he should try to convince the building to install a small condensate pump on one side of the lobby and run a pipe up the wall, across the ceiling at a wall junction, and then back down inside the super’s office. If they had aesthetic objections, they could cover it with molding or a soffit. Failing that, they should run the pipe along a wall above floor level or, worst case, run it under the floor again but inside a concrete trough covered by removable floor panels. And whatever they did, they should take lots of measurements and photographs for future reference.

The idea is to eliminate buried (especially buried in dirt) and inaccessible condensate return pipe by either digging it up, making it accessible, or both. In this way, the likelihood of leaks is reduced, and when they occur they are much easier to detect and repair.

Case closed – or was it? Manny called me the other day to report the latest developments. He was almost in tears. “I gave them your suggestions,” he told me. “But they’ve got their own ideas. Their plan is to dig up the floor, replace the pipe, cover it with dirt, and repair the floor.”

“Ouch,” I said. “Don’t they recall what an expensive, disruptive mess it was to dig up the pipe in the apartment? Are their memories that short? Maybe you should ask your boss to weigh in and let these guys know that their plan is ridiculous.”

Now Manny was apoplectic. “That’s the worst part of all!” he cried. “My boss says that 70 gallons per day of boiler makeup water is ‘normal’ and that they don’t even need to repair the existing leaks.”

Upon hearing this I knew we were beaten. “Manny,” I said, “Welcome to my world. Unlike the Mounties, sometimes we don’t get our man.”

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