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  • Michael Krakovskiy 11:34 pm on April 2, 2008 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Construction, , , , Piping, , , , , worst permanent solution   

    Plumbing Chops 

    In my line of work I am often reminded of this brilliant passage from  Ellen Ullman’s “The Bug” (which I reviewed earlier):

    “Programming starts out like it’s going to be architecture–all black
    lines on white paper, theoretical and abstract and spatial and
    up-in-the-head. Then, right around the time you have to get something
    fucking working, it has this nasty tendency to turn into plumbing.


    It’s more like you’re hired as a plumber to work in an old house
    full of ancient, leaky pipes laid out by some long-gone plumbers who
    were even weirder than you are. Most of the time you spend scratching
    your head and thinking: Why the fuck did they do that?”

    To take the metaphor a little bit further, let me bring up one actual plumbing nightmare that I faced when I was renovating my apartment. One of the contractors clumsily knocked  off a valve on a piece of  water piping that did not have a local shutoff. The only shutoff was in the basement, and required turning off the water for the entire line. And the super, who could do the shutoff  was not in for a couple of days.

    Another contractor knew exactly what to do in that case. He created something that he called a “chop” (I found out later that the term is Ukrainian). It’s a conical piece of wood, shaped like a fat pencil that is hammered into the hole in the pipe. In a couple of minutes the wood swells up and completely plugs the leak. Add some duct tape around it, and you got a very good temporary plug that is almost as strong as the unbroken pipe.  It makes the worst permanent solution (wood rots), but the best temporary one (it can be applied without taking the whole system down and is reasonably strong).

    Chops, or as they are called in English – thru-hull plugs, are a maritime invention: they are used for emergency repairs on boats. These days you can even buy a ready made set.

    People think of software as of something static. Well, dynamic websites are more like a ships out at sea. Sometimes you have to patch them up in a storm. And then a good, strong “chop” is the best you can hope for until you can repair the leak permanently. And you are going to sink unless there’s somebody around who knows how to make a “chop”.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 8:13 am on October 21, 2005 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Bridge and Tunnel, century-old technology, Construction, George D. Hoffman, , Hydronics, , Isle of Long, , Job Better, , Milwaukee, , , , , , Radiator, , , temperature control device, Thermostat, Thermostatic radiator valve, , , Water hammer, Water heating   

    Deadprogrammer Visits The Radiator Planet 

    If you live in New York, chances are pretty high that you live in an apartment building. We, young generation X-ers, face a tough choice. To be able to afford a house without Google stock options, you need to move either to New Jersey (technically ceasing to be a New Yorker) or to Staten Island. Which is a fate worse than death. The rest, find refuge in the bajillion of apartment buildings on the Isle of Long or in Manhattan itself. There are also some in Jersey City, Queens and the Bronx. Apartment living is a reality for most Manhattanites and card-carrying members of the Bridge and Tunnel society, such as myself.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen central air heating in a New York apartment. Apartments here are heated with radiators. Radiators are noisy, prone to overheating and generally troublesome. As the heating season is about to start, let me share with you my wealth of radiator knowledge.

    There are three major heating system types common to the New York area: water, one pipe steam and two pipe steam. Only the oldest buildings have water heating, if you have one of those, you are on your own. I’ve never seen a two pipe steam system either, so the only one I can tell you about is the almost century-old technology – the one pipe steam radiator with a Hoffman valve. It’s very, very likely you have one of these.

    In this picture Gary the cat shows you what a typical single pipe system looks like. It’s basically a steam-carrying pipe sticking out of the floor, connecting with your radiator via a valve. A mistake that most people are making, is thinking that by twiddling with this valve it’s possible to control the temperature. This is absolutely wrong. In theory, you should be able to open and close this valve to start or stop the flow of steam. In practice, as most of these are very old, the gaskets don’t hold steam at all even in the closed position. Closed and half-open position usually does not result in much other than noise from the condensed water that can’t get back down and leaks.

    This heating system is very simple. Steam enters the radiator through the pipe, condenses as water and leaves down the pipe. It has numerous advantages: steam is more efficient than heated water, there’s next to no chance of the system freezing (when that happens to a water-heated radiator on the coldest day of the winter, it’s not a lot of fun – just ask Joel). Steam radiators like this existed in Victorian times as well, with one exception. They tended to explode if too much pressure was applied, maiming and killing hapless apartment dwellers. That’s why so many brownstones have water-heated systems.

    In 1913 George D. Hoffman started a company that produced an ingenious little device that made steam radiators safe. If you look at your radiator, you’ll find a little vent that usually looks like a miniature rocket ship (as you can see both my radiator and the valve have Streamline / Art Deco styling very popular in the period when my building was built). Chances are, it will be a Hoffman Specialty Model 40. This device works like a not very bright Maxwell’s demon: it lets air enter the radiator or escape, but stops steam from escaping.

    The whistling noise that you hear at night is air escaping the radiator when it fills up with steam. If the vent is not correctly sized or, which is more frequent, got clogged up with mineral deposits, you will hear water and steam spurting out of it and destroying your neighbor’s ceiling. Worst case scenario – the valve gets stuck on open and fills your entire room with steam, ruining the walls and possibly burning you. When changing a clogged valve, make sure that the steam is off and is going to stay off while you change it, and be around when the steam is going back on to make sure that there are no leaks.

    Even if you have a properly sized and regulated valve and you pitch the radiator towards the pipe to let the water drain without making much “water hammer” noise, it’s likely that your apartment will be overheated. Most are. As the intake valve is usually out of commission, the best way to turn off the radiator is to close the steam valve by turning it upside down (I’ve heard about this trick on This Old House. This is rather inconvenient and a bit dangerous – you might strip the threads and end up with a whole room full of steam. My guess is that there would not be an explosion as the valve is engineered to open if the pressure is excessive. Maybe not, I don’t know.

    The best thing to do is to purchase a regulated thermostatic valve. These are improved valves with a sensor that closes the valve when the temperature reaches a certain level. While not perfect, these really let you exert a tiny bit of control over your apartment’s temperature. It also lets you easily shut down the radiator, as sometimes the buildings overheat so much, that you don’t need heat at all.

    The kit usually consists of three parts: a temperature control device, an adaptor and a Hoffman-type valve. This will run you about $100 altogether. I have one on two radiators, and let me tell you, these are worth every penny.

    P.S. I am rather curious as to what George D. Hoffman looked like and what his life story was. Somehow I imagine him as a fat dude in a three piece suit with some ridiculous Victorian hair and beard-style. If you ever find a picture of him, please let me know. All I could dig up was an old brochure (PDF) that featured the Hoffman company logo: “The Use of Hoffman Valves Make a Poor Job Better A Good Job Perfect.”


    Ad:

    Don’t you wish you could peer inside the walls to see if there are electric wires there, or leaking pipes? Well, now you can with a Fiberoptic Borescope for way under 200 bucks!

    Milwaukee drills are some of the finest drills ever.

    Basin wrenches are some of the most useful tools missing from most toolboxes.

     
  • Michael Krakovskiy 9:19 am on May 23, 2005 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Construction, Engineering vehicles, , , Pavements, Paver, Pavers Shoes,   

    Midnight Linkage 

    • Oh, such an awesome shot from inside the motorman’s cab. Click on “comments” to read about how it was taken.
    • Similar to the celebrity path pavers in Brooklyn Botanical Gardenthat carry the names of famous Brooklynites like Isaac Asimov and Mae West, you can have your own paver in Tompkins Square Park through Make Your Mark in the Park program. And it’s just 250 bucks per paver! 70 characters – enough for a url. I am actually thinking about this…
     
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