All steam-heating systems are open to the atmosphere, and that means the pipes and radiators are going to rust.

All that rust works its way down into the pipes below the boiler’s waterline and when enough gathers, problems start. The boiler will go off on low-water because the condensate can’t return quickly enough. If there’s an automatic feeder, it will probably flood the boiler. If the condensate backs into the steam mains because it can’t get through the clogged wet return, vicious water hammer will show up near the ends of the steam mains.

So I asked eight professionals who work with steam every day how they clean wet returns in a customer’s house without destroying the place. Here’s what they told me:

1. “We use newspaper, red rosin paper and kitty litter. We are as careful as possible, but spills do happen. Because we know this, we also bring along a heavy-duty mop and wringer bucket. This, along with a good floor cleaner, allows us to leave the work area cleaner than we found it. Most clients are pleasantly surprised by our effort to keep their floors clean. It makes for repeat business.”

2. “If it’s not already there, I’ll pipe in a boiler drain and ball valve on each leg of the wet return. This allows me to flush the line and direct the mess through a garden hose to a safe place outside the building. The cost of the few fittings is worth it. It shows customers you care about their system and keeping their home clean. On new boiler installations, I install the boiler drains and valves as part of the job.”

3. “A lot of speedy dry, a good vinyl tarp and a wet-vac do the trick. Even better, change those old drain valves to full-port ball valves and give it a good flush.”

4. “We use a big Shop-Vac to suck out the water as we flush the return out. Just make sure you have a safe place to empty the vac because that will make a mess, too.”

5. “What we have done with one system, an old-school built in 1911, was to use a sewer-rooter service. The man inserts the cutter of the correct diameter and cuts out the crud. As he pulls the cable back, we wipe it with rags as the glop is pulled out. Finally, we pull it into a ring of rags weaved loosely together to make a well. Then we suck up the mess with a wet/dry vacuum by introducing some water to make the crud into slurry.

If you have a really big job, as we did some time ago, think about hiring a sewage-service company. The vacuum is so strong that the operator can hold the nozzle at the pipe opening and suck the crap up before it can even leave the area. Also, because the truck suction is designed for semi-solids, it will take just about anything that is wet and can cause a vacuum at the nozzle to occur. It does not do a good job on dry material, however, and you have to wet down any friable material for it to be taken.

One person I know used the ring off the diamond drill (the ring that takes away the water as you cut). He used a vacuum on it and it worked well as long as it was made into a fairly watery mess. However you do it, it’s a lousy, dirty, crummy job – just the sort we all like to do, especially if you have a mouthy helper.”

6. “We try to talk them into new piping below the waterline, which costs about as much as a thorough cleaning will. Barring that, we’ll either use heavy plastic to capture the boiler “ink” or a Shop-Vac to keep the mess contained. New piping is the better method in most ancient replacement cases, and a cloth rag or duct tape stuffed in or taped over the old opening helps avoid the old-age dribbles.

Better yet, we invite their kids to the basement for finger painting on the plastered rec-room walls!”

7. “I’ve come across this many times. I started by draining out the boiler (I’m assuming there is no drain cock on the return, right?). Next, I’d break the “L” at the Hartford Loop, put in the suction hose from a Pony pump and suck out whatever you can. Now for my options:

Option 1: If there is enough play to pick up the return at that end, I’d place a brick or something under it to give it some back pitch, crack the fitting, remove it and install a heel-tee with a drain cock and reconnect and continue with the job.

Option 2: No play in return (underground)? This is a pain. I’d chop the concrete or cut the floor just enough to expose the fitting and remove the debris all around the riser coming up from the floor and remove that riser by cutting a notch at the threads, removing it, collapse the threads in the fitting, unscrew the riser and install a shorter riser with a tee and a drain cock.

Option 3: If the return is horizontal but has no play, such as it won’t if it passes through a partition, and there is room, I’d crack the tee and use the riser that went to the Hartford Loop as a lever. I’d pull down, making that vertical piece horizontal, and use gradually smaller (in height) receivers such as roasting pans to get the water out. So, you would pull down, catch some water until the pan fills and then push it vertically, dump the water and then repeat as necessary.  Usually a few old towels at the very end are all that you’ll need. 

Now, naturally, you have to inform the customer that whenever you have to crack a fitting it might damage another part of the return, but if that damage does occur, the return needed replacing anyway. 

And when I talk about “cracking the fitting,” I’m saying to hold back against the force of the striking hammer on the opposite side of the fitting with a heavier hammer. You know, for 1 1/2-in., and smaller pipe, a 28-oz. hammer with a 3-lb. backup works well. If the return is larger, hold back with a sledge. The idea is to only create a crack in the fitting, not to bust out a piece of it. Just enough to produce a hairline crack, and then it will not offer any resistance. Hope this helps.”

8. “If we need to avoid any spillage at all, we cut a piece of 6-mil. heavy plastic to fit in the area. We place it so it goes up any walls to a few inches in height and then extend it out a more-than-adequate distance, based on the most water we estimate could spill or splash. We always use plenty to play it safe.

We buy the 6-mil. plastic in 20-ft. wide by 50- or 100-ft. long rolls and cut off whatever we need. We can sometimes use the plastic more than once if it hasn’t been cut in a bad spot. Some small cuts can be taped to be damp-proof with duct tape. Then we cut a line into the plastic to where any penetrations come out of the floor and make some crisscross cuts there, being careful to make the outside diameter of these cuts a little smaller than the penetration so it fits tightly and we tape it in place. Duct tape works well. Then we put down some absorbent rags around where we will open the pipe. We always keep a plentiful supply of rags in the shop and on every truck. We bring extra when we know we’re going to do a job that requires them.

Before we open the pipe, we make sure we have more than enough catch buckets ready to handle the flow and we plan where we’re going to dump the buckets. We make sure we have a clear and protected path to that spot. We always do this with a two-man crew so we have an extra pair of hands ready to keep the job as neat as possible and to help swap out the full buckets for empty ones. Also, we don’t fill the buckets all the way to the top to prevent spillage.

After we’re done, we dry any spillage and our boots before we start walking around. We clean up, and voila`, a satisfied customer is usually the result.”      

These guys definitely earn their money. Feeling tired? I sure am!