Understanding steam systems
We still have a landline because we get it as part of our TV/internet package and we also have caller ID on that phone, which helps us avoid most of the spam calls.
I just wish we also would get caller IQ so we could skip some of the knuckleheads that manage to get through on that line.
Here’s one that will stay with me for a while because it involves a current human condition. That being that if bad things happen, someone must pay, even if the person to whom the bad thing happened to was responsible for the bad thing happening.
It was a lazy summer afternoon and the woman who got through sounded elderly. Her 212 area code on the caller ID shouted Manhattan and that borough was thick in her screechy voice. She knew my name because I’m in the phonebook where there are still phonebooks. She didn’t say her name; she just launched into her story.
“Mr. Holohan, I understand you are an expert in steam systems,” she said.
“Who is this?”
“Do you understand steam systems?”
“Yes, but who is this?”
“I was severely burned by water coming out of a steam radiator, as was my animal. We both wound up in the hospital’s burn unit.”
“Both you and your animal?”
“Well, just me. My animal went to the vet. Are you an expert? People say you are. Are you available to go to court on my behalf? I was severely injured as was my animal.”
“No, sorry. I don’t do that sort of work. Never have.”
“And why not?” Clearly annoyed now.
“I don’t have any credentials. I’m not an engineer. I’m not a contractor. I’m nobody, just a writer.”
“But you are a steam expert? People say so. Why would they say so if it isn’t true?”
“I’ve written books about steam heating. I guess that’s why they say that.”
“Well, then I’ll tell you what happened. The little silver thingy that’s connected to the radiator next to my bed blew off during the night and scalding water shot out of the hole. I was severely burned as was my animal. We wound up in the hospital’s burn unit.”
“Yes, I got that part.”
“I’m told it’s impossible for this to happen,” she said.
“What is impossible?”
“That water could possibly shoot out like that. I’m told it’s totally impossible.”
“But it happened to you, right?”
“Then it’s not impossible.”
“But some have said that it is impossible and these people are all experts.”
“How many pipes are connected to your radiator?”
“Just one,” she said. “It’s on the bottom by the floor. There’s a knob on it.”
“You have one-pipe steam heat. Do you keep that valve fully open during the winter?
“You mean do I turn the knob? Yes, sometimes,” she said.
“Do you ever close it partway?”
“Yes, on days when it’s not that cold outside. It gets too hot if I leave it open. That should be obvious. I thought you were an expert.”
“You’re not supposed to throttle that valve. The steam and the water that forms when the steam condenses need to share that space. Steam is going up and the water, which we call condensate, is trying to go down. If you throttle the valve, the steam will shove the water into the radiator. When there’s enough water trapped inside the radiator you’ll get a condition we call water hammer. It’s very powerful. It can knock the silver thingy right off. And we call the silver thingy an air vent, by the way. It’s important.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying if you throttled the supply valve then you probably are the cause of the accident.”
“But I was severely burned, as was my animal. We wound up in the hospital’s burn unit. I was in a great deal of pain!”
“I understand,” I said.
“Well, someone must pay for that,” she said.
“Are you suing someone?”
“Yes, I’m suing the landlord. The case has been going on for four years. I need an expert witness to make my case, but you’re telling me that it could be my fault.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But that’s not acceptable. No one told me that I shouldn’t be closing the valve partway,” she said.
“Does your lease have a clause that states the owner must instruct you in the operation of the radiator?”
“No,” she said.
“I imagine the landlord’s lawyer would ask you that question during a trial,” I said.
“But there’s nothing in the lease that says I shouldn’t turn that valve partway.”
“Is there anything in the lease that says you shouldn’t leave the gas stove on all day?”
“No,” she said.
“But you know not to do that, right?”
“You’re being ridiculous,” she said.
“Well, you called me. I can be ridiculous at times.”
“So you won’t help me?”
“I don’t do expert-witness testimony, but if I did and if the landlord has a smart attorney, he or she would ask me about throttling the supply valve and about water hammer and flying air vents followed by scalding water. I would have to tell the truth and say what I’m saying to you.”
“But plumbers have told me this has never happened before,” she said. “I’m the first. I suffered, as did my animal.”
“That’s not true. I know of instances where people have died from the air vent coming off and the room filling with steam. Babies are particularly susceptible to this. Google it. There have been deaths. It’s horrible but it happens.”
“So you’re saying I could lose my case.”
“Yes, unless you can prove you didn’t throttle the supply valve. And I don’t know how you could possibly prove a negative.”
“This is very serious,” she said. “I was severely burned by the scalding water, as was my animal. We were in the hospital’s burn unit. I suffered greatly. Someone must pay.”
“I got all of that, but you may be responsible for all this.”
“But then who will pay me for my pain and suffering?” she said.
“I don’t know and this is another reason why I don’t do expert-witness work. Sometimes the people make no sense to me.”
“But I suffered!” she said. “As did my animal!”
“So if you’re not going to help me, can you at least do this? Can you recommend someone who knows as much about steam heat as you do who won’t say what you’re saying?”
“You’re asking me to recommend someone who knows the subject inside and out and is willing to lie under oath?”
“Oh, no! Don’t put it that way. It sounds horrible when you put it that way. I don’t want the person to lie. I just want them to believe it’s the landlord’s fault and say so in court.”
“But from what you’re telling me, it’s not the landlord’s fault,” I said.
“I know, but that doesn’t help me win. I suffered greatly, you know, and so did my animal. We were in the hospital’s burn unit.”
“Will you tell me your name?”
“Because you won’t help me. You’re not very nice, Mr. Holohan. You’re supposed to be an expert. That’s what people told me. I think they were wrong.”
She hung up. I sat there in wonder, phone in hand, and clamored for caller IQ.
This article was originally titled “Nothing but the truth” in the April 2017 print edition of Supply House Times.