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Get Powered Up! Certified Energy Manager Jeff Yago answers your alternative energy questions

Wondering about a great new energy-saving device
you found on the Internet? Then CLICK HERE!

Sorry. Jeff no longer answers questions online.
This will remain as a searchable
resource for all BHM website visitors.

Archive for the ‘Steam’ Category


Want to buy a steam boiler

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Dear Sir,

Where can I get a steam boiler that is ready made?

I’m looking for a steam boiler to run a steam engine. This boiler should produce steam up tp 150 psi and it should be rated for 10 horsepower.




I don’t want to appear rude, but the fact that you are asking for a 150 psi boiler tells me you do not know what you are talking about and will most likely kill yourself and anyone around your little boiler project.

Yes, you can buy a packaged steam boiler for home use and they will be considered “low to medium pressure” which is under 30 psi. About 25 years ago I purchased a WW2 surplus 25 HP steam engine still in the original packing crate and it could easily operate on about 15 psi, but you are wanting a 150 psi steam boiler which is a time bomb if not properly maintained. Every state has a boiler safety department and they inspect all higher pressure steam boilers in their state every year.

In addition, you will be required to become licensed to operate a high pressure steam boiler which requires testing and certification. Your boiler will need to be tested each year by a state inspector, you will have to do daily blowdown of the mud drum, you will need to have certified and regularly tested pressure relief valves and float switch, and have water chemical testing equipment to test the feedwater every day and add water treatment chemicals as needed. Most high pressure boilers are also required to have a boiler operator on site 24/7 as long as the boiler is operating, so you will not be able to leave it un-attended. Still interested?

When I am called in to inspect large university and hospital buildings as to why they are using so much energy, I have to inspect their boiler rooms as part of these site visits, and the steam boilers to heat these large buildings are usually only 125 psi steam pressure, while you are wanting to install a 150 psi boiler.

Do you know why I and most old timers carry an old straw broom around when walking around these high pressure boilers and wave the broom up and down in front as we walk. Because high pressure steam is a colorless dry gas, and is not like the white fog you see in the movies when there is a steam leak. You can hear it, but you cannot see high pressure steam shooting out from a piping leak, and if there is a leak, it will instantly  cut the broom handle in half. There have been many boiler workers that had an arm cut off as clean as a scalpel from an un-seen steam leak.

Take my advice and find a safer hobby that will not blow up your house.

Jeff Yago


Home heating strategy – replace steam system?

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

Dear Jeff,

We live in Massachusetts in a house built in 1927 that has an aging oil-fired steam boiler and single-pipe radiators. It’s getting more difficult to find replacement radiators and folks who know how to maintain these systems. We hear we’re going to be dinosaurs soon.

What kind of heating system(s) should we investigate as a potential replacement for our steam heating system? We’d like to minimize the cost (we know it will be expensive, whatever we do). By the way, we’re in a rural area that has no natural gas service, although it’s possible to get propane deliveries (as well as oil, of course).

Ours is probably not the ideal property for solar (and we don’t live in the ideal part of the country, either). Some folks in town have tried getting permission for wind turbines, but there are significant restrictions (our property doesn’t meet the requirements). One of our neighbors has installed a geothermal forced hot air system that runs off a standing column well (consumes electricity but no fossil fuels); it seems to be working well for them, but they already had a forced hot air system and even so it was a huge initial capital outlay.

Thanks for your advice!

Melissa Webster


I am sure you already know, the problem is not what kind of heating system you install, its that old construction with limited or no wall insulation and minimum ceiling/roof insulation.

Any money you spend now to add more insulation and re-caulk to reduce air infiltration will make any system you install much more cost effective. If you like the old steam radiators, there are ways to convert these over to hot water heating by adding new supply and return piping, or you could just replace them with new hot water baseboard radiation. You will see a major savings regardless of fuel just by switching out that old steam boiler operating at about 60% efficiency, with a new high efficiency hot water boiler available with efficiencies up to 94%.

Unless you do a major renovation to greatly reduce the heat loss of any old home, I think you will find it almost impossible to heat using a heat pump, even geo-thermal. If this is the case and propane or natural gas is not an option, stay with the oil, but replace all the steam piping with a zoned copper supply and return pumped hot water system.

Finally, you did not say, but I assume you also use a wood stove on really cold days. If not, that would be my first purchase.

Good Luck!

Jeff Yago


Steam from Solar

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

I read the article Is steam power in your future? and have a question.

Has anyone developed a solar powered steam engine?

I’ve been paying 2/3 of my electric bills for the last 5 years from a photovoltaic system (which has now paid for itself) and just installed a solar hot water heater. Here in Southern California, they have to put temperature limiters on the solar. That got me wondering if we could build a big reflector and produce steam for a small engine.

I remember being in the boiler room at the college my father worked at – he was a steamfitter by trade – and being impressed by the complexity, but the drawings make it seem simple, even to a physicist/electronicker like me!

So can it work?


Jim Hayes

Fallbrook, CA


I am impressed that you are already using solar power to the extent that you are. However, using solar to make steam requires industrial type equipment not suitable for home construction. We have had all types of solar-to-steam plants for many years, but most are located in desert areas as they require a very strong sun and very clear sky. Unlike solar thermal panels and solar photovoltaic modules that will still produce energy and partly cloudy days, making steam requires high temperatures only achievable with polished mirror reflectors and these do not work unless the sky is clear.

As far as a solar powered engine, there have been several designs using the Sterling cycle, but again, this still requires polished mirrors and lots of ground area for construction. Keep in mind that regardless of the heat source being the sun, fuel oil, or gas, any steam system can be very dangerous and steam piping and boilers require special steels, special welding, and must meet strict national pressure vessel codes which require a yearly inspection. This alone can introduce problems that many potential builders cannot meet.

Although several companies have tried making solar concentrator “tubes” that have a horizontal pipe with the bottom half wrapped with a mirror surface that “tracks” the sun, these have had limited success in a small-scale application and are very expensive. In addition, unless you are in the dry desert, the typical air pollution, grit, and grim of populated areas require constant cleaning of the reflectors.

For my money, if I were you, I would invest in more solar pv panels and provide 100% of your home’s energy the less costly way.

Good luck,

Jeff Yago


Making steam heat more affordable

Friday, September 19th, 2008


I’m looking for a way to make steam heat more affordable. I recently read about an option to use an outdoor wood furnace with a furnace coil. From what I understand I would have to run a water pipe from the outdoor furnace to the steam boiler. What are your thoughts on something like this?




Not sure you are going the same direction as the rest of the world. Steam heating systems are being phased out everywhere except large central utility size boiler systems. They are much more expensive to maintain then hot water systems, and very hard to prevent leaks. Makeup water must be treated to avoid sediment buildup, and very difficult to provide temperature zoning. Steam boilers can be dangerous if the relief valve sticks, and some states require yearly safety certification inspections.

The outdoor wood furnaces you are referring to are hot water systems, not steam systems, and are designed to have hot water piped into the home and either connected to a system of hot water radiators in each room or piped to a hot water coil in the supply ductwork of a forced air furnace.

You would have to convert your steam system over to hot water heating first, and in older systems this could be very expensive. Most of these older steam systems have steam and condensate piping that is very old, and if you try to change a fitting you will find the pipes just break off.

Maybe its time to change your heating system to something more efficient and that requires less maintenance?

Jeff Yago


Steam generator

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

Hi Jeff,

We are looking for a small, residential use steam turbine generator. We are having difficulties finding a supplier. Could you help us out?

Chuck Butcher



Due to the requirement for lots of daily maintenance, oiling, and adjustment, most of these small residential-size steam generators are do-it-yourself kits or home-made. Here are some links to get you started.

Many years ago I owned a steam powered generator that was new surplus intended to provide standby power for ships with fired boilers. I can tell you that this thing was big and weighed over 6000 pounds, yet it was only rated for 25 HP, or about the power of a twin cylinder commercial lawn-mower. Unless you are operating a high pressure boiler which can be very dangerous if not properly tested and operated, it takes a very large steam engine to produce any power with low pressure steam, which is most likely what your boiler will produce. Also note that most states require any steam boiler to have a safety inspection every year or two, and all pressure relief valves must be certified.

Assuming you can provide all of the above, any steam boiler requires high quality makeup water to reduce sediment buildup inside the boiler and piping, and most steam boilers must have their “mud-drum blown down” each day by an operator to get rid of this buildup. Also, this makeup water must be tested on a regular basis to determine what chemicals are needed to be added to get rid of any scale and mineral deposits in the system.

If you want a reality check, fill a large pan with tap water, then put on the stove and heat to boiling. Let it boil until all of the water has boiled off, then look what is stuck to the bottom of the pan. These mineral deposits are building up day after day in any steam system and must be controlled.

My advice, if you want to build a hobby steam engine then go for it, but I think you will find the day-to-day operation of a real steam driven generator to be a full time job.

Good luck,

Jeff Yago



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