Steam in New York

Some of you might have heard about the explosion in New York a couple of weeks ago. It actually was only 15 blocks from the office (we are on 26th street and the explosion happened on 42nd street). We didn't hear the bang but we saw the clouds forming in the street. As you can see from the picture I took. Initially we heard about a Transformer exploding and for two seconds people thought it might be a terrorist attack. But quite quickly it became clear it was just as the mayor said it: “And there is no reason to believe whatsoever that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure.” (link with more pictures)

Now I've seen steam before in New York. Mostly seeping through the cracks of the road so I was a bit surprised to hear that a steam pipe burst. Now we're talking about a steampipe of 24 inches (60 cm) installed in 1924. So why would NY have these big steam pipes underground which were capable of creating so much catastrophe? So I did a little research.

Apparently New York has the largest steam system in the world with 105 miles of pipes and 7 steam plants. Five of them in Manhattan. It's being used to cool and warm 100.000 buildings like the UN, Grand Central Station and the Empire State Building. The boiler in one of these plants  is 30 meters high and burns natural gas or fuel oil and air. The resulting heat sends the temperature of water inside the boiler's pipes to a blistering 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, converting it to steam. Workers wear ear protectors to keep out some of the roar of millions of gallons of flowing water and the sound of spinning turbine blades. Every hour approximately 125,000 gallons of water are turned into more than one million pounds of steam. Impressive numbers for a system which was setup in 1881 and was built around the same time that Edison put in place his electrical system.


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