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JLeslie's avatar

What cities around the world use steam heat and what are the pros and cons?

Asked by JLeslie (47561 points ) November 6th, 2012

Hurricane Sandy reminded me that much of New York city is heated by steam From the utility company Con Ed. My relatives who live in Manhattan lost power and running water during the storm. After a few days they had their electricity and running water back, but not their hot water nor heat. Heat for their apartments comes through a central steam system and that was still not functioning.

It made me wonder how many cities use this type of heating, and whether there are any newer cities being built with this type of system. I am pretty sure my campus, Michigan State University heated and cooled using this sort of system. Our dorms were very very warm, I liked that, sometimes people cracked their windows open to let some fresh cool air in.

I also wondered if it can be used in an individual’s home, and how realisic it is. I know solar can heat water very efficiently. It can be used to heat floors and water heaters, but are people using it to heat the air in their homes like a NY apartment?

Any opinions and information you have about the cost of this type of heating system compared to other types would be interesting to me. Cities that utilize the system what are the benefits and drawbacks? What cities do use it?

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6 Answers

CWOTUS's avatar

Most municipal steam heating uses “waste heat”, that is, steam that has already been used in some process or other (typically electric power generation), but no longer has the pressure or heat required to drive the process any more, yet still has enough residual heat that it won’t be easily condensed back to water to be put back through the boiler.

Some cities, notably Rejkavik, Iceland (and possibly some smaller towns in California) use geothermal steam to power turbines for electric power generation, and then have to re-condense that steam to water prior to re-injection underground to complete the cycle. So they wring out the usable heat and re-condense the steam in the same way: municipal use.

In some parts of the world, the “waste” steam is used to drive chemical or agricultural processes that need less heat (and no high pressure!) than the power generation process.

The down side to this, of course, as you’re seeing now, is that when the power plant goes down for some reason (such as annual maintenance, if nothing else), then there goes the whole municipal system with it. That’s not such a problem in the summer time, when maintenance outages are normally scheduled.

flutherother's avatar

Copenhagen has a large scale district heating system.

They are planning on installing a small district heating system where I live which will heat around 2,000 flats. They have already built the plant and installed the underground pipes. It will warm each flat through radiators and give constant hot water. The downside is that the standing charges for the system are high although the cost per unit of heat used is low. They say the system will be efficient and environmentally friendly.

filmfann's avatar

The University at Berkeley uses that.

woodcutter's avatar

It may be wasteful during those times of the year when the temps are not solidly cold. I think it takes much effort to keep boilers on line and if the heat is not needed but a few hours in a 24 hour cycle and it is wasteful to put the boilers out during the mid day only to crank them up again at night.

dabbler's avatar

The steam sent around underground in NYC has a lot of power in it and it’s used for air conditioning as well as heating/hot water.

Besides UC Berkeley, UCLA and lots of other campuses that are big enough to be cost-effective have steam distribution systems and a central plant for steam generation.

flutherother's avatar

The hot air produced by politicians could heat half the country.

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