I was sharing a cold beer with my buddy Fred when the topic of concrete came up. This was inevitable because I had just spent an afternoon busting up a meteorite-size chunk of the stuff that had been laying behind a bush in my back yard for the past 20 years. I was pretty sore. When we bought our home we inherited the world’s ugliest clothesline. It was right in the middle of the yard – one of those inverted beach umbrella things. It had an aluminum pole that dropped innocently enough into the ground. Twenty years ago, when I was much younger and a lot stronger, I decided to get rid of the ugly thing along with its concrete base. The clothesline part was easy; I lifted it right out of its holder and tossed it in the trash. The holder, by the way, was a 1-1/4″ steel pipe that wound up going nearly as deep as the clothesline went high.

I started digging around the holder twenty years ago, and soon learned to my horror that the concrete base extended a lot further than I thought. I dug and dug and finally managed to unearth a chunk of concrete about the size of Rhode Island. My young wife, The Lovely Marianne, watched as this drama unfolded and finally asked the inescapable question. “What are you going to do with it?”

I waited until I caught my breath and answered. “I’m going to get a bunch of the neighbors and we’re all going to roll it over there,” I pointed to the place in front of which I would shortly thereafter plant a large forsythia bush.

“They used to build things as good as they could,” Fred said. “But nowadays, they build things that are just good enough.” He took a sip of his beer. “The guy who used to own your house wanted to make sure his clothesline never tipped over. He didn’t want his clothes to wind up on the ground.” Fred took another sip of beer.

“Mausoleums aren’t built this well,” I said, rubbing my aching triceps.

“My point exactly,” Fred said. “They built things as good as they could back then. You rarely see that anymore.”

“It took me twenty years to get up the courage to get rid of the thing,” I said, trying to work a kink out of my neck.

“As it should. When you build something that well, it should last a long time. And it should also be somewhat intimidating.” I was in a beautiful old home not long ago when I came across yet another Broomell system. You ever see one of these beauties? The Dead Men installed them at the turn of the century when folks used to build things as good as they could. Broomell was the brainchild of The Vapor Heating Company, which, in its heyday, was headquartered in The North American Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These people conjured a system that had hardly any moving parts, operated with astonishing economy, and lasted more than a hundred years. Imagine that.

If you knock around old buildings, you’ve probably seen a few Broomells. They never go away.

George Muse, Dead Man, formerly of Atlanta, Georgia, wrote to the company long before you were born and said, “With sleet, snow and rain as we have had these past few days, it is a luxury to have a perfectly uniform temperature of 70 degrees, or more if we wish. The apparatus is so simple, is it foolproof!”

John Ruddle, Dead Man, formerly of The Leghigh Coal and Navigation Company, Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, chimed in. “Comparing the coal consumption of a year ago with this winter, we consumed with the old steam plant from December 1, 1902 to January 11, 1903, an average of 1,950 pounds of pea coal per day. During the same period this winter, we used an average of only 1,030, or about one-half as much in a winter that has been far more severe.”

Not too shabby, eh?

Here’s a yellowed letter from the architectural firm of Murphy, Hindle & Wright, formerly of Providence, Rhode Island, but now residing on the other side of the grass. “We are about to have the Broomell system installed in several buildings: the Church, School, Convent and Rectory of The Holy Trinity, Central Falls, Rhode Island, Saint Patrick’s R.C. Church, Providence, Rhode Island, Saint Michael’s R.C. Church, Providence, Rhode Island, Academy and Convent of the Holy Union of the Sacred Hearts, Fall River, Massachusetts, and Santo Christo R.C. Church, Fall River, Massachusetts. It is the most satisfactory low-pressure heating system we have found.”

The Catholics knew a bargain when they saw one. Listen to R. L. Clinton, Dead Man, who once walked the frigid streets of Butte, Montana. “The Broomell system in my home at 117 South Alabama St., Butte, Montana, has been continuously used by me during the most severe winters known to Montana for many years. The heating plant gave perfect satisfaction during the coldest weather. We can regulate it to maintain a heat of within a few points of any desired temperature.”

It gets wicked cold in Montana.

But you know the best part? If you and I hopped in my car and traveled to these buildings today we’d probably find their Broomell systems intact and still operating – with the original systems’ components. I bump into Broomells just about everywhere I go.

That’s because they used to build them as good as they could.

The Vapor Heating Company didn’t sell boilers, or pipe, or radiation. They sold only a few simple accessories, but they gave very specific instructions as to how to put a Broomell system together.

Anyone’s boiler would do. Just pipe the system as you would any two-pipe steam system. When you reach the radiator, you’ll find the first Broomell device. It’s a supply valve that contains five orifices. They called it a “Quintuple” valve, and you can select an orifice for any day of the year. The colder the day, the bigger the orifice. Just dial in what you need by turning the handle. It’s easy.

On the outlet side of each radiator you’ll find a Broomell fitting instead of a steam trap. These little cast-iron fittings look like tiny P-traps. Each fills with condensate to a depth of about one inch. The vertical piece of metal that forms the divider in the P-trap is tapped with a tiny hole. Air moves from the radiator into the dry return through that hole. The fitting has no moving parts. The water in the P-trap is there to squelch any vapor that makes it through the radiator. There won’t be much steam approaching that Broomell fitting, though, because of the orifices in the supply valve. The orifices will allow in only what the radiator can condense on any given day.

The dry returns travel downhill from the radiators to the boiler room. When they get near the boiler they dump their condensate load into an ornate receiver that Broomell also made. It’s a cast-iron cylinder, open at the top, and measuring about four-feet high and a foot wide. It has a gauge glass on the side, marked in ounces of pressure. Inside the receiver there’s a bowling ball-sized copper float that connects to a chain. The chain goes through a series of pulleys that are mounted on the ceiling and connects to the draft regulator. As pressure builds inside the boiler, the water backs into the Broomell receiver, raising its water level. The copper float goes up, and the chain closes the damper, limiting the air supply to the coal fire. This, of course, lowers the steam pressure. The water then moves back into the boiler, which, in turn, lowers the water level inside the Broomell receiver. The copper float goes down; the chain opens the damper, and the steam pressure goes up again. Pretty simple, isn’t it? The only moving parts are the supply valves and that copper float. This is how you make something that will last 100 years and more. Keep it simple.

After dropping the condensate into the receiver, the dry returns continue on and joining together before entering a ceiling-mounted radiator. You can use anyone’s radiator; it’s just there to act as a condenser. This radiator’s job is to kill whatever steam vapor makes it to this point before the dry return enters the chimney.

That’s right. The chimney. Broomell used the draft up the chimney to induce vacuum on the return lines of the steam system. This made the steam travel very quickly to all the radiators in the building with a maximum pressure of six ounces at the boiler.

If the pressure went above six ounces, a relief valve popped. The relief valve was an integral part of the Broomell receiver. It was there to ensure that no water would ever back out of the boiler and spill from the receiver. So simple, so beautifully simple.

To modernize a Broomell system, you install an automatic burner and cut the copper float’s chain. Leave everything else alone. That’s it.

How many of your systems will still be around when you are on the other side of the grass a hundred years from now?

There was once a time when the Dead Men built things as good as they could, and if you find any of these old systems intimidating, well, that’s the way it should be.


Dan Holohan

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