Letting Off Some Steam

Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jfraissi/">John Fraissinet</a>.
Photo by Flickr user John Fraissinet.

Every winter, a typically unseen machine becomes visible in the streets of Manhattan: Con Edison’s District Steam System. Seen from the street as steam leaking from manholes, or more safely vented through orange and white stacks, leaking steam hints at an underground energy distribution system that is the largest of its kind in the United States and offers a chance for the public to become more aware of and more involved in how the city works.

Like most infrastructure, the steam system is largely ignored by the public until things go wrong: in 2007, a steam pipe exploded near Grand Central Terminal, injuring many and killing one. While Con Edison has suggested other underground systems triggered the incident, critics allege Con Edison’s poor maintenance was at fault, calling into question the effectiveness of a $200 million dollar upgrade project completed roughly eight years prior.

“District Steam Service” is unique among New York’s infrastructural systems for the relative ease with which the public can help maintain it. For this reason, digging a little deeper into how steam, in particular, works is especially instructive. Sure, you or I could help maintain underground water pipes or electrical cables by reporting hidden failures, but their invisibility makes this difficult. So while we wait for technological advances that will make this possible in the future, we should take notice of the fact that the steam system already presents ways to involve the public: unlike the electrical grid, no special tools or sensors are needed to detect leaking steam. I’m convinced that public involvement in the management of infrastructure will become a key part of the future work of deregulated utility companies such as Con Edison. But before we get there, we could all use a little more awareness about how the city’s infrastructure works. And steam is a good place to start.

In front of the ConEdison Plant on East 14th Street. Photo by Jeff Maki
In front of the ConEdison Plant on East 14th Street. Photo by Jeff Maki

“District Steam Service” refers to the process of centrally generating heat and distributing it as steam to homes and businesses for heating and cooling. Con Edison offers the service in lower Manhattan, from the southern tip all the way to 96th Street on the west side and 89th Street on the east side.

Of a total of roughly 1,800 customers, about 54% are commercial and 19% are residential; the rest consist of hospitals, hotels, museums, etc. Prestigious addresses such as the Time Warner Center, 7 World Trade Center and the Gramercy Park Hotel use the system, according to Con Edison. Typical uses of steam range from heating and cooling to humidification and sterilization. In fact, the system delivers nearly 30 billion pounds of steam per year.

Slightly more than half of the steam delivered through the system comes from a process known as “co-generation”. Co-generation turns otherwise wasted heat from generating electricity into a useful product (steam). At Con Edison’s newly retrofitted, natural gas-powered East River Plant on 14th Street and Avenue C, for instance, heat exiting a newly installed General Electric 7FA Gas Turbine (installed as part of the East River Repowering Project, or ERRP) heats water in the newly installed “steam drum;” the steam generated from this process is then fed to customers via the 105 miles of steam mains that make up the system.

Steam drum being installed at the East River Plant. Photo courtesy of ConEd Steam Operations.
Steam drum being installed at the East River Plant. Photo courtesy of ConEd Steam Operations.

Contrary to popular belief, the steam system has no natural leaking or venting process – that is, no steam should leak from the system under ideal conditions. Leaking steam can be caused by water coming into contact with the outside of the hot pipes, or by leaky joints or valves.

The former case can cause a situation where the pressurized steam inside the pipe begins to condense, increasing pressure on the 3/8” or 1/2” thick pipe walls, which can eventually cause a failure. This process is what some believe was the cause of the 2007 explosion, though post-mortem analysis of the pipe was difficult.

In addition to the risk of pipe failure, steam can also burn – which is why Con Edison places venting towers over larger leaks, to prevent burns to pedestrians and bikers, especially when the leaks are near crossings or on sidewalks.

What makes things a little confusing is that not all steam seen on the street is from the district heating system; hot sewage can cause what appears to be steam, but isn’t. Sometimes steam does leak through the ground and exits to the street via sewer grates. For that reason, Con Edison asks the public to report anything they believe is steam (call 1-800-75-CONED). Con Edison will check it out and respond appropriately. The trick, of course, is finding the leaks.

Photo by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/larimdame/">LarimdaME</a>.
Photo by Flickr user LarimdaME.

As the 105 miles of Con Edison’s underground steam system age, along with the rest of America’s infrastructure, I believe the public will become increasingly asked to help in its maintenance.

Corporations like Con Edison exist in a heavily regulated middle ground: on one hand, Con Edison is similar to a government entity. It performs duties key to the economic activity of this region, providing a shared energy delivery network that other private companies use to sell energy to consumers. On the other hand, Con Edison is a publicly traded corporation that is legally required to create “shareholder value.” In fact, Con Edison has increased its dividend every year over the last 34 years. Con Edison has to strike a delicate balance with its profits: it has to pay dividends and invest in its infrastructure, two goals that can often appear to be at odds.

The collision of public and corporate interests, especially in New York City, isn’t new. Our mayor is the former head of a privately held corporation and the policies of his administration have, for better or worse, attempted to provide public goods through incentivizing private sector growth. But what is relatively new are certain opportunities afforded by technology, coupled with greater public awareness that corporations (and government) can’t do their work alone.

There is currently a burgeoning trend around public participation and infrastructure manifesting itself as what I call “pothole reporting websites” – SeeClickFixFixMyStreetCitySourced and the like (the sites seem to spring up as fast as potholes themselves!) – that vary in technology, interface and the clarity of connection to service providers. Some of these sites are tied into local 311 systems, other aren’t. Some simply e-mail those who sign up for the reports, leaving vague the link between a citizen identifying a problem and the utility or agency or other interested party responsible for fixing it. Some of the systems are more transparent as to the disposition of reported issues than others; some are more advanced, technically, than others.

Technology is, of course, a key enabler to involving the public. But the willingness of organizations, both government and private-sector, to involve the public in their work is, of course, crucial. The operators of San Francisco’s 311 system, for instance, are very forward-looking to offer an open API such that software developers can create mobile apps by which citizens can report infrastructure issues – in effect, San Francisco is inviting the public to support the otherwise private task of collecting data. In essence, what participating organizations are doing is outsourcing the work anybody can do, instead choosing to focus on the work only they can do, whether that be fixing potholes, sidewalks, or streetlights. The result is more (hopefully positive) change for less time, effort and money.

Similar technology-assisted processes for public involvement are being used here in New York City – including excellent projects like FixCity and other initiatives of non-profits such as The Open Planning Project and the Regional Plan Association as well as city agencies such as the New York City Department of Transportation. So the next logical question to ask is, how can a private interest – a corporation like Con Edison – benefit from this same mode of participation? Can the same model of public involvement be carried over to private interests that affect the public as much as, say, city planning?

Citizens armed with just a little awareness and a mobile app can report real-time leak data far more accurately and quickly than what Con Edison is currently able to collect with its limited resources. And in the process, all citizens might gain a deeper knowledge of the systems that keep us warm.

What other infrastructures do you think are ripe for public involvement?

Again, to report a suspected steam, natural gas or electric problem, call 1-800-75-CONED.

Jeff Maki is a creative technologist, researcher and activist whose work examines and interprets the ordinary systems behind daily life. His work provokes audiences to take a more active role in the management of public and private infrastructure — systems that increasingly represent power in everyday life. Jeff’s work has been funded by NASA, Google, and the National Science Foundation.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Ben Berkowitz December 9, 2009

I am not sure if leaking Steam is considered an emergency.

In the off chance it is not I created a watch area on SeeClickFix with the keywords Steam for the Con Ed Steam Ombudsmen.

He will receive alerts when you report issues with the keyword steam or steem on SeeClickFix withing the 5 boroughs.

I am not 100 percent that Ombudsmen’s email is the best but I have been on hold for 15 minutes and this is the best I can get from their site.

I’m not in NYC so the rest is up to you guys. Take your SeeClickFix iPhone app or mobile phone and report steam and see how responsive they are.

The Watch area I created is here: http://seeclickfix.com/watch_area/2543

Jeff Maki December 11, 2009

Hey Ben,

Unfortunately the problem isn’t as easy as that, which the article above hopes to allude to. (disclaimer: I am the author!)

ConEd is regulated, so they need to respond to these issues in certain amounts of time, according to their relevant agreements. It *can* be considered an emergency, but it depends on what the circumstances are–which is why ConEd wants something more real-time (i.e. a phone call).

I agree that the Steam Omsbudsman isn’t the best way to contact them, but admittedly they offer no alternative. I suppose the SeeClickFix solution you setup is a quick, brute force solution, but unfortunately, I think this particular instance requires something more specialized and nuanced to the particular concerns around this type of infrastructure.

Which gets to my posted question of how/if this type of involvement can be carried over to the private sector, particularly ConEd…

Love to hear your thoughts and whoever else’s may read this, though!


Ben December 13, 2009

I agree Jeff,

The tool is there for them to use so maybe it just takes an endorsed commitment that they would respond to reports emailed to them via SeeClickFix.

Its free for them to use. Hopefully someone can convince them to take advantage of that.

Jeff Maki December 13, 2009

Hello Ben,

If by “somebody” you mean me, yes, I certainly hope so–and I’m trying. It’s that endorsement, as you put it, that I’m working to achieve; it’s also the thing that is difficult to get, for a number of reasons. That being said, I appreciate what your tool can do, and I applaud you for doing the work you’re doing.

At the same time, I definitely want to keep the discussion going about how tools such as yours and others like it can help in the management of the steam system–and where the intersection of regulation, technology and private interests can meet.

I’d love to keep the discussion going with you, even if offline–and thanks for responding,


Ben December 13, 2009

Thanks Jeff.

I just wrote a first draft response to your question:

“What other infrastructures do you think are ripe for public involvement?”

Will send it over.