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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Radiator Hisses

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, December 12, 2010

A small boy was fascinated with the hissing sound that the cast iron radiator was making at the Main Library.


Psst, psst, psst; almost sounds like a librarian hushing a noisy person in the library.


The Main Library is one of a declining number of buildings heated with steam radiators, and the radiators seem to cause a bit of fascination with people of all ages.


In my library career, I have worked in three buildings heated with hot water, or steam radiators; each with an interesting boiler story.


Since my father was a boiler fireman, I knew the technology of boilers and a general understanding of how they work.


I was the Saturday opening staffer in my first position, and one winter day I opened the staff door in the back of the library to find water cascading down the hallway from a broken pipe.


The boiler’s safety switch had turned off the equipment, but I had to shut a large wheel valve to end the flow of water which fortunately was exiting the building and flowing down an alley.


My next library had a large round hot water boiler that previous staff had nicknamed “Bessie” for reasons unknown.


The boiler room was full of pipes and values, and pumps sending the water to the far corners of the building.


The problem was that water was lost every day from countless leaks under the floor slab, and major work was going to be required to fix the issue.


The leaks turned out to be concentrated in one area, and the fix was not as difficult as predicted, and I left before the boiler itself was replaced.


When I arrived here in 1983, there was a boiler in the basement that didn’t seem to be an issue.  It looked like the first one I had worked with, except this one is steam rather than hot water.


I found it interesting that the building still uses the piping and radiators that were installed in 1902 when the building was constructed, although the boiler itself has been replaced four times in a century.


One day many years ago, a gentleman appeared in my office and said that he was the state boiler inspector, and said that the library boiler had never been inspected.


He was correct, and I was unaware that the library had missed the state boiler inspection process, and the matter was rectified.

In 1999, the Main Library boiler was replaced with a somewhat more efficient steam boiler, and I had to do research on the design of the system, and how many boilers have occupied the basement.


The first boiler lasted until 1924 when the vessel cracked, forcing a replacement to be installed.


The second boiler operated for 33 years, and its replacement switched from coal to gas as a fuel.  At that time, the coal bunker in the basement was removed and the space was converted to offices.


The third boiler wins the award for longevity, operating for 42 years until a leak ended its lifespan and a new boiler was required.


The positive side of a radiator is those frigid winter days when a hot cast iron radiator warms the soul.


The negative side of a radiator is that cool night when heat is needed first thing in the morning, but the radiator takes hours to cool down from a blast of steam.


I also think that a boiler and radiators almost give the library a human side, the hissing and pssts welcome the people who use the library.