An eighty-three year old, 24-inch steam pipe exploded in midtown Manhattan yesterday, killing one and injuring more than 20.
The steam from yesterday’s blast rose above the Chrysler Building. Actually, strictly speaking steam is an invisible gas that occupies sixteen hundred times the volume of liquid water, what people see is called mist.
In 1776 James Watt invented and sold the first commercially viable steam engine. He realized that pressure from steam can literally move mountains. It took over 100 years to put steam underground in New York City: Con Edison installed the first pipes in 1882.
Today, thirty billion pounds of steam flow each year under New York City streets below 96th Street, heating and cooling thousands of buildings. During a typical cold winter day, ten million pounds of steam at 350 degrees Fahrenheit flow through 106 miles of pipes each hour.
Con Edison makes all that steam, and they make more of it than the next four US cities combined. In one plant on 14th Street, Con Ed uses two huge boilers – one is 10 stories high – to burn natural gas and fuel oil, raising the internal water temperature to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Three of their seven plants produce both steam and electricity through co-generation, where steam first goes through a turbine to create electricity and then moves on into the underground system.
Unfortunately, when an eighty-three year old pipe comes in contact with cold water, which is what some think may have happened yesterday, it explodes, like another 24-inch pipe did in 1989, killing two.
After the debris is cleared, and the city returns to normal, and with an aging infrastructure and an eye for public safety, don’t be surprised when New York City residents start getting steamy when Con Edison asks for a big rate hike.