How can I stop the noise coming from the steam pipe (?) in our bedroom?
July 13, 2010 10:45 PM   Subscribe

How can I stop the noise coming from the steam pipe (?) in our bedroom's wall? We just moved into an apartment in a not-so-well maintained 1920s-era building.

I've noticed that the building's steam heat turns on around 10pm at night and turns off sometime around dawn. We haven't turned the radiator in the bedroom on, but we have noticed an irritating vibration hum noise coming mainly from the wall behind the radiator, as long as the building's steam heat is on. The sound also seems to move around a bit, sometimes on the adjacent wall and on the ceiling. Unfortunately, this is interfering with our sleep. I've tried turning on the bedroom radiator and the living room one, just to see if perhaps that would reduce or stop the noise, but that had no effect. We're trying to mask the noise by running an air filter, but we don't want to have to have the air filter on all the time. We just want silence in our bedroom. We're going to call the landlord tomorrow to ask him to stop the noise, but we'd like to know if anyone else has experienced this problem, what remedies there might be, what corrective action I can reasonably demand of the landlord (can they stop sending steam heat to our apartment? does the building's steam heat system need to be repaired?). I have no knowledge of steam heat technology, but as far as I can tell, this doesn't seem to be a radiator problem, but rather something happening inside the wall with the steam heat system, and so I'm concerned that getting rid of the noise is going to be an expensive and complicated project. Any information much appreciated.
posted by pantufla to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Best answer: The reason those old buildings had steam heat (instead, for instance, of using circulated hot water) was that steam is self-pumping. The boiler in the basement creates steam, which pushes the air out of the pipes via vents on all the radiators. Eventually most of the gas volume in the system is steam.

In places where heating needs to happen, the steam gets cooled back to water, leaving a vacuum behind, which in turn sucks more steam in, bringing more heat in with it. So heat can reach the fourth or fifth floor of the building without need for any pumps. It pumps itself. (And the water returns to the boiler through the very same pipe that delivers the steam.)

That means that there's a lot of gas (steam) moving through the pipes, because steam doesn't have very much thermal mass per unit volume (compared, for instance, to hot water) so the steam has to move fast. It's entirely possible for there to be resonance in the system, like the way a flute or recorder makes sound from moving air, and that's my guess as to what's going on.

Unless you're on the top floor, the pipe in your wall is probably carrying steam to those who live above you. Shutting off your own steam heat won't affect that pipe.

Repair, unfortunately, is probably out of the question. If I had to bet, my bet would be that your landlord will come, listen to the sound, and tell you to put up with it or to move. And I suspect you won't have any legal recourse to demand repairs. What you're experiencing is just what it's like in those old buildings.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:32 PM on July 13, 2010

Yup, Chocolate Pickle is right. However, you might be surprised how quickly you will become accustomed to the sounds. A young country boy lobstah was all WTF when he realized that his new NYC digs were within spitting distance of the J Train. After a couple of nights, I got used to it.
posted by lobstah at 5:04 AM on July 14, 2010

Yep, steam is just noisy. Aside from the sound of the steam and water moving through the pipes there are also secondary noises that can be caused by the pipes thermally expanding or contracting. Now a loud banging that sounds like someone hammering on pipes could indicate the system needs servicing. But for steam noise in general there isn't any real solution, beyond tearing out the entire system and replacing it with something like forced air or hot water, and that isn't anything you can reasonably demand of your landlord.

Good news is you'll probably get used to the noise quickly. When we turn the heat on here in winter, or my upstairs neighbors turn theirs on, I'll wake up during the first few nights when the steam cycles on. But after that I sleep through. If you are very noise adverse, however, then a building with steam isn't for you.
posted by 6550 at 5:53 AM on July 14, 2010

Hard to say how much you can do as a tenant in a large building. How big is the building/ roughly how many apartments? I can't tell you what to do for your building, but I can tell you what I did as a new home owner who was also new to steam heat and new to waking up to the sound of a train coming through the bedroom. I bought We Got Steam Heat and set about implementing the cheaper solutions listed in there. While steam heat is finicky, the one thing the author stresses is that it's not inherently noisy. Much of the noise people associate with steam heat comes from:

1. An unbalanced system
2. Poor insulation

You may actually be increasing the imbalance in the system by having your radiators shut off (though it's understandable if they over-heat the room). Depending on the type of radiator and system, you can get different radiator vents that allow you to change how quickly the radiator gets rid of the steam in it. Whatever you do, make sure the radiator is either 100% on or off. Don't try to be clever (like me) and use the opening as a half-ass regulator. If it's a relatively small building, you could try talking to your neighbors and seeing if they're willing to work together to try to balance the system out. I did it in our house by getting new vents for all the radiators. Each vent has a dial that goes from 1 to 10. I did a rough estimate of the cubic volume of the radiators, took a weighted average of each against the total and then set the dials based on that, with 10 going to the largest radiators-- you don't want to vent the furthest from the boiler the fastest (this is a myth that may be part of the problem in your building), you want to vent the largest the fastest.

You're probably not going to be able to do much about the insulation, but if you can get a peek at the boiler, it's worth looking at the pipes coming out of it. If they're uninsulated, that leads to more noise because the drop in temperature allows some of the steam to condense back into water (and results in banging noises).

The one other thing you may be hearing are loose pipes. That's something you should be able to push back on the landlord about, to at least try to secure the pipes to the wall wherever they're visible.
posted by yerfatma at 8:14 AM on July 14, 2010

+n to everyone else: You'll quickly get used to it.
posted by Doohickie at 8:14 AM on July 14, 2010

Run a white-noise machine or a fan. Steam and water heat is noisy.
posted by fifilaru at 3:53 PM on July 14, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for the as always awesome information! White noise, here we come.
posted by pantufla at 4:16 PM on July 14, 2010

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