Where does the steam from New York streets come from?

If you live in NYC or have seen a movie or tv show set in NYC, perhaps you have seen large orange and white tubes coming out the sidewalk releasing enormous amounts of billowing white steam? Or maybe you’ve noticed steam coming up through manhole covers. Your first reaction might be “Ummm…is that going to explode?” Don’t worry — it’s just New York City blowing off a little steam. It’s funny when you think of New York iconic images, you think yellow taxis, skyscrapers, Times Square’s LED billboards at night. You don’t think of steam stacks. Yet there is something about them that screams NEW YORK CITY. In the daytime, steam stacks remind you off the heat and energy of a buzzing metropolis. Late at night, on a quiet street, there is something romantic about them. If you have ever wondered what’s up with that steam or just want to impress your friends with New York trivia, read on.

NEW YORK CITY’S STEAM SYSTEM

Underneath the streets of Manhattan, there are more than 100 miles of service pipes bringing steam to about 1,800 buildings. Steam may seem like a primitive source of energy (think of steamboats and steam engines- we don’t see those anymore). But when New York’s first power plant opened in 1882, steam from clean water greatly reduced the amount of soot created by individual coal-burning furnaces which were the primary source of heat at the time.

Steam is an environmentally friendly source of energy and besides the obvious reasons (to heat and cool buildings), steam also plays a role in the sanitization of hospital equipment, the dry-cleaning industry, and believe it or not, the humidification process for priceless works of art in the city’s finest museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When you go see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” at the MoMA, think “Steamy Night”!

Pictured on the right is a group from one of our Lower Manhattan tours. Our guests that day were thrilled to have a photograph with a steam stack — proof they’d been to New York!

So where is that steam coming from?at is that steam about? It isn’t actually the steam that is running through the below-ground pipes. Most of the time, the steam you see is the condensation that results from cooler water, like rain, falling through manhole covers coming into contact with the extremely hot pipes below street level. You’re more likely to experience this in cooler temperatures than in warmer ones. Don’t be afraid, it’s not dirty smoke. It is, however, very hot so do not go to close.



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