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Why does steam rise from the streets in New York City?

Why do you see steam pouring out of grates and manhole covers in NYC?

5192 day(s) ago

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Many of New York's buildings are heated and cooled with steam from the New York City Steam System.

When electricity is generated by power plants, water is boiled to create steam that spins a generator turbine. While most power plants release this steam, New York's plants capture it and send it throughout the city through a system of pipes. The plant shown in the video is the East River station, a recently rebuilt natural gas-powered plant that produces 3.2 million pounds of steam per hour.

While this heating system has been in use since the first Manhattan power plant opened in 1882, recently steam has been put to use in absorption refrigeration systems for cooling. This type of air conditioner uses rapid decompression to cool the air in much the same way the "canned air" you use for cleaning electronics becomes cold after use. Each year this saves 400 megawatts of electricity, almost equal to the output of a single coal-fired power plant.

In most cases, the steam you see rising out of the New York City streets isn't directly from the steam system, but is a result of condensation or water leaks reaching the steam pipes. Fractures in steam pipes are enough of a worry that an emergency line is maintained so maintenance crews can receive reports of possible leaks. Occasionally, these faulty pipes can cause explosions. In 2007, a pipe installed in the 1920's underneath 41st and Lexington split, hurtling mud and debris over forty stories high, injuring forty-five people.

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