The lost art of system-level thinking

Our house has steam heat — you know, those old cast iron radiators that are heated by a boiler that sits in the basement. When we first moved in, I was skeptical of how well steam heat actually works, and I began to dread the idea (and the cost!) of having to replace the whole thing with modern forced-air heat. And when we powered on the heat for the first time, my suspicions were confirmed: some of the radiators were making strange noises, and sometimes the pipes themselves would make loud bangs that reverberate through the whole house.

But now, after just a few months, nearly all of these issues are solved, and I am a believer in steam heat and its many benefits.  This is all thanks to a book called The Lost Art of Steam Heating by Dan Holohan.  The book allowed me to solve our heating issues after roughly 20 pages (the pressuretrol was set way too high, if you’re reading, Dan), but I couldn’t put it down and kept reading until the end, for an entirely different reason: the book does a great job of emphasizing system-level thinking, as opposed to narrow immediate problem solving. Even though the book is intended more for HVAC contractors than individual homeowners, I believe that any serious engineer would find the stories and advice relatable.

With every heating “war story” that Holohan recounts, the solution invariably relies on widening one’s perspective beyond the single component that seems to be broken. By the end, I had forgotten that I was even reading about steam heat, but was simply enthralled by Dan’s ability to re-frame the problem from the highest level down. I wish that more engineers in my own field would do the same.   

Problems with steam heat turn out to be easy to diagnose.  It’s simple physics, if at times slightly counterintuitive. The harder lesson is to always think about the big picture. Don’t just replace a faulty component with a new one; think about how the new component affects the rest of the system. Don’t remove a component that you think is unnecessary without understanding why it was there to begin with. And so on.

The lost art, it would seem, is not really steam heat; the lost art is big-picture thinking itself.

“Think about the system.”  Well said, Dan.