So why does steam pour from the streets of Manhattan?

Steam at Times Square. Image: Heitere_fahne/Flickr, reused under creative commons.

Picture a streetscape, New York City at night. Even if you’ve never been you probably have a clear picture in mind. Flickering neon bar signs, the subway rattling underfoot, a solitary cop walking his midnight beat – and a backdrop of steam, pouring out of the pavements.

It’s an integral part of our perception of Manhattan. For the opening shot of Taxi Driver, Scorsese chose to show steam rising from a grill. It gives us location and mood – decrepitude, tension, and, to borrow a line from Tom Waits, a feeling “like the whole goddamn town is ready to blow”.


The plumes rising from New York’s manholes are real – but they are not the product of an ancient, broken down sewer system, or a side effect of the subway trains, as one might assume. In fact we are seeing the world’s largest steam heating networks in action.

The first city-wide heating steam networks sprang up across North America in the 1870s. In 1882,  the commercial New York Steam Company completed its own network, covering Manhattan from the Battery right up to 96th Street. Its pipes delivered steam from generator plants, to paying customers the length of the city. 

This steam was used in laundries, to sterilise hospital equipment, and to humidify valuable museum exhibits. Most of all, it was used to keep buildings warm during the harsh -25C winters. 

At its height, the network was used by over 2,500 buildings, among them some of New York’s most famous landmarks: Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center. Each new skyscraper of the gilded age was a testament to the steam service’s efficiency – just plumb in and you’re set. (Some have suggested this ease of use actually contributed to the network’s decline, as lower-level customers got away with illegally tapping the main lines.)


What is really going on under the streets of New York. Image: Con Edison.

Though today it serves only 1,800 buildings the network is still going strong. It’s now owned by the power giant Con Edison, and its scale is still incredible: three thousand vents and manholes pepper a network which comprises 105 miles of piping, taking 11m tonnes of steam around the city. 

But even with an army of workers maintaining the ancient pipes, things have occasionally gone wrong. Since 1987 there have been 12 steam pipe explosions in the city. Two people were killed in 1989; in 2007 an explosion at a busy intersection during rush hour injured 45. Eye witness accounts describe a boiling plume of steam rose as high as the nearby 77-story Chrysler building.

That’s not the only reason more cities haven’t built their own steam heating networks: a system like this can only ever be viable in a big, densely-populated area like Manhattan. The infrastructure of heavily insulated ceramic piping doesn’t come cheap, so must service whole blocks, rather than individual buildings. Similarly the system relies both on a huge centralised boiler system and injections of waste steam from large power plants located close by. None of this is easy to replicate in a city that already exists.

Incidentally, the stuff we see rising from manholes isn’t steam from inside the system at all. On cold, wet nights, rain and other condensation enters the ventilation system where it comes into contact with the hot pipes. The result is perfectly harmless plumes of water vapour, pouring up from the streets.

 
 
 
 

Meet Abu Dhabi’s blockchain and decentralisation wunderkind

“All industries are the same – you have to stay away from the people who have a propensity toward jargon and toward trying to create their little islands of expertise. Instead, just think about what a company actually does – there’s no need to complicate it.”

If ever a quote summed up 2020 and the world’s hyper-fast transformation into a more practical approach to employees working from home and the realisation that the building blocks of technology are now the building blocks of society, it’s this wisdom from Derick Smith, founder and CEO of AmmbrTech Limited.

The company, founded in Luxembourg in 2016, has now moved its headquarters to Abu Dhabi, which has been in the news a lot lately for attracting globally enduring technology companies many of which have been snapped up by the likes of Uber and Amazon.

Smith, who opened his first company at the age of 19, says one of the reasons for the move was the UAE’s forward thinking: “I was monitoring the evolution of crypto and blockchain for some years, and as things started to evolve, Abu Dhabi Global Market caught my eye. They have some really elegant, well-thought-out crypto regulations being developed in their jurisdiction,” he explains.

Blockchain in Abu Dhabi

The UAE is the seventh country that Smith, originally from South Africa, has opened up a company in and he says it’s been the best in terms of both infrastructure and regulations.

The UAE has been by far the easiest to do business in so many ways,” says Smith. “Working with Hub71 was absolutely sterling – the support, the speed at which things happen. It was so smooth. The visas, the willingness of people to talk to you, have meetings, assist you – all of that was brilliant.

“The office was ready the day we landed. And to be honest, they’re getting better all the time so someone joining Abu Dhabi’s tech or AI and blockchain scene now would find it even easier.”

AmmbrTech’s offering was intriguing pre-Covid-19, but now with digital transformation and decentralisation at the forefront of most companies’ minds, the move to a country that has a push to create new technology as part of its government’s goals from now until 2030 seems a smart one.

The company’s remit is twofold: firstly, to provide broadband to underserved countries and secondly, developing an edge-cloud infrastructure that’s highly inclusive of local communities and businesses. And it deploys a raft of leading technology, including AI and blockchain to do it.

Smith explains: “We want to get broadband in the hands of people who are underserved today – which is pretty much half the planet – as we enter new markets, if we come across customers or areas where there’s no broadband, we can quickly scale it out.

Edge-cloud solutions

“Regarding the edge-cloud, it’s very much built around the principle of self-sovereign digital identity. Where your identity – the private key that manages your credentials rests with you – our entire organisation is built around those principles and operates on them. We’re able to build hyper-local markets and shorter supply chains. And that’s the big lesson from Covid – you’ve got to shorten the supply chain and become more self-sufficient. The edge-cloud infrastructure and decentralised marketplace allows us to achieve greater diversity of marketplaces, cultures and localities,” says Smith.

And that commitment to diversity is something that both the Abu Dhabi government and AmmbrTech share, he summarises: “Abu Dhabi is doing an exceptionally good job attracting talented people to come here and make sure a lot is happening in the tech scene. The team at Hub71 went above and beyond to introduce us to corporates and decision-makers and to the help us network. The dialogue is there if you want to pick it up, it’s up to you.”