Winnipeg Defies King Zero

MICHAEL O’MAYO March 15 1929

Winnipeg Defies King Zero

MICHAEL O’MAYO March 15 1929

Winnipeg Defies King Zero

Exit the ash can! In Winnipeg 185 downtown buildings are heated from one monster furnace


WINNIPEG is the coldest city in the world.” Of course, no loyal son of the Red River believes anything of the sort and so I hasten to exonerate myself from all blame. The statement is to be found in the erudite pages of the “Encyclopedia Britannica.”

To be sure, Winnipeggers will admit that it does get cold “once in a while,” but they promptly add that you “don’t feel the cold because the air is so dry.” You can’t keep a good town down !

A few weeks ago I hurried down Portage Avenue and “the cold stabbed like a driven nail,” for the thermometer registered thirty-three below zero. I was on my way to visit an old acquaintance who presides over an office in the Grain Exchange.

After we talked about old times, the conversation naturally drifted to the weather. My friend grudgingly admitted that “it was chilly.” I commented upon the cosy warmth of the building and suggested that a very large and expensive furnace would be needed to heat such a large building.

My friend smiled. One of those smiles used by superior grown-ups when answering the fool questions of a child.

“Yes! It’s a large furnace,” he replied, “but it’s half a mile away.”

He was right. It is a large furnace.

Nature Takes a Hand

Y\ 7HERE agitators once aired their grievances * ’ and children played ring-a-rosy, there now stands a giant power plant with a smoke-stack towering into the sky. This concrete building is the audacious reply of the citizens of Winnipeg to Aeolus, god of wind; to Thor of thunderbolt fame and to King Zero.

On May 10, 1922, a great funnel-shaped cloud appeared in the sky and spread destruction along those thin ribbons of wire carrying electric energy from the Winnipeg River to the city. Giant steel towers were tossed about like match-sticks; cables were hurled into bushes and the city plunged into Stygian darkness.

The storm reminded the citizens that their electric energy was at the mercy of angry winds, and they decided to remedy matters. For these westerners, be it known, are particularly proud of their cheap electric light and power. “Winnipeg has the lowest power rates on the north American continent,” is their boast, and as a result of these remarkably low rates the domestic consumption of electric energy in Winnipeg is the highest in the world—eight and a quarter kilowatt hours per day per home. The nearest known approach to this record is Toronto with three and a half kilowatt hours! And so these hardy westerners boast of “The City of Power.”

But there was a nasty fly in the ointment. The system was susceptible to sudden disruption. The Winnipeg Electric Company did possess a steam standby plant for emergencies, but the city-owned Hydro system enjoyed no such protection.

And so there began an agitation for a steam standby plant which would enable the Hydro system to maintain its services in defiance of the wrath of passing storms. Aldermen solemnly debated; engineers spoke and “Pro Bono Publico” polished up pet arguments in favor of “rigid economy.”

Into the debate roared and boomed another twister, and once again the city was plunged into Cimmerian darkness. That settled the argument. Within six weeks two storms had robbed the city of its supply of white coal, and that was too much for flesh and blood to

endure. There was a universal demand for a steam standby plant.

“Of course, I’m in favor of such a plant,” quoth Mr. Publico of economy fame. “But is there no way to keep down the tremendous expense of such a plant?”

There was! You can’t keep a good town down !

‘Way back in the early seventies two men began ditch-digging and tinkering with lengths of pipe in the backyard of a house in Lockport, N.Y. Birdel Plolly, a visionary with a graystreaked beard, conceived the idea of carrying heat to houses through underground pipes. Erudite professors in scientific journals scoffed at the idea as “visionary, foolish and totally impractical,” while neighbors knowingly shook their heads. Only a raw-boned mechanic, John Walsh by name, had any faith in the ideas of Holly.

And so these two men dug ditches and tinkered with lengths of pipe. They laid 700 feet of pipe in and around and under that backyard, and covered the pipes with a queer assortment of asbestos, building-paper and twine. They improvised a crazy-looking boiler in the basement. They stretched ugly coils from cellar to attic until the house looked like a junk-pile.

But it worked. When steam was turned into this crazy network of coils and pipes, the erudite professors and scoffing neighbors were silenced. Famous engineers and noted financiers came to view the backyard experiment and to spread the good news abroad. District heating systems appeared in Grand Rapids, Springfield, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and many other American cities. New York invested fifty million dollars in the largest heating plant in the world in order to heat Broadway and district. The backyard experiment grew into a big industry.

These and other facts came to light when the citizens of Winnipeg debated the question of a steam standby plant. “Why not use the steam to heat the downtown district,” suggested someone. The proposition looked good, even Mr. Publico being convinced. It was decided to build the plant and sell the steam for heating purposes.

Seven Tons of Coal An Hour

It was not long before the little park beloved by orators of the proletariat echoed to the activities of men building the plant, while the downtown streets took on the appearance of a battle-torn front line, as a small army of men burrowed into the sticky mud, digging the ditches necessary for the underground mains.

TAST January, the giant steam-plant that thus came into being, generated over seventy million pounds of steam for its customers. Imagine, if you can, the furnaces needed to produce such an immense quantity of steam! There pop into mind, at once, pictures of men feverishly shoveling coal, of sweating, tortured bodies gleaming in the unearthly glare of white-hot fires. But no such earthly edition of Hades will you find in this steam-plant within a stone’s throw of the Red River. The coal, from the time it arrives in cars to the time it is blown into the giant furnaces, is handled by machinery. High in the roof, reached only by precipitous, dust-covered ladders, you will find a queer contrivance separating nails, bolts and scrap-iron from the coal. Hidden away behind mysterious doors and ’mid a din that is deafening, you will discover other machines grinding the coal into powder—for all the world like black flour. Over the towering furnaces you peep down into the white-hot flame to see this black flour dropping into the flames at the rate of seven tons every hour.

In a corner, perched atop a steel platform not much larger than the floor of a large room, you see three electric boilers. Compared with the giant structures we have just viewed, these electric boilers are insignificant dwarfs. But there is magic power, and lots of it, in these insignificantlooking boilers. For they, too, generate steam for distant buildings and save thousands of dollars for harassed taxpayers. When the city sleeps and the demand for electric energy is small, the coal fires are banked and these electric boilers are brought into play. That saves $15,000 every year in fuel bills alone!

The citizens may sleep but the waters of the Winnipeg River are like Tennyson’s brook—they roar and dash for ever!

These electric boilers, perched in a corner of the huge plant, enable the people of Winnipeg to snatch seventy-one million kilowatt hours of energy from the river which might otherwise go over the spillway. This electric energy, otherwise wasted, enables the standby plant to supply customers with ninety per cent of the heat needed for six months and 100 per cent for four months. In brief, they provide $71,000 of revenue for the Hydro system.

Thanks to this plant, the citizens of Winnipeg are immune to disruptions of their supply of electric light and power. If angry storms toss down the transmission lines, the giant boilers of this plant assume the burden immediately. But this plant does more—it sends steam through nearly 28,000 feet of underground pipes to 185 buildings in the financial district of the city. The traders who shout at each other in the bedlam of shouts in “The Pit” of the Grain Exchange, are oblivious to the sharp stabs of Mr. Zero due to the steam generated by this plant. Editors, reporters and pressmen of The Winnipeg Tribune keep the citizens aware of the world happenings in a building heated from this plant more than half a mile away. Thousands of people listen to “talkies” in the palatial Metropolitan Theatre and revel in the cosy warmth coming from the same source. Bankers, store clerks, warehousemen and stenographers—the many and varied people who toil in the towering buildings of “downtown”—enjoy the warmth coming through underground pipes from the Hydro standby plant.

And the cost ! It varies. Sometimes as much as forty per cent is saved by these astute business men, but the average cost is about fifteen per cent below the cost of individual heating systems. That is something which would delight the soul of an Aberdonian !

Is it a success? Talk to these people who enjoy this fireless, smokeless heat. They know the value of such a heating system, and they are loud in their praises. Moreover, it brings in a revenue of $300,000 a year to the city treasury— more than enough to meet all overhead and operating expenses, including interest and sinking fund.

It is audacious—this plant which hurls defiance at the winds of Aeolus and the thunderbolts of Thor; which topples King Zero from his throne; and which brings needed mazuma to gladden the hearts of taxpayers !

Smokeless Suburbia

T3UT what about such a system for our homes,” enquired a housewife when I waxed enthusiastic over the downtown heating system. “It would be a godsend for the house. Has anything been done in that direction?”

Yes! It had been done, and in Winnipeg! You can’t keep a good town down!

I hastened to the outskirts of the city. It was another of those sub-zero days, and my tenderfoot proboscis informed me that it was cold, no matter how dry the air might be. But I consoled myself with the thought that it was an ideal day in which to spy out the possibilities of district heating of houses.

I found a squat, red-brick building surrounded with bricks, lumber, piles of earth, and all the leave-overs of recent construction work. Inside, there was warmth and welcome. Two boilers merrily defied the whiplike sting of King Zero and were shooting steam through underground pipes to nearby houses.

Those houses gave every evidence of comfort. The wolf of poverty howled at none of the doors. But most significant of all were the smokeless chimneys.

Now smoke is a nuisance, and several hundred chimneys can belch forth quite a lot of it. Smoke, and dust and soot pollute the air and prevent the sun from spreading its life-giving rays. Health and beauty alike suffer. I was unable to secure figures regarding the smoke menace in Winnipeg but I did discover that smoke costs the city of St. Louis $15,000,000 a year.

Yet, on the fringe of Winnipeg, I found the suburb of Smokeless Chimneys in sub-zero weather!

Many of these houses are without heating plants. I was told of owners tearing out expensive oil-furnaces from the basements of their homes. They know the luxury of fireless, smokeless heat.

Theodore Kipp, an engineer of note and the president of the company operating this heating system, informed me that “this is the first attempt on a large scale to bring heat to homes in Canada.” In fact, there is nothing like it on this continent.

Last October, steam was turned into 4,600 feet of underground mains, serving 356 homes. The plant, as we have seen, can heat one thousand homes without enlargement.

“What is the difference between the cost of your system and that of the old?” I asked Mr. Kipp.

“I would not care to quote figures but the cost is a little more than coal.” was the reply. “Less than five per cent of our customers are renters, and they consider comfort and convenience ahead of monetary costs.”

“Comfort and convenience”—that is the slogan of Smokeless Suburbia!

Consider for a moment some of these conveniences! First of all, there is a guarantee of uniform heat. A cunning combination of clock, thermometer and motor maintains an even temperature over a long period of time. Thermostatic control it is called. “If you want a temperature of fifty-five degrees until four o’clock,” I was told, “all you do is set the clock and the temperature, and you know that there will be no change until four o’clock. If the temperature rises, the steam is automatically shut off; if the temperature starts to fall, the steam is automatically turned on.”

Another contrivance transforms steam into hot water, and that is a boon beyond price.

Think, too, of the work and the worry eliminated, thanks to this heating system ! Dust and ashes and soot no longer descend in clouds upon furniture and food, and any housewife will tell you what that means to her. Father makes no more trips to the basement to keep the home fires burning—for, as likely as not, there is no furnace in the basement. Fire risks are reduced. The backyard is no longer cluttered with ashes, with lumps of coal and all the impedimenta for maintaining fires. The coal shovel lies neglected in a corner. The delightful exercise of the wood-pile is a lost art.

And so it happens that Winnipeg defies King Zero to do his worst. Business men in downtown offices no longer tolerate furnaces and stoves. Their wives are not satisfied with the doubtful heat and undoubted work of basement fires. They demand clean heat, fireless heat, smokeless heat—and they are getting it from heating plants half a mile away. You can’t keep a good town cold!