Retrotech, Revitalized

A triple-expansion steam engine, which was used for water pumping in Phillipsburg NJ, has been restored to operating condition thanks to a small group of dedicated volunteers.  The engine, which pumped 6 millions gallons per day to a reservoir 265 feet above its level, was built in 1913 and was in continuous operation until 1969, when it was put into standby status (the pumping duties having been taken over by electric pumps) and finally removed from service in 1982.  Here’s a video of its final run in 1982, which has turned out to not be so final.

The boilers have not yet been restored; test runs were done using a portable commercial rent-a-boiler as the steam source.  The team intends to restore one of the boilers as well in the future.

When people think about the vast improvements in health and lifespan over the past century and a half, attention tends to be focused on antibiotics, better medical care, x-ray and scanning equipment, etc.  Public water systems, enabled initially by waterwheels and especially by engines like this one, played an important role as well.

The restoration team has a Facebook page, here.

See also my posts 301 Years of Steam Power and 175 Years of Transatlantic Steam.

7 thoughts on “Retrotech, Revitalized”

  1. Makes me very, very proud to be white, and a member of the culture, society and tradition that built and maintained Big Allis.

  2. There are videos of Crossness Pumping Station on YT. And Fred Dibnah did at least two segments on it.

    It went into service in 1865. The original engines were built by Watt. It came in under budget, so they blew the extra money on spiffing it up; it looks like a giant church inside.

    It still works… I can watch videos of the engines running for hours.

  3. The “Jeremiah O’Brian” is a WWll Liberty Ship on display at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I visited it this summer. Most of the ship is acessible, including the engine room. Most Liberty ships were driven by triple expansion steam engines because more modern engines were not available. The one in the Jeremiah O’Brian is fully operational and took the ship from SF to Normandy and back for the 50th Anniversary to repeat the role the Jermiah O’Brian played on D-Day. The engine was also used in the movie ‘Titantic’ for the engine room scenes.
    There is a cruise planned for Fleet Week this year.

    Stan W

  4. Why not a modern steam engine? Or a completely restored one, with new high quality boilers, etc? IDK. I love a lot of those YT videos of old steam engines running, you can find them. I love the old stuff…. that just worked.

  5. All that, 3 stories +!, for 300 HP. In 1913 it was obsolete as a prime mover. By then, the only place it made economic sense was to exploit some local condition. Usually either an existing source of low pressure steam or low cost/free low heat content fuel such as wood that wouldn’t work for higher pressure turbines.

    I don’t imagine that there were many single years that the cost of staff and maintenance wouldn’t have paid for an electric pump.

  6. MCS…not positive about this, but my impression is that in smaller sizes, a steam turbine may be less-efficient than a reciprocating steam engine. At Phillipsburg, a backup turbine was installed in 1914, rated at 514hp, which apparently required steam from 4 boilers for the same output that the recip engine could produce with 2.

    Re electric pumping, there may have been problems at that time with grid reliability…indeed, today, the sustainability of the water system during a prolonged power outage should be a serious concern (water being used for fire-fighting as well as other purposes.) I’m not sure what % of public water systems have meaningful backup power…hope it’s a high number.

  7. I’m sure there must have been reasons. Electricity may not have been an option. Very roughly twice the output for twice the input from a turbine. Marine use was extended because recip steam engines will run both directions and didn’t require reduction gears.

    Still, I was struck by all of the climbing, valve tweaking and such that was required to start an engine that should have been near the peak of development.

    The pump was reciprocating which explains the engine. Apparently, operation required an engineer and a fireman it was coal fired and converted to gas near the end. At 4,200 GPM, 6,000,000 GPD took 23.8 hours. Since the engineer and fireman lived on site, maybe that’s all there was. I wonder when they slept.

    It’s mentioned that in the 00’s, the engine was damaged when running was attempted by someone that didn’t know what they were doing.

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