I've lived with steam heat all of my life in New York City, and although the silent or near silent central heating systems of new homes (such as forced air) is vastly superior, the sound of steam on a cold winter's day gives comfort. I'm like a Pavlovian dog - I have been conditioned to the sound of steam and its association with warmth. Anyone who has been without heat for days knows how the sound of steam rising is literally music to the ears.
If you wonder why I say that modern systems are vastly superior, take a look at my photo and story, The Dark Ages, here. Steam heat output is controlled in a very primitive manner, with no thermostats to regulate temperature. Often, apartments or offices are blistering hot. Turning off the system is not recommended or not possible, requiring windows to be opened mid-winter. Valves often do not work properly or leak, and radiators bang.
Most buildings in New York have their own boilers and provide their own steam. However, Con Edison, New York City's local utility, has the world's largest district heating system, and provides steam to 100,000 commercial and residential customers in Manhattan, from the Battery to 96th Street. Customers include the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the United Nations. Hospitals, such as St. Vincent, make use of steam for sterilization procedures.
Steam is produced at five generating plants - three in Manhattan, one in Queens and one in Brooklyn. Water is boiled under high pressure to 1000 degrees F and is delivered at 358 degrees through a 105 mile system of pipes. Read more here.
Regardless of safeguards, there is inherent risk in such as system. There have been numerous steam pipe explosions in the city with fatalities and spewing debris, including asbestos, into the air. There has been controversy and talk regarding the feasibility of maintaining such a system.
One of most often asked questions is about the nature of steam rising from the streets of New York City. This steam is typically not from leaks, but from water making contact with the steam pipes and vaporizing. The steam is often vented through cones to prevent it from diminishing visibility for motorists.
For now, in mid winter, the sound of steam is always good news to my ears and only spells one word - cozy :)
About the photo - This Con Ed repair truck and crew were located on Grand Street, coincidentally in front of John Jovino Gun Shop.