History of District Heating in the United States

Many attempts had been made to heat multiple buildings from a single heating plant before Birdsill Holly of Lockport, New York introduced his district heating system in 1877 by forming the Holly Steam Combination Company, Ltd., along with Dr. David F. Bishop, Barnett D. Hall, Samuel Rogers, Francis N. Trevor, Isaac H. Babcock and Mortimer M. Southworth.  The Holly steam system had been introduced into nineteen cities by 1881.

Holly's system attracted several competitors, the first of which was William E. Prall, whose Prall Union Heating Company built a demonstration plant in New York City that hosted a meal for the American Society of Civil Engineers on November 11, 1880, at which the food was cooked used superheated water from the plant.  Prall was unable to gain traction then, but his National Heating Company built a system in Boston that operated from 1887 to 1889 before suffering a spectacular business failure. . 

Holly's success led to the January 1881 incorporation of the American District Steam Company with a capital of $10 million.  This company continued to develop new plants well into the Twentieth Century and survives as Adsco Manufacturing LLC in Buffalo.

1876 The Daily Journal of Commerce (Kansas City, Missouri), December 9, 1876, Page 1.
Mr. Holly, the iuventor of the Holly water-works, proposes to beat the entire city of Lockport, by steam. The idea is not a novel one, as it has been brought up at various times and rejected by practical minds, who considered it impracticable. Mr. Holly has furnished cold water to many cities, including Kansas City, which, figuratively speaking, he has kept in hot water most of the time without extra charge.

1877 "Heating a City by Steam," Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, January 30, 1877, Page
Details of the Plan by Which Mr. Holly Will Heat Lockport.

1877 "Steam Expansion which Causes an Explosion," The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, July 22, 1877, Page 3.

1878 Announcement of the Holly Steam Combination Company Limited, of Lockport, N.Y. : for supplying heat to private dwellings and public buildings of every description, from a central point, through street mains and laterals, and to measure the steam used to each consumer. | also here |

1878 William.E. Prall. Means for Heating and Ventilating Buildings. U. S. Patent No. 208,633. Patented Oct. 1, 1878

1878 "Heating Cities with Hot Water," The Baltimore Sun, December 21, 1878, Page 5.
The Prall Company, represented by William E. Prall, Wm. H. Webb. Frank E. Trowbridge and others, have applied for permission to heat public buildings and private houses in New York by hot water. At the same time General Spinola is pushing the Holly plan for heating the city by steam.

[1878] The Prall System of Heating Cities and Supplying Power by Hot Water, by William E. Prall
It is true that the more modern and expensive establishments, such as hotels, public buildings, and a few of the more costly private houses, have been provided with steam-heating apparatus, but while it may justify the expenditure for separate steam generators, and maintenance thereof, in such places, it would not be within the means of the masses to do so, hence many attempts have lately' been made to make steam wholesale as it were, and retail it to customers both for heating, and power purposes, through pipes, extending over a large area, and at considerable distances from the generators or boilers.
Confined to comparatively small areas the system has proved profitable, as shown by the Manhattan Real Estate Association, who for many years past have supplied the district lying between Thomas and Worth streets on Broadway, New York, with both heat and power, from a battery of boilers. The system has met with equal success in other cities for many years, notwithstanding the immense loss from radiation and condensation.

1879 "A Big Blaze," The Boston Globe, January 18, 1879, Page 1.
Another conflagration in New York City. [The burned buildings were owned and heaed by the Manhattan Real Estate Association, as mentioned in the above Prall document.]

1879 "The Holly System of Steam Heating," by Lewis M. Haupt, Read February 15, 1879,  Proceedings of the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia 1:100-103 (1879)

1879 Report upon the system of the Holly steam combination company limited, of Lockport, N.Y., by Herman Haupt, March 28, 1879.

1879 "The Holly System of Steam Heating," Scientific American 41(8):114-115 (August 13, 1879)

1880 "Annual Meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers," Engineering News 7:391 (November 20, 1880)
Thursday, November 11.  To One hundred and Twenty-fifth street, where lunch awaited them at the establishment of the Prall Union Heating Co.

1880 "Roasting with Hot Water," Mining and Scientific Press 41:359 (December 4, 1880)
A most novel and interesting experiment is now being conduced at 256 West 125th street, New York city, where the Prall Union Heating Co., have erected a plant to demonstrate the principles involved in their system of supplying steam for power, or for heating purposes, and heat for cooking purposes.

1880 Third annual announcement, Holly Steam Combination Company.

1880 The "Prall" System of Supplying Heat and Power to Cities by means of superheated water, by Prall Union Heating Company

1881 "The Prall System of Heating," Scientific American 44(1):2 (January 1, 1881)
During their recent convention in this city the members of the American Society of Civil Engineers were entertained by the Prall Union Heating Company. The dinner was cooked throughout by superheated water; and whatever may have been the cost on the relative economy of the system, the cooking was accepted as unquestionably satisfactory.
That bread can be baked and meat roasted by hot water may seem quite incredible to those who think of boiling water only as commonly seen in open vessels. Under atmospheric pressure water can be heated no higher than 212°, far below a roasting temperature. But when confined there is no limit to the temperature it may receive save the weakness or strength of the containing vessel.
The Union Heating Company propose to supply heat and power to houses by a system of pipes circulating water heated under pressure to about 376°, that is, a pressure of about 160 pounds above the atmosphere. In being conveyed a mile in boxed pipes, under ground, the water, it is claimed, loses not more than 1°, so that a temperature of 375° can be maintained in the pipes of a cooking range, a heat sufficient for all culinary purposes. The heating of houses can be effected either by air currents circulating around hot-water coils, or by means of steam radiators, the hot water being converted into steam in small converting chambers.
In the operation of the system, central boiler stations will be established in districts of about one square mile area. The pipes conveying the superheated water from the central station and back again, are laid in the same trench, and are so connected as to allow a forced circulation. The return pipe conveys to the generator all the water not drawn off for domestic or other purposes, thereby saving all the heat not available for heating purposes or for steam power.
The alleged advantages of this system of circulating superheated water over systems of steam heating consist in the smaller size and cost of the service pipes; in the smaller loss of heat by radiation and condensation, owing to the smallness of the pipes; and the saving of fuel through the return of all the unused condensed water to the central generator.
At the trial station at 125th street about 3,000 feet of pipe have been laid. The water to be circulated is heated to about 342°, and is said to be driven through the system at such a rate that no water is allowed to be more than fifteen minutes away from the boiler. It is estimated that two or three cubic feet of water an hour will suffice for heating an ordinary city house, and that the cost to consumers will be much less than with any other system of heating. To determine this, however, we are inclined to think that something more than brief experimental trials, under the management of the company's engineers, will be necessary. However promising a system may be theoretically, serious difficulties are apt to be encountered when it is put to the test of practical use at the hand of ignorant and unskillful servants. In the ordinary use of steam at low pressure for domestic purposes, leaking joints and valves are a source of constant trouble; much more must they be troublesome under a pressure four or five times as great. At any rate the successful use of superheated water in the way proposed will necessitate a style of valve making and steam fitting marvelously better than builders and house owners are able to obtain now.

1881 Buffalo Weekly Express, January 27, 1881, Page 2.
The "American District Steam Company" is the name of a new company just formed at Lockport with the following officers : President. Dr. D. F. Bishop; Vice-President, W. C. Andrews; Secretary, B. D. Hall ; Treasurer, J. H. Babcock. The capital stock is to be $10,000,000, consisting of 100,000 shares at $100 a share.

1881 "How Robbed by Daylight," The New-York Times, March 18, 1881, Page 2.
Prall New-York Heating Company stock certificates stolen from Mrs. Prall.

1881 "A New Enterprise," Decatur Daily Republican. April 5, 1881, Page 3.
Mr. E. L. Holly, superintendent of the American District Steam Co., (Holly System), which has offices at Lockport, N.Y., and at New York City.  Mr. Holly stated that there were not 19 cities in the United States being heated by the Holly system, and that all the works give satisfaction.  Nineteen other cities in the country will be by steam next winter, as companies have been organized for that purpose.

1882 Philadelphia Steam Supply Company, April 25, 1882.

1883 "Note Relating to 'Water-Hammer' in Steam Pipes," by Robert H. Thurston, Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 4:404-409 (June 1883)

1884 "The Distribution of Steam in Cities," Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers 12:632-638 (February 1884)

1884 District steam supply : heating buildings by steam, from a central source, by James Herbert Bartlett
Includes details about 18 steam systems.

1886 American District Steam Company Holly System of Street Distribution in Cities and Villages for purposes of heating and power supply.

1887 Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Year 1887
Pages 282-284: March 21, 1887.  Boston Heating Company

1887 "Men of Steam," Altoona Times, June 16, 1887, Page 1.
Williamsport, June 15. The annual session of the Holly District Steam Engineers, Superintendents and Managers' Association opened here to-day with a good attendance. The organization is devoted to matters connected with steam supply interests and represents the majority of the States in the Union. President Foreman, of this city, presides. Reports were presented today by the Secretary and Treasurer. Various papers will be read to-morrow.

1887 "The Plant of the Boston Heating Company," by Arthur V. Abbott, Read before the Boston Society of Civil Engineers, November 16, 1887, Association of Engineering Societies 7(10):389-410 (October 1888)

1887 The Prall system of heating cities and supplying power by hot water, by William E. Prall

1887 Report made to the National Superheated Water Company on the Prall system of supplying heat for cooking, heating and steam power, by Benjamin Franklin Isherwood

1888 "A Description of the Plant of the Boston Heating Company," by Arthur V. Abbott, Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers 16:870-887 (February 1888)

1888 "Heating Cities by Steam," by Charles E. Emery, Journal of the Franklin Institute 126:199-222 (March 1888)

1888 "Holly Steam Engineers," Springfield Republican, June 21, 1888, Page 3.
An Important Convention in This City.  The association numbers 45 members.

1888 "Close of the Steam-Heat Conference," Springfield Republican, June 22, 1888, Page 4.

1888 "Holly Steam Engineers," Harrisburg Daily Independent, June 22, 1888, Page 1.
Springfield, Mass, June 22 -

1888 "Holly Steam Engineers," Engineering News 19:543 (June 30, 1888)
The Holly District Steam Engineer's, Superintendents' and Managers Association held its third annual convention at Springfield, Mass. June 22, and elected the following officers:
President, R. H. GALLAGHER, Harrisburg, Pa.: First Vice-President, C. E. EMERY New York; Second, E. P. HOLLY, Springfield, Mass. Third, G. W. SHOUCK, Wilkesbarre, Pa.: Fourth, WILLIAM RIDLEY, Denver, Col.; Secretary, IRA A. HOLLY, New Haven; treasurer, ROBERT MOWBREY; Financial Committee, A. Z. SHOCK, Bloomsburg, Pa., J. D. WALSH, of Lockport, N.Y., and A. D. MERRITT, Springfield.
The following papers were read and discussed: 'High and Low Pressures for Heating Buildings from a Central Station", by R. H. GALLAGHER, Harrisburg. Ha.: "Crude Oil and Coal Compared as Fuels", by E. P. HOLLY; "Can Cooking be done economically by Steam?" by CHARLES S. CHASE, New York: "General Management of the Holly Steam Plants”, by A. Z. SCHOCK, Bloomsburg: "Incrustation in Boilers", by WILLIAM RIDLEY, Denver, Col. “Is it Advisable to Heat Feed Water by Direct Steam" by B, C. SMITH, Auburn, N. Y.: "Cost of Maintaining Steam Meters" by JOHN WALSH, Lockport, N. Y.; "Saving Fuel by the Automatic Regulation of the Damper", by N.C. LOCKE, Salem; "Combustion of Fuel and Boiler Furnaces", by THOMAS MURPHY, Detroit, Mich.; "Rocking Grate Bars", by C. B. HOLLY, Phillipsburg, Pa.

1888 The Manufacturer and Builder 20:214 (September, 1888)
Transactions of the Holly District Steam Engineers, Superintendents and Managers' Association during the Year 1887. New Haven, Conn.: Geo. W. Moffatt. 1888.
The above-named pamphlet contains the transactions of the second annual meeting of the superintendents, chief engineers and managers of the Holly District Steam Supply companies of various cities throughout the United States, which was held at Williamsport, Pa., June 15-16 of the present year.  It embraces papers on Piping Buildings for Steam Heat, by Geo. S. Chase, of Bellefonte, Pa.; The Most Economical Way of Generating steam-the size and Kind of Boilers, by Wm. Ridley, of Denver, Col.; On the Rating of the Horse-Power of Steam Boilers, by W. P. Trowbridge, of New York, and C. B. Richards, of New Haven, Conn.; besides a number of reports upon subjects of technical interest to the members. The association exhibits a commendable degree of activity, and will doubtless prove of much advantage to its members as a means of mutual improvement.

1888 Central station heating and power supply [by the use of superheated water], by Rochester Superheated Water Company

1888 National Heating Company, operating the Prall system of central station heating and power supply, by Rossiter W Raymond

1890 American District Steam Company Holly System of Street Distribution in Cities and Villages for purposes of heating and power supply.

1891 "Distribution of Steam from Central Stations," Proceedings of the National Electric Light Association 9:58-78 (February 1891)

1891 Electrical Enterprise 2(24):477-478 (December 12, 1891)
The sale of residual products of gas works pays the dividends, the salaries, and a portion of the operating expenses. As good a showing can be made by electric light stations conveniently situated. The exhaust steam of a non-condensing plant has nine-tenths of all the heat absorbed by the water evaporated. This steam is worth for heating purposes than the cost of the coal burned. The demand for heat is greater in the months of longest lighting.  An excellent field for an experiment to determine the possibilities in the utilization of exhaust steam is in the neighborhood of the Head place station of the Edison Illuminating Company.  An engineer who has had experience in this line declares that the company could sell $20,000 worth of steam a year without increasing the back pressure on the exhaust more than five pounds at the utmost.

1900 "Utilization of Exhaust Steam for Heating," by Harry J. Frith, Proceedings of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association 19:116-144 (May, 1900)

1900 "Hot-Water Heating From a Central Station," by H. T. Yaryan, Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 21:937-960 (May, 1900)

1900 "New Franchise at Ottumwa," The Street Railway Journal 18(6):171 (August 10, 1901)
The Ottumwa Electric and Steam Company, of Ottumwa, Ia.  It was the first company in Iowa to do exhaust steam heating and has about 3 miles of pipe line, installed by the American District Steam Company.

1901 "Steam Heating from Central Stations," by Charles R. Maunsell, Proceedings of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association 20:371-392 (May 1901)

1902 "Hot-Water vs. Steam Heating," by J. F. Porter, Proceedings of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association 21:469-492 (May 1902)

1903 "Report of Committee on District Heating," by John W. Glidden, Proceedings of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association 22:363-381 (May 1903)
Your Committee on District Heating finds that there are about one hundred heating plants of this character in operation in the United States at the present time.  Possibly ten of these are live-steam heating plants, operating solely for the heating business.  The remainder are about two-thirds exhaust-steam heating plants, and one-third hot water heating plants.

1904 "Report of Committee on District Heating," by E. F. McCabe, Proceedings of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association,, Volume 1, 23:436-496 (May 1904)
Includes anonymous data on 36 steam and 16 hot-water systems.

1905 "Report of Committee on District Heating,"  Proceedings of the Convention of the National Electric Light Association, Volume 1, 24:410-430 (June 1905)
Pages 23-24:  Hot water plant of the Columbus, Ohio Public Service Company

1911 Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (June 1911)

1911 Central Station Heating, by American District Steam Company

1912 Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (June 1911)

1912 Central Station Heating, by Byron Towne Gifford

1913 Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (May 1913)

1914 Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association held at Rochester, New York (May, 1914)

1914 "Reminiscence and the Early Day Struggle of Central Station Steam Heating," by John Walsh

1915 Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (June 1915)

1915 District Heating: A Brief Exposition of the Development of District Heating and Its Position Among Public Utilities, by S. Morgan Bushnell and Frederick Burton Orr

1919 Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (June 1919)

1921 In One Man's Life: Being Chapters from the Personal & Business Career of Theodore N. Vail, by Albert Bigelow Paine
Pages 190--194:  The Boston Heating Company

1921 Handbook of the National District Heating Association | also here |

1922 Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (June, 1922)

1923 Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the National District Heating Association (June, 1923)

1925 The ADSCO System of Atmospheric Steam (Vapor) Heating

1932 Fifty years of New York steam service; the story of the founding and development of a public utility, by New York Steam Corporation

1932 Handbook of the National District Heating Association 

1933 Principles of economical heating, by National District Heating Association

1953 Manual of Design Criteria, Military Construction, High Temperature Hot Water Heating Systems, Prepared by Paul L. Geiringer

1959 "Nation's Largest High Temperature Water installation heats U.S. Air Force Academy," MIT Technology Review 62(2) (December 1959)

1962 Principles of economical heating, 6th Edition, by National District Heating Association

1963 High temperature water heating its theory and practice for district and space heating applications, by Paul L. Geiringer

1985 District Heating and Cooling in the United States, Prospects and Issues

1991 High Temperature Water Heating Systems, Departments of the Army and Air Force (December 1991)

1995 "A History of Cogeneration Before PURPA," by Morris A. Pierce, ASHRAE journal 37(5):53-60 (May 1995)

1995 "The road to Lockport: Historical background of district heating and cooling, by Morris A. Pierce" ASHRAE transactions Volume 101:885-892, Part 1; PB: 1517
The idea of district heating can be traced back to Roman hypocausts, some of which warmed multiple buildings. They were reintroduced into Europe during the Renaissance and slowly evolved into modern hot air, hot water, and steam heating systems. Major heating milestones are summarized, along with requirements to conserve fuel and abate smoke. Early district-heating proposals in London (1623 and 1820s), Pennsylvania (1869), Warsaw and Zuerich (1872) are discussed, as are steam systems actually installed at the US Naval Academy (1853), the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, and a hot water cogeneration system at the Banstead Downs Asylum in England (1876). Birdsill Holly--a Lockport, New York, inventor--installed the first successful commercial district heating system there in 1877. By 1890, more than 50 were installed, many of which are still operating today. District cooling began shortly after that, with successful introduction of systems using brine and ammonia.

1995 "Steam on the  Frontier:    District Heating in  Denver,  1880-1995 by  Jan  E.  Wagner and Morris  A.  Pierce  ASHRAE transactions Volume 101:893-903, Part 1; PB: 1517
In late 1879 a group of Denver businessmen led by pioneer John W. Smith incorporated the Denver City Steam Heating Company to supply heat and power to their frontier own. The following summer they installed a Holly district steam system, including a boiler plant and several thousand feet of underground steam pipe laid under unpaved streets. On November 5, 1880, the company began supplying steam to downtown Denver. Henry M. Porter, Smith`s son-in-law, became president of the company in 1888 and replaced the distribution system with larger pipes in anticipation of asphalt paving. Although rarely meeting the financial expectations of its owners, the system grew over the years and in 1909 was acquired by a predecessor to the Public Service Company of Colorado. The Denver steam system is the oldest commercial district heating company in the world and continues to supply steam for heating and cooling to a large portion of downtown Denver from its original plant location.

1995 "Controlling urban climates: The need for local heat supply planning," by Morris A. Pierce, Journal of Urban Technology 2(3): (1995)

1995 "Steam Heat and Power in Philadelphia," by Morris A. Pierce

1995 "Boston Heating Company," by Morris A. Pierce

1996 "Heat-supply planning: A practice worth importing," by Morris A. Pierce, District Energy 81(4):4 (Second Quarter 1996) 

1996 "State and local heat supply planning:  Insurance for a warm future," by Morris A. Pierce, ASHRAE transactions v 102, n 1, p 801-808,

2003 High Temperature Water Heating Systems (May 2003)

2012 "High-Temperature Hot Water District Heating: A Brief History," by Morris A. Pierce, District Energy  (Fourth Quarter 2012)
Page 17:  The first high-temperature hot water district heating system was patented by the American inventor Angier March Perkins in 1831 and was widely used in Britain throughout the 19th century; some systems remained in service into the 1930s. The Perkins system used small-bore (less than 1-inch) piping that distributed hot water at 300-600 degrees Fahrenheit and 300-3,000 psig. Although none of these systems is known to have been used to heat multiple buildings, Perkins said in 1836 that he could “heat a whole parish from one fire.”
After Birdsill Holly introduced commercial district steam heating in 1877, several competitors appeared including William Prall, who in 1878 patented a “superheated” water system that could deliver heat over a much longer distance than the low-pressure steam networks then in use. His National Superheated Water Co. developed systems that distributed hot water at 400 F to individual buildings, which was flashed into steam for heating and to power engines. The condensate was then metered and returned to the plant through a low-pressure condensate return line.
Small Prall systems were built in New York and Washington, D.C., before he convinced Bell Telephone founder Theodore Newton Vail to invest in a much larger system to serve the financial district in Boston, which was being rebuilt after a large fire in 1872. Vail’s Boston Heating Co. began construction in 1886 and started serving 70 customers in January 1888. In November 1889 the system was shut down and went out of business due to the complete disintegration of the open return lines from atmospheric oxygen corrosion. Unlike a district steam system that can operate reasonably well without the return condensate, the Prall network was not economically viable without it. The abandoned hot water pipes were (and may still be) used as conduits for telephone wires.
German engineers in the 1920s resurrected high-temperature hot water systems, recognizing as Perkins did that a closed system was not subject to corrosion. Large high-temperature hot water systems were installed in many German industrial facilities prior to World War II, and a few were installed in American factories in the 1930s. The German systems proved to be resistant to damage from aerial bombs and could be quickly repaired, which the U.S. Air Force discovered in its survey of wartime damage. In 1947 a high-temperature hot water system operating at around 400 F was installed at the new Loring Air Force Base in Maine. Within 10 years, more than 30 similar systems were installed at other air bases, while the U.S. Navy also adopted the technology for many of its facilities. Rutgers and Brigham Young universities installed similar systems in the 1950s, with many more installed on other campuses and military bases in later years.
One notable installation was the high-temperature district  heating network at the new U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which began service in 1957. This system operates at 454 F and 440 psia – the highest known temperature and pressure to have been used on such a system.

2017 "Design of a High-Temperature-Hot-Water-Plant Expansion," by Eric Chrencik, HPACEngineering, January 12, 2017
This article discusses a recently completed expansion of a high-temperature-hot-water (HTHW) plant at George Mason University.  The university’s HTHW system typically operated at 360°F and supplied water with a 100°F temperature differential (260°F return temperature). The system-pressure setpoint was approximately 220 psig.

The Bulletin of the National District Heating Association
Volume 1 - October 1915 - June 1916 Volume 2 - October 1916 - June 1917 Volume 3 - October 1917 - June 1918 Volume 4 - October 1918 - June 1919
Volume 5 - October 1919 - June 1920 Volume 6 - October 1920 - June 1921 Volume 7 - October 1921 - June 1922 Volume 8 - October 1922 - June 1923
Volume 9 - October 1923 - June 1924 Volume 10 - October 1924 - June 1925 Volume 11 - October 1925 - June 1926 Volume 12 - October 1926 - June 1927

Additional information, suggestions, questions, and corrections are always welcome and can be submitted to:

Morris A. Pierce
Department of History
364 Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester NY 14627-0070

© 2020 Morris A. Pierce