City's Unique Heating System Warms Up for Winter

Itar-TassA man performing maintenance work at one of the city's heating plants.
With the temperature dropping outside, the city's main power generation company, Mosenergo, is gearing up to heat Moscow through the long winter months head.

As soon as engineers with the Moscow Heating Network, a Mosenergo subsidiary, record five consecutive days with an average temperature of 8 degrees Celsius or below, they will crank up the world's largest heat-distribution network.

The centralized heating system, which dates back to 1931, diverts the steam produced in the city's power plants through pipes as large as 1.4 meters in diameter to a multitude of heat-exchange stations throughout the city.

In the stations, the steam, which can be as hot as 130 degrees Celsius, transfers its energy to the water that circulates through the radiators in your apartment and flows from your faucets. The steam does not mix with the water used in buildings.

Moscow Heating Network chief Sergei Yerokhin said the temperature of the steam released into the system on any given day was determined by the system's chief dispatcher. When the mercury dips to minus 8, for example, the dispatcher might order the city's 12 heat-producing power plants to release 100-degree steam into the pipes.

The last time the system suffered a large-scale breakdown was in 1978-79, when a pipe explosion left a large area in northern Moscow without heat. The most important thing to do in such a situation is to keep the water flowing, Yerokhin said.

The heating network also determines the temperature in the Kremlin, Yerokhin said. The country's rulers once had their own heating system, but they now depend on GAS-1, the Mosenergo plant located across the Moscow River from the Hotel Rossiya.

While this city's heating system is environmentally friendly, it allows as much as 30 percent of its energy to escape as steam passes through kilometers of pipes above and below the ground. Nevertheless, Yerokhin said it was the most efficient system for heating a city with Moscow's variable continental climate.

Similar systems operate in the former Soviet republics, Scandinavia and China.

One of the most common complaints about Moscow's heating system, especially among newcomers to the city, is that individuals have little or no control over the temperature in their own apartments.

Yerokhin insisted that this was not a criticism of centralized heating itself, but a flaw in the way end-users, who could install regulating systems in their apartment buildings, adapted to it.

In recent years, he added, construction firms have run heating pipes horizontally, rather than vertically as had previously been done. That way, an apartment's living room can be the same temperature as its kitchen, rather than the temperature of the neighbor's upstairs room.

Another growing phenomenon is the introduction of individual thermostats to new apartments. But, as Yerokhin said, "this is just a shortcoming of people's personal approach to the system. There were thermostats introduced in the 1950s and '60s. Then people stopped using them."