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Know Your Steam Generator

Updated on February 14, 2013
Steam generators aren't just for enjoying a good sweat.
Steam generators aren't just for enjoying a good sweat. | Source

Steam generators aren't as simple as they sound, because there are multiple kinds that people use. In addition to the industrial steam generators employed in power emergency situations and as auxiliary power providers, there are domestic types that you can use right in your home. Of course, the sizes and prices of these two types of machines make it unlikely that you'll accidentally order the wrong one and find yourself powering a home sauna with a 2200KW industrial, trailer-mounted steam engine. Still, it's fun to see how similar technologies can be used for something as big as powering a ship or as minuscule as powering a steam shower!

Industrial Steam Generators

It might sound a little old-fashioned to still power anything with steam, but these days, steam generation and steam power are pretty advanced technology—it's just built off the principles that were introduced with early boilers.

Steam is used to power different machines and generate electricity, but how do you make that much steam? If you've ever heated water in a kettle before, you know that it takes a little bit of time to produce a simple burst of steam, and that certainly isn't enough to provide electricity for a ship or a high-rise building.

When you use an industrial steam generator, then, you have to continually produce large quantities of steam at a fast pace, and you set about doing this by burning fuel. The inside of the generator is similar to that tea kettle, but instead of being shaped like one, it's shaped like a big, coiled tube that the water flows through. As you burn fuel, the heat it generates heats up the water in the tube, turning it into steam that shoots out of a small opening. It's not the perfect long-term solution, but it creates steam quickly, so it's useful in a pinch!

Heating the Sauna

Of course, steam doesn't always have to be used to power something—sometimes, steam is good just for being steam! As a bit of a sauna connoisseur myself, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to sit back and do some meditating in a room full of hot steam. Unfortunately, the spa nearest my house is always filled with ladies jibber-jabbering on their cell phones, which really throws off my Qi. Anyway, I started looking into building a little steam room of my own at home, and what did I see everywhere I looked but steam generators! It turns out that the little piece of machinery you use in a sauna has the same name as the industrial behemoth that can power a ship—so what's different, besides the size?

In a traditional sauna, you pour water onto hot rocks, which transfers the heat from the rocks into steam in the air, driving up the room's humidity. This isn't a particularly precise form of steam generation, but hey, some people like it the old-fashioned way. If you want to really control the temperature and humidity in your home sauna, though, you need a steam generator.

Now, as I found out, there are a few different kinds. One is more like the larger, industrial models, because it burns fuel like propane to heat water and feed steam into your sauna. The other is an electrical steam generator that heats water with electric coils.

What They Have in Common

So here I am, thinking about these two different machines that are both called steam generators, trying to figure out why they share a name. But in the end, it's painfully clear—they both generate steam, obviously! Like everything in life, though, the explanation isn't quite as simple as it ought to be.

Industrial steam generators are relatively compact, and while they reach peak power quickly, they aren't as powerful as, say, an industrial boiler. Full-scale boilers are massive pieces of machinery that take a little while to get going, but are ultimately extremely powerful. These generators, on the other hand, are better for short-term use like emergency situations—they can be ready quickly, but they don't last long.

This is similar to how a generator for your sauna works. The generator that produces sauna steam doesn't necessarily require much water to work, and while it may start pumping out steam relatively quickly, it isn't designed to run indefinitely—unless you love a really, really steamy sauna!

The point is, these small, home-use machines aren't necessarily fast or powerful enough to power your house or anything. While they may be similar in principle to an industrial model, they simply aren't capable of performing the same tasks. Stick to using your personal steam generator for powering your sauna, and leave the bigger jobs to a machine designed to handle it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be enjoying a long, at-home steam and getting in touch with my spirit animal (it's a penguin)!

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