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Why Does Steam Float Over the Streets of Manhattan?

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. Today we’ll look at an unlikely New York icon: the orange steam funnels that spew clouds of vapor over the streets of Manhattan.

Credit…Yuvraj Khanna for The New York Times

The indelible scene-setter of New York is not a yellow taxi cab, or the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Empire State Building. It’s a plastic orange cylinder rising from the center of traffic-clogged city streets, spewing steam. These steam funnels are as quintessentially New York as the subway or corner bodegas and are favored by movie and television directors to show that a story is set in Manhattan.

Created over a century ago, New York’s steam system is the oldest and largest in the country, with over 100 miles of pipes. The utility company Consolidated Edison uses this below-ground network of pipes to supply steam for heating, cooling and other commercial uses around Manhattan.

I spoke with Patrick McGeehan, who covers city infrastructure, about this landmark many New Yorkers notice, but few know anything about.

You mention in your reporting that these steam funnels are found only in Manhattan, not in any other borough. Why is that?

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