3 things you really need to know about your NYC radiators

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Radiators are so very New York, and if you live in an older building, chances are you have one. That's because most older New York City buildings are steam-heated. That means oil or gas is  heated in a boiler and steam is then distributed throughout the building. And as every New Yorker knows, radiators can also be fairly quirky, starting up—and clanging loudly, as if in a anger—just when you're sleeping, or going from zero to 60 (or more like 30 to 90) in a minute, or not turning on at all in the coldest of winter days.

Here's our cheat sheet for how to make the most of your apartment radiator.

1. How to control heat

A lot of people mistakenly believe that the circular knob on a steam radiator regulates temperature, when it’s actually just an on-off switch, says Peter Varsalona of RAND Engineering & Architecture. "It's not designed to be a control valve," he says.

Generally, you'll want to turn the knob all the way to the right to close it (turn off heat) and to all the way to the left to open it (turn on heat). If it's totally on or off, the radiator shouldn't make those notorious banging sounds. "When you have it opened half way, that can lead to banging problems," says Varsalona.

And, if your radiator knob spins and spins and doesn't seem to tighten in either direction, get your super to fix it. 

(Another thing you or your super can do to stop the banging noise: Shimmy up one side of the radiator so it is sloped toward the inlet and water doesn't become entrapped.)

Also, note that some clanking is usually standard when the heat gets going in the mornings. 

And if you want to actually control heat, you'll have to install a valve device on each radiator to do it. These can cost anywhere from about $50 to much more, depending on whether they're electric and how high-tech they are. Plus, it'll probably cost you about $250 to have a plumber or super install them.

2. How to replace radiators

It's not uncommon for co-op owners to replace their large, cast-iron radiators with smaller ones, says Varsalona. Just keep in mind that radiator and radiator piping can be considered "common elements," so you need to get board approval to replace them.  

If you're choosing to remove your radiators altogether, make sure you keep them somewhere safe so that you can reinstall them when you're ready to sell your place. 

And a note of caution: If you've recently replaced your radiators during a renovation (or, for that matter, are renting a new apartment and haven't used your radiators before), it's always a good idea to turn them on and make sure there are no leaks while your contractor or super is still around and can help fix a mistake.

If there is leaking, that usually means something's wrong with the pipe connection—a problem that can be pretty easily repaired by a super, but could cause a lot of destruction to your apartment and the one downstairs if you weren't around to catch it.

3. How to cover up radiators

If your radiator looks like it could use some prettying up, you can either paint it or put a cover on to hide it. (And no, the landlord is not required to pay for your radiator covers.)

If you're looking to conceal your radiators, consider places like  Knossos Cabinetry, Gothic and Blinds & Beyond (or you can do it all online via Monarch), which will custom design them for you. Some radiator covers are wood; others metal. 

David Sartori, founder of painting firm Brushed Interiors, says his company can strip and paint both radiators and radiator covers. (Note: there's a minimum project fee of $500.)  For a lower price, and smaller job, covers can be sanded, scraped, have their blemishes filled in, and then painted. Chemical stripping and painting is a bigger job and costs more.

Depending on how many radiators you have in your apartment, repainting them should take one to two days, he says. You'll also have to turn off your radiator if the job requires stripping.

 If you want a more basic restoration job, you can just have radiators scraped and sanded smoother. But even that "greatly enhances those old NYC radiators," he says.

And before you hire a painter for this kind of job, make sure to check Yelp ratings, Sartori suggests.


I'm renovating my co-op and want to get rid of a radiator. What's involved?

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