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If you live in an older New York City building, you probably have old fashioned radiators and know just how noisy they can be—with random hissing and clunking sounds. Most New York buildings are steam-heated, which means that water is heated by a boiler in the basement and distributed as steam to apartments via a network of sturdy, cast iron radiators. And not only are they noisy but they can get very hot extremely quickly, or worse, not turn on at all.
If you have a thermostat installed, you can regulate the temperature yourself. If not, you are at the whim of your building management, who are required to keep the temperature between 62 and 68 degrees during the winter depending on the time of day.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this article was published in October 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for October 2020.]
Whether you are overheating or feeling the freeze, here’s Brick Underground’s cheat sheet on everything from installing a thermostatic valve to making your radiator a more beautiful and functional roommate.
1. What that knob on your radiator is for
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.
Typically you turn the knob clockwise to turn the heat off, counter-clockwise all the way to turn the heat on. If the radiator is off, it shouldn't make any banging sounds.
"When you have it opened halfway, that can lead to banging problems," Varsalona says. Other possible causes of radiator noise? Improperly pitched piping or hot steam hitting cold water.
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 is prop up one side of the radiator so it slopes toward the boiler and water doesn't become trapped. Important to note: Some clanking is to be expected when the heat gets going in the morning.
2. Installing a valve to control heat
Hot water supply systems have a much broader temperature range than most low pressure steam systems, says Zaid Matalka, an engineer with the firm P.A. Collins PE. Steam systems can only operate at 212 fahrenheit, the equivalent to 100 celsius.
“Ultimately the lack of control in these steam heat systems is why hot water systems are a lot more popular nowadays,” he says.
If you want to regulate the amount of heat your radiator generates in a steam system, you'll have to install a thermostatic radiator valve on each radiator to do it.
There are two different kinds of steam radiator systems, one pipe and two pipe. You can determine which type you have by looking under your radiator to see how many pipes are coming out of the floor. The type you have will dictate the valve plus any additional equipment you might need to install in order to be able to regulate the heat.
In an effort to modernize these late nineteenth and early twentieth century relics, some companies are developing wifi-enabled thermal radiator covers that let users regulate the heat through an app.
Unfortunately, even if your radiators are off, many apartments on higher floors get too hot on particularly warm days because steam is giving off heat from the pipes that connect the radiators to the boiler. (More on that below.)
3. Bleeding your radiator—ask your super
If your heat is on but a radiator remains ice cold, it's possible air is trapped inside and isn’t allowing heat to circulate. If that’s the case, you may need to bleed the unit. Excesive noise—a banging sound—is also a sign that you need to bleed your radiator.
This isn’t typically something you want to do yourself—at least not the first time. (If you're not careful, you can open the valve too wide and hot water can come gushing out. True story.)
Get in touch with your super and tell them you have a problem with your heating unit.
4. Covering up your 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, there are companies that will custom-design covers in either wood or metal.
It’s also possible to strip and paint both radiators and radiator covers. For smaller jobs, 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 or two days. 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 to smooth out the blemishes.
5. Replacing radiators
It's not uncommon for co-op owners to replace their large, cast-iron radiators with smaller stylish ones, Varsalona says. Just keep in mind that radiator and radiator piping can be considered "common elements," so you may 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 apartment.
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 problem.
If there is a leak it 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 below it if left unaddressed.
6. Dealing with the (sometimes excessive) heat
If your apartment is too hot, even with the radiators closed, you may have to come up with some creative solutions.
One suggestion is to put inexpensive fiberglass pipe covers around your pipes. This keeps the heat from pipework in the apartment adding to the temperature.
Matalka suggests getting in touch with the building manager or super and requesting the heat be lowered. There might be others in the building feeling the same way.
Opening a window and getting a good mix of cold fresh air in the room is another option. Ventilation is being touted as one of the cheapest and most effective ways of tackling the coronavirus and is listed as a good hygiene practice by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The downside, Matalka says, is that it isn't great for the environment. “You're throwing away heat that was generated by burning fossil fuel, which in turn releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” he says.
If you’re getting dry skin as a result of the heat, humidifiers can be an effective remedy. Warm mist and cool mist humidifiers do the same thing but keep in mind—pets and small children can get hurt by warm mist machines.
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Lucy Cohen Blatter.
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