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Chances are, if you live in an older New York City building, you have an old fashioned radiator. That's because most New York buildings are steam-heated, which means that water heated in a boiler and steam is then distributed throughout the building. And as every New Yorker knows, radiators can be noisy, hissing and clanking just when you're going to sleep, for example. Or temperamental—getting very hot very quickly. Or worse, not turning on at all on even the coldest of winter days.
Here's our cheat sheet for how to live with your NYC apartment radiator.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published in November 2017. We are presenting it again with updated information for October 2019.]
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.
Generally, you'll want to turn the knob all the way to the right to close it (turn off heat) and 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," 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.
How to bleed your radiator safely
If your heat is "on" but a radiator remains ice cold, it's possible that air is trapped inside, not allowing hot water to circulate and therefore warm your space. "You may need to bleed the unit," says Phil Kraus, CEO of Fred Smith Plumbing, who strongly advises against trying to do it yourself, as you could cause further problems. "Get in touch with your super and tell them you have a problem with your heating unit," he says.
Feeling handy and brave? (Or maybe just cold.) Here are instructions on how to do it. Note that you'll need a radiator key or stand-in like a screwdriver.
Install a valve to control heat
If you want to actually control the 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 $250-$300 to have a plumber or super install it.
There are two different kinds of radiator systems. Look under your radiator to see how many pipes are coming out of the floor—you'll either have one or two pipes. The type you have will dictate the valve you can buy. For more on how this works, see this Brick article that goes into greater detail.
Unfortunately, even if your radiators are off, many apartments, especially on higher floors, are still too warm because steam is rising from the pipes that connect the radiators in each apartment with the boiler.
How to replace radiators
It's not uncommon for co-op owners to replace their large, cast-iron radiators with smaller 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 leakage, 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 below it if left unaddressed.
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 covers from companies such as Knossos Cabinetry, Gothic, and Blinds & Beyond, or you can do it all online with Monarch, which will custom-design them. Some radiator covers are wood, and some are metal.
David Sartori, founder of painting firm Brushed Interiors, says his company can 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, Sartori 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 to smooth blemishes. And even that "greatly enhances those old NYC radiators," he says.
How to deal with the heat
When the heat is on, whether you like it or not, you just have to deal. And like we said above, your apartment may be too hot even with the radiators closed. Letting some heat out through cracked windows is an option (although not very climate friendly), and some people even admit to turning their (still-in-place) air conditioners on in the winter.
A little-known but effective option is to buy fiberglass pipe covers at Home Depot or Lowe's that are designed to wrap around pipes. This keeps the heat from infiltrating your apartment. They're available in a range of sizes.
Another heat-related factor that plagues many New Yorkers is dry skin. The radiators put off a lot of dry heat and humidifiers can help relieve the dryness.
There are two different types of humidifiers: warm mist and cool mist. They are different both in effect and function, and what you choose to purchase will depend on many factors. You should use cool mist for kids, for example. The Consumer Reports humidifier guide is a good place to begin your research.
Lotions, salves, ointments, and balms can also come in handy.
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