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How to deal with automatic heater in apartment?
October 26, 2007 10:45 AM   Subscribe

My landlord in NY claims that our heater must turn on when the temperature drops. If we wanted to prevent this, a technician would have to "turn the valves off" -- a cumbersome process that risks the valves later freezing and "popping" and steam destroying our apartment. True? Is this common? And if so, how can we deal with a too-hot room, other than by opening the window?
posted by shivohum to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Your landlord is required by law to turn on your heat. And it sucks when the house is too hot, but think of it as a sign that he cares. My house was waaay too hot all last year (remember how it was warm until December? Yea, I had heat in October, and the heat is on in my place today). I opened the windows and ate a lot of popsicles.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:50 AM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


You mention no way of turning the heat down, only off. Is lowering the heating setting not an option?
posted by piratebowling at 10:51 AM on October 26, 2007


Your landlord is right. Do you have steam radiators? Do they have a dial? I've got a knob on one end that remains open all the way to open the pipes, and a small dial on the other end (mine's from 0-8). I've figured out that this relates, somewhat, to how many "segments" of my radiator get heated. Even set low, sometimes it's still pretty damn hot. Open your windows accordingly to find your personal equilibrium, and wear less clothing indoors.
posted by raztaj at 10:54 AM on October 26, 2007


Sounds like you have an old steam heat system. My understanding of them is that they have no settings between off and melt-the-silverware hot. Since the very top apartments have to be a certain temperature by law, apartments lower down get...toasty.
posted by Skorgu at 11:01 AM on October 26, 2007


Set aside the potential environmental cost, and think of this as a bonus -- you get fresh air all winter!

(because yeah, some heating systems are basically full-on or full-off and no in between)
posted by aramaic at 11:06 AM on October 26, 2007


This is one of those things I usually refer to as "new york charm", along with a lack of right angles and free entymology lessons, that you often find in old tenement buildings in NYC. The heaters themselves usually have an off / down valve but the pipes are still hot, so the place is toasty, and you just have to open windows when the landlord is heating the place too much. It's just a clumsy method of heat distribution - but better than freezing to death.
posted by mdn at 11:09 AM on October 26, 2007


Buy an air conditioner and let the two systems fight it out. Two environmental controls enter, one environmental control leaves.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:11 AM on October 26, 2007 [5 favorites]


If you have steam radiators, there should be a steam valve connected to the radiator and the pipe. For one pipe radiators, the valve should be fully open or fully closed. (Opening midway could create gurgling and knocking noises and possibly leaks.) If you have the dial on the air valve that raztaj mentions you might be able to make finer adjustments.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:11 AM on October 26, 2007


Steam systems are balanced -- in more ways than one. First, most radiators themselves are balanced to make sure the steam condenses down the right way. The other way is by 'balancing' the amount of pressure that comes out of the boiler. If any one radiator is shut off, it can affect the whole system. It can be as innocent as hearing funny noises, or as extreme as having your boiler explode. I am not an HVAC technician, but I have lived in many old houses. Best not to fiddle with the heating system, and open the window. Fans help to spread the heat around, too.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 11:14 AM on October 26, 2007


Since the very top apartments have to be a certain temperature by law, apartments lower down get...toasty.

I think you've got it backwards- heat rises, so the upper apartments tend to get warmer while the lower ones need more energy to keep warm.
posted by mkultra at 11:16 AM on October 26, 2007


Talk to your landlord about installing thermostatic radiator valves. The upfront costs may be as much as $200.00 per room, but if properly installed it will save thousands in fuel costs. Basically Thermostatic Radiator valves make each room its own heating zone.
posted by Gungho at 11:24 AM on October 26, 2007


Put a quilt over the radiator.
posted by hortense at 11:27 AM on October 26, 2007


If your heating system has radiators, could you swaddle them with some heat-retaining wrapper (maybe experimentally a sleeping bag or blankets) to limit the heat the radiator puts into the room? If the experiment works, you could find a more decorative wrapper.
posted by anadem at 11:30 AM on October 26, 2007


hortense: Put a quilt over the radiator.

Hahha, and make sure it's soaked in some gasoline while you're at it.

As for the question, yeah, same situation here, and we just open windows until we're comfortable. The only problem with this solution is that we were constantly opening/closing windows. Now we have an A/C unit in each room with a "fan only" option which will hopefully make it less of an issue.
posted by Grither at 11:31 AM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


oh, preview
posted by anadem at 11:31 AM on October 26, 2007


I think you've got it backwards- heat rises, so the upper apartments tend to get warmer while the lower ones need more energy to keep warm.

If it were a free-flowing system, then that would be true. But, the pipes are probably too small to allow bidirectional flow, and the boiler is probably in the basement, so the nearest (as the pipe runs) should get hotter steam. (IANAApartmentDweller, YMMV)
posted by cmiller at 11:32 AM on October 26, 2007


I'm in Ohio, with forced air, but I've read some interesting material on the subject at this site. It's got a forum for steam heat professionals, but they seem to be friendly to laymen. They were helpful to my brother, who has an old house in upstate NY.

It seems that such problems can often be traced to the flu epidemic of 1918, after which many of the deaths were blamed on lack of ventilation. As a result, they started sizing steam heat systems so they could keep the space warm even with the windows open.
posted by jon1270 at 11:32 AM on October 26, 2007


Shoulda linked directly to this page.
posted by jon1270 at 11:38 AM on October 26, 2007


If any one radiator is shut off, it can affect the whole system. It can be as innocent as hearing funny noises, or as extreme as having your boiler explode.

If everything is to code, boiler will not explode. The boiler should have an electronic sensor (a pressuretrol) that shuts down the burner if steam pressure rises above a safe level. The boiler should also have pressure relief valve to vent excess pressure. And a lower water cut-off to shut down the boiler should it run close to dry.
posted by malp at 11:39 AM on October 26, 2007


hortense: Put a quilt over the radiator.

Hahha, and make sure it's soaked in some gasoline while you're at it.


Your radiator can only get up to 250 degF before the boiler pressure relief valve blows. That's not hot enough to ignite a quilt, even a gasoline soaked one.

hortense's suggestion is good. Insulate the radiators to keep your rooms cooler.

250 deg F is the temperature of saturated steam at 15 psig, the maximum allowable pressure in a residential steam boiler.
posted by malp at 11:57 AM on October 26, 2007


You might consider a radiator thermostat.
posted by trip and a half at 12:05 PM on October 26, 2007


Seconding insulation, if room stats are out of the question. You could get some rigid foam insulation, an inch thick, some duct tape (get the heat resistant kind), and build boxes over the radiator. If they look bad, you can paint them. They'll cut way down on the amount of heat transferred into the room, and if you get chilly, you just take them off. This solution is among the suggestions on this page devoted to this very question.
posted by beagle at 12:09 PM on October 26, 2007


How can we deal with a too-hot room, other than by opening the window?

That's easy -- just wear less!

I loved my DC apartment with its steam heat -- middle of winter, window open an inch (fresh air, mmm) and shorts all I was wearing.
posted by Rash at 12:09 PM on October 26, 2007


From the landlord's point of view, having a tenant open a window to vent excess heat is an absurd waste of money. Landlords in the NY area pay an exorbitant amount of money on heat, especially with the recent spike in oil.

My guess is that your landlord hasn't explored the options in reducing his heating bills, or has been to busy or negligent to look at the impact of heating costs on his bottom line. If he does, he'll be in for the sticker shock of a lifetime.

The best way to lower heat costs for landlords who own buildings in cold climates -- I speak as one of them -- is to install what's called a "heat computer." This is a device that measures the temperatures in apartments on the top floor of the building, i.e. where the heat accumulates, via sensors. The data is sent wirelessly to a computer in the basement, which transmits it via DSL to a server that you access over the net.

If the heat on the top-floor apartments are above a designated temperature, say 73 degrees at 6:00 am, the heat computer will turn the furnace or boiler off. Note that 73 degrees sounds hot, but since heat rises, lower-level apartments will be at slightly lower temperatures.

The nicest feature of this system is that you can configure your heat settings online. Feeling a little chilly this morning when you roll out of bed? Okay, let's set the temps to 75 from 73, and make the tenants extra happy.

In the long run, the savings pour in because top-floor tenants never (or rarely) open windows to evacuate heat accumulating at the top of the building. Also, your landlord can cut down on repair bills that often plague upper-floor apartments, which can be prone to damaged windows (from the opening and closing) and other issues due to the increased heat.

Try relaying these comments on the heat computer to your landlord, and see what he says. Have him google "heat computer installation" to find a firm to set him up. The set up costs will run from 5 to 10K, but he'll face an immediate 20% or more savings in the winter that's almost guaranteed.

The best part is, there's no fuss from the tenants' point of view. No radiator valve changes, nada. Just the installation of a small sensor in the top floor apartments, and that's it.
posted by Gordion Knott at 12:31 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fascinating answers so far. Just to clarify, the "landlord" (actually the super) says that there's no middle ground -- it's either on or off. It's a high-rise building.

Should we ask about installing the radiator thermostat or thermotatic radiator or are most high-rise people opposed to this?
posted by shivohum at 12:33 PM on October 26, 2007


As far as all those quilt suggestions go, I once set a blanket on fire by putting it over a lamp for a few hours. (I was a kid and meant to be asleep, so I was trying to create a subtle light source). I don't know how that actually compares to a heater, but I'd be careful.
posted by jacalata at 12:53 PM on October 26, 2007


Should we ask about installing the radiator thermostat or thermotatic radiator or are most high-rise people opposed to this?

I don't know why anyone would be opposed to that, except insofar as it might be a PITA to have to be around for the install. It makes it more like having a regular thermostat, where you can set your own temperature.

I've never met someone who was like "nah, I don't want a thermostat, I prefer the random whims of the heating system gods to rule my life."
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:00 PM on October 26, 2007


If it's a high rise, mobilize your neighbors. Many of them must be having this same problem. Bypass the super (who probably doesn't know what he's talking about) and deal with whoever owns the building; present them with a diplomatically worded request/suggestion that they do something about it.

That said, retrofitting a high-rise with computerized heating controls on an ancient steam system is more easily said than done, and way more expensive than the 5-10K mentioned by Gordion. The reason they owners haven't done it may well be that they've analyzed it, and the cost is exorbitant and the payback is insufficent, in their estimation.
posted by beagle at 1:28 PM on October 26, 2007


Talk to your landlord about installing thermostatic radiator valves.

We had these installed in the two radiators in our apartment last year. The install was really fast and easy- they just take off the little relief valve and screw in the new thermostat. The downside for us is that it is still too frigging hot in our apartment with the thermostat set to "off". The radiator still gets warm. In fact, our main room, which has a radiator apparently sized to heat a ballroom, got to 85 degrees with the thingie turned off and the windows open. (We had to shut off the valve to the radiator again, even though radiator man says that's a bad thing to do.) This is probably less of a problem where it's consistently very cold, but you should be aware that it's not a perfect retrofit. I'm sure it saves a bit of energy though.

I'm going to talk to our manager about Gordion Knot's heat computer.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:00 PM on October 26, 2007


I had the same problem in my SF apartment. I bought a insulated "water heater blanket" for each radiator and made a couple of slight cuts to modify them (i.e. to accomodate the valve) then used duct tape to seal the edges and slipped them over the top of the radiators. For very little money, I was much more comfortable. The water heater blanket is designed not to burn and has thick insulation, so it worked very well. On the very few occasions when the leached heat from lower floors wasn't enough, I just slipped the blanket off.
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:23 PM on October 26, 2007 [4 favorites]


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