radiators 101
December 16, 2014 12:26 PM   Subscribe

This is my first winter in an apartment with radiators and I am trying to understand what to expect from them. So far, it pretty much feels cold all the time. Is this normal?

I'm on the top floor of a brownstone in Brooklyn. The thermostat is on the ground floor. It is set to 75 degrees and I'm told that if the temperature in the apartment drops below 75 the heat will turn on. The temperature in my apartment has never been 75, it hovers between 66 and 70. (Admittedly, this is not crazy uncomfortable, but it still gets a little chilly - enough so that I question the accuracy of the thermometer I've been using. For example, when it's 66, I need to be in longjohns and wool socks, or else I'll be freezing.) The radiators DO turn on periodically, but never for very long, and it never gets particularly toasty in here - certainly never anything that feels like 75. Is this to be expected? Is it just the case that when the downstairs is 75, the upstairs is bound to be a little cooler? This is a little counter-intuitive to me, but it would explain what's happening.

Perhaps my core temperature is just cold? Does anyone have any wisdom or experience they can share?
posted by fingers_of_fire to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you adjusting the valve on the side of the radiator at all? It may be turned down as low as possible. IME and in the experience of probably most new yorkers, radiator apartments tend to have 2 adjustable temperatures: surface of the sun and the planet hoth.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:28 PM on December 16, 2014 [9 favorites]

Yeah, make sure the valves/vents whatever they are are open. When they're really working at full throttle, you'll have to open your windows to let some the heat out, it will be so toasty.
posted by jabes at 12:31 PM on December 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

My understanding of that valve is that in practice it only has two settings, open and closed. Even though it seems to function like you can adjust the intensity, that's not really the case. Of course, as I said - I'm a newbie. My valves are set to open, in any event.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 12:31 PM on December 16, 2014

Maybe there's air in the radiators? There should be an air vent on the other side, opposite the valve. It needs to be opened until the hissing stops and some water comes out.
posted by Namlit at 12:39 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Being on the top floor of a building with radiator heat and the temperature set to 75 is usually so hot that you'll have to open the windows to cool things down. So your instinct that something's wrong with the system is probably correct.
posted by MsMolly at 12:41 PM on December 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

You're correct about the valve. Ask the super to bleed the radiators - it's not hard to do, but can spew foul water all over if you don't have a hose and catch bucket ready.
posted by djb at 12:42 PM on December 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

It might also be that the first floor (where the thermostat is) heats up faster and retains heat better than your apartment does. This is especially likely if there's little or no insulation in the ceiling overhead. So, the heat stays on long enough to warm up the first floor, but not your floor.

Are your windows old and drafty? That's an easy problem to ease with plastic shrink film.

Or, bribe the first floor residents to keep blankets hanging over a couple of their radiators nearest the thermostat, so the heating system takes longer to heat their place.
posted by jon1270 at 12:43 PM on December 16, 2014

here is a helpful-ish image to show you the bits we are referring to

In general the valve is what you adjust to turn the heat on and off on your individual unit. The vent is a thing that sometimes leaks boiling hot water and that's when I call the super. If it bangs a lot when the boiler turns on downstairs, then I think it needs to be bled.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:45 PM on December 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Those people on the ground floor must be really toasty if the thermostat is set at 75. There could be multiple reasons why that setting is not resulting in your apartment getting that warm. One is that you're on the top floor, so your living space has much more surface exposure to the exterior (via the roof), so it loses heat to the outside much faster than the spaces below (especially if the insulation up there is not so great). You can also feel chilly, even if the temperature is 70, if you are surrounded by cold surfaces (ceiling, walls, windows) through radiational cooling.

Besides making sure the radiators are fully on, you might also find out whether they need to be bled. If this is a hot water system, what happens is that air gets into the system, rises to a high point like your pad, and prevents water from circulating properly through the radiators. Bleeding removes the air and fixes this. Your super will have a radiator key to do this. A steam radiator would not require bleeding.

Beyond that, you might consider applying some plastic storms to the windows to retain more heat and seal out drafts, and caulk any other places where drafts seem to be coming through.
posted by beagle at 12:45 PM on December 16, 2014

My apartment in Oakland had rads and it was roasting hot whenever they were on. Do the rads feel warm or hot to the touch? Do you hear the hiss?

We joke that in our apartment, that while the thermostat is set to 72, that YAY, it's 72 in the hall!

The master bedroom is easily 10 degrees cooler.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:50 PM on December 16, 2014

Where are the sensors that are determining the actions of the radiators? They are most likely not an accurate reading of your actual living space. In my building there are sensors in 7 apartments ( in a building of about 50 or 60 apartments). When one of the sensors drop below 75 the heat in the whole building is supposed to kick on. ACTUALLY, the sensor is above my front door, the furthest away from any of the many large windows, and in this little nook/short hallway where the warm air accumulates. There's even a little wall that drops down from the ceiling about 3 feet in front of the door to make sure it's nice and toasty up there. When it's 75 or much higher according to that sensor it's often freezing, often illegally so, in the rest of my apartment. And the apartments below you are most likely even colder, certainly not warmer. The only point of the sensor up there is to let us know that any stray spider will be toasty warm. I bet that's what's happening on your building. Your management are screwy assholes telling you that. They know it's not true and they can get away with it due to the language, or trick the tenants at least.

Oh yeah, and part of my point is that I'm sure that you are right. Your apartment is between 66 and 70, which is, yes, freezing. And I bet the lower end of that is illegal, though I don't know the laws in your state.
posted by Blitz at 12:53 PM on December 16, 2014

Has your landlord come to check it out? We recently had some screwy issues with our heat and the repair guy mentioned that thermostats can be pretty buggy and need to be replaced more often than people might think. We ended up with a new thermostat and have been warm ever since. Anyway, I think step 1 is to ask the landlord to check any issues like this. It's not a guarantee that the previous tenant would have asked about this (I don't know how the people who lived here before us survived!).
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:55 PM on December 16, 2014

My apartment is often colder than 68 degrees ( which is illegal here), though if I complain to the management they say it's 75 or 85 or whatever, and give me the same explanation they gave you, that the heat kicks on if it's below 75. Actually my apartment is often below 64/65 if you move toward the outer half of any of the rooms which are unusable in winter.
posted by Blitz at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2014

And I bet the lower end of that is illegal, though I don't know the laws in your state.

Between 6am and 10pm, if the outside temp is 55 or under, indoors it has to be at least 68. Between 10pm and 6am, if the outside temp is 40 or under, indoors it has to be at least 55.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:07 PM on December 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

poffin boffin is correct about the law in NYC. Have you contacted your landlord to tell him your apartment is too cold? If you have and he has not dealt with the problem, call 311 and make a complaint.
posted by merejane at 1:44 PM on December 16, 2014

Nthing talking to the landlord. A lot of these things are pretty old and they need to know when a pipe or valve is failing. Happened at my old place.

Related question:
Are there seriously laws as to the minimum temperature? My place in Seattle has baseboards and is regularly below 50. This probably only applies to places with a centralized heating system, I suppose?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:52 PM on December 16, 2014

It is true in most cities and is completely separate from systems. Here in Vermont individual gas fired units per apartment are popular just because they make compliance much much easier. Here's the Seattle link: PDF. 68 minimum daytime, 58 minimum nighttime.
posted by meinvt at 7:08 PM on December 16, 2014

As to the OP, I suspect the system might also be "short cycling". It comes on and as the system heats up it quickly radiates to wherever that one thermostat is and shuts back off. Your radiator, being at the end of the loop and possibly not properly bled, just never gets enough hot water to work properly. Absolutely complain and keep doing so until they fix it.
posted by meinvt at 7:10 PM on December 16, 2014

The cool thing about radiators is that you can use radiator humidifiers. Basically a container that attaches to your radiator and releases steam into your place. Much nicer than having to get actual humidifiers.
posted by srboisvert at 8:10 PM on December 16, 2014

It sounds like you have a one-pipe steam system, i.e., valve on one end of the radiator, air vent at the other end, right? First, ensure that the air vent is not clogged. Air has to leave the radiator for the steam to enter--when the steam reaches the end of the radiator, the vent closes so that no steam escapes. (Btw, steam systems aren't "bled"--that's for hot water systems.)

There are also large vents located at the ends of the mains and at riser pipes in the basement to vent the air in feeder pipes so that the steam can reach each unit. Ask your landlord to check/replace these vents. The folks at heatinghelp.com are an excellent resource.
posted by she's not there at 8:55 PM on December 16, 2014

As far as I know, there are 3 kinds of radiator systems:

1. Hot water systems. These, you have to bleed air out of them to work right. There would be 2 pipes coming out of the radiator.
2. 2-pipe steam systems. You can tell, because there are 2 pipes coming out of the radiator.
3. 1-pipe steam systems. This will have a big pipe on one end and a little vent thing sticking out of the radiator halfway up the other end.

My advice is about a 1-pipe system. YMMV.

There are 3 points of failure.
1. Make sure the valve is open, and open all the way.
2. Steam vent (the little thing sticking out of the other end) failure, or inadequate venting.
3. Something wrong with the thermostat, which you won't be able to fix.

To check the steam vent, turn the valve off, wait for everything to cool, then unscrew the vent. It's probably just screwed in with 1/8" pipe threads. Open the valve back up. Next time the boiler fires up, the radiator should heat up pretty quickly, and you may see steam coming out of the hole. If you do, then you just need to replace your current vent with a different (bigger) vent. They come in different sizes, and you being the farthest from the boiler, you need a bigger vent than the radiators on the other floors.

Fortunately, you don't have to guess. You can buy an adjustable vent, like this one or this kit and try different sizes until it acts how you'd like. Put Teflon tape over the threads, and just screw it in until it's good and hand-tight, and the valve is pointing upwards.

Changing a vent is reversible. You can put the old one back on when you move out. If you want to go all next level, they also make thermostatically controlled vents.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:21 AM on December 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

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