Radiator ptoblems
February 22, 2018 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I moved into a new place that I like, but it's a studio with the radiator in the main bedroom area. If it's all the way on it's hellishly hot. If it's all the way off it whines. Is there a fix I can do right now to solve it without involving a plumber?

I would also like to avoiding dousing myself in scalding steam.
posted by codacorolla to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First off, can you confirm if there are two pipes - in and out - connected to the radiator, or just one? And is there a bleeder at the top of one end? (this will help confirm steam vs hot water.)

If the valve whines, it's not sealing correctly and needs to be replaced.
posted by notsnot at 5:42 PM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

One pipe. There is a bleeder. It's less the valve and more the whole coil unit.
posted by codacorolla at 5:46 PM on February 22, 2018

Ok, here’s the deal. The heat is controlled by the little bleeder vent on the end. With the heat off, the vent is open. When the heat kicks on, the steam pushes air through the vent as it fills the radiator. Once it’s full, the hot steam heats up the vent and closes it.

To reduce the heat, you use a smaller orifice in the vent. This will cause the radiator to heat up more slowly, and allow whatever room the thermostat is in to heat up before the hot room gets too hot. You can get an adjustable vent with different sizes if you don’t know what you want. They also make thermostat valves.

You want the shutoff valve either all the way on or all the way off.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:55 PM on February 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

2nding Huffy Puffy's comments- you can't regulate a one pipe steam radiator with the shutoff valve. If it's partially closed it can prevent the smooth flow of the condensate back down the pipe, resulting in hammer and other problems. (Steam comes in the pipe, hits the internal surfaces of the radiator and then condenses and flows back down the same pipe towards the boiler.)
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 6:00 PM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yep. I know that. When it's all the way on it's far too hot, when it's all the way off it's noisy.
posted by codacorolla at 6:03 PM on February 22, 2018

Somewhere in the house there’s a thermostat. When it’s cold it sends a signal to turn the boiler on. The boiler will try to run continuously until the thermostat warms up. There’s also a pressure limiter, so it won’t run constantly.

The boiler will pump steam into all the radiators in the house. Radiators near the boiler, and/or with larger orifices, will fill up first, so those rooms will heat up first. But the boiler won’t stop filling radiators until the room with the thermostat finally heats up enough. If you live in the whole house, you want to try to balance the venting in all the radiators so they heat up evenly. If you have a fast-heating radiator, it’s a reverse “shoes to outrun the bear” situation. You don’t have to close it off, you just want it to fill slower than the radiators in the other rooms.

Finally: when I visited an office in Bavaria for an old company of mine, they didn’t have control over the radiator settings. So they would open windows to adjust the temperature. In February.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:35 PM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

How to change the vent: Check the current vent to see if the threads come straight out the bottom or if they come out the side to make an “L” shape. They are probably 1/8” pipe size, which is about 3/8” actual diameter.

Go to a hardware or plumbing store and buy a #4 or #5 steam vent with the right threads, and some Teflon tape. #4 is the most restrictive size of vent; #5 is a little bigger (hotter). Wrap the threads with the Teflon tape. You want to wind the tape so it winds up when you turn the valve to the right to screw it in, and so that the tape on the end overlaps the tape further down (so no edges sticking out). Looking from the body of the vent toward the end of the threads, this means you start winding at the body and wind counterclockwise toward the end.

Someday when the heat is off and the vent isn’t actively hot, close the shutoff valve and unscrew the vent. Use vise grips, potholders, etc. if you need to. Screw the new vent on until it’s hand-tight and vertical (the valve body should point up, not down). Open the shutoff valve.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:01 PM on February 22, 2018

Sorry, I didn't read the original post as carefully as I should have. I'm a little puzzled by the noise when fully off... it could be that like notsnots mentioned, the shutoff valve isn't sealing fully, perhaps due to a bad washer and as the steam leaks in to the radiator, it's making noise. Replacing or repairing the shutoff valve might be difficult (large valve, probably rusty fittings) so following Huffy Puffy's vent replacement suggestions to make the radiator get less hot when the shutoff valve is fully open might be the path of least resistance.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 7:15 PM on February 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

In all of the radiator heated apartments I've ever lived in I've had this same problem and none of my landlords seemed to give a shit know how to fix it either, so my solution was to keep a window open literally all winter long. This is stupid and wasteful but it works great and idk about you but I never had to pay for steam heat so it had no tangible downside.
posted by phunniemee at 7:22 PM on February 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Huffy Puffy's analysis of your problem is spot-on. One thing I'd say, though, is you'll have much better luck if you can find a decent, adjustable vent valve. The ones I found at Home Depot were crap, not adjustable, and opened too wide (i.e. let the radiator get too hot). A helpful HD employee, who turned out to be a retired plumber picking up a little extra cash, told me point-blank not to buy them, but go to a plumbing supply store & get a Vent-Rite #1 Adjustable Vent. The Vent-Rite is great for two reasons: it's adjustable, and it adjusts from medium-open to very low to completely off. There are other adjustable brands that open wider, which are good for the "this radiator never gets very hot" situations. It's becoming harder to find the Vent-Rite, but the internet is your friend.
posted by mr vino at 7:24 PM on February 22, 2018

I had this exact problem in an apartment I lived in. The management didn't care.

I dealt with it by leaving it on all the time and just opening the windows wide. In the summer they'd shut off the heat so it wasn't a problem then.
posted by MonsieurBon at 7:56 PM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Note re opening the windows: steam heating systems were built/installed at a time when people routinely slept with windows open in the dead of winter for supposed health- related reasons, which is why steam-heated buildings are so often too hot when the windows are closed. Making them run more efficiently can be done, but it has to be fixed as a system-wide effort, not one radiator at a time. In other words, if your landlord isn't behind fixing the system, go ahead and crack your windows without guilt.

(Daughter of one of the "dead men" who knew steam and former frustrated owner of a condo in a building with steam heat.)
posted by she's not there at 9:53 PM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I had that problem earlier this year, and thought I wasn't going to make it through the winter, as my window can't be fully opened at the moment due to an air conditioner I left in it, which I thought would provide me with enough ventilation, but didn't.

Apropos the comments of she's not there, when searching out how to solve this problem for myself, I eventually found an article on City Lab called "Our Indespensible Guide for Cooling Your Overheated Apartment," which did the trick. The reason for the overheating is because of the era in which the radiator was installed. They say:
The Spanish influenza epidemic, which took place during the winter of 1918–19, had a dramatic effect on the way heating engineers sized radiators," explains Dan Holohan, author of several books on steam heat and founder of HeatingHelp.com. "Central heating was relatively new then and the world had never seen anything as horrible as the Spanish flu, which caused an estimated 50 million deaths. Because the flu was airborne, the Board of Health started a campaign the following year that urged (more like demanded) people to keep their windows open so fresh air could enter the rooms.
The article also offers a variety of fixes for the problem, including fiddling with air vents and thermometers, all of which was more than I was prepared to do — and knew my landlord wouldn't do. So instead, I took their simplest advice and put an nonflammable blanket over it (known in the trade as a "radiator cosy"), which I folded and refolded, until I found just the perfect temperature — and I've lived happily ever since.
posted by Violet Blue at 11:27 PM on February 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

+1 just keep the windows open. Most of the old buildings I've lived/gone to school in (NYC) had this issue and we just opened the windows to compensate.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 6:06 AM on February 23, 2018

I had a studio with a badly functioning radiator that stayed hot all the time--landlord didn't care and I was too broke to call a plumber. So, I purchased a hot-water heater insulating blanket for about $10 and fashioned it into a cover for the radiator with duct tape. Worked like a charm. And, since I faced a fairly noisy street, I didn't have to leave my window open.
posted by agatha_magatha at 8:28 AM on February 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

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