Resources to learn more about my antique apartment heating system??
September 12, 2020 5:50 AM   Subscribe

Just moved in to a new apartment with an old heating system. I'm curious! I want to learn all about it. I'm also a little anxious, and I'm worried that it's unsafe for my cat. Link to pic (of both heater and cat) below.

There is only one giant grate in the floor in the whole apartment. It's 32in x 36in / 81 cm x 90 cm.

The whole apartment is about 600 ft². The grate is between the living room and the kitchen. There is a separate bedroom and bathroom. There is a wall thermostat that, in theory, controls the temperature.

We're in the Northeast US, and want to stay warm, but not melted, this winter. We haven't used the heating system yet, hasn't been cold enough.

Please feel free to nerd out on this if that's your forte. From the history side, the HVAC side, let's dig deep!

My questions are:

1) Will it get really hot? Will I burn my feet on the grate? Will my cat burn her feet on the grate? Thankfully, the grate holes are too small to easily put a paw down. she could probably stick her paw through if she worked at it, though.

2) How does it work? There's not, say, live flame inside... Right?? I shined a light down into it, appears to be some kind of coily structure like a radiator inside. I don't see little holes where flames could come out, though I don't really know what I'm looking for.

3)Grab bag: How old is the system? Why is the inside all rusty? Is it abnormal for it to be rusty? Or is it a bit like hard water scale, and to be expected?

Landlord says there's a pilot light in the basement he needs to light before we use it this winter.

I've lived in places with radiators, forced air heat, electric heat... But not this system.

I know, I know. we should have figured this out before we rented it. Due to extenuating circumstances, my husband and I chose this particular apartment. Thankfully, it's only a 6-month lease and we can bail in February if we need to.
posted by Guess What to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If there’s a pilot light involved then that means gas heat, right?

I have never seen this particular setup before but I sincerely doubt it’s dangerous. I mean did the previous tenants all crop up mysteriously dead of foot burns? I’m guessing no.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:34 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Idk how helpful this is, but my aunt and uncle had a single huge grate (for a two story bungalow) in the Bay Area, and I remember it getting a little hot on the feet but not, like, dangerous. And they had cats.

Obviously ymmv for the northeast vs California.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:44 AM on September 12

I had that same setup for years in a house I rented, with cats. It was totally effective in our space, which was around 800 square feet.

Yes, the grate itself can get quite warm. Our cats were totally fine with it - they didn't like to step on the grate part even when it was cold, though they liked to sleep right next to it sometimes when it was turned on.

I can't remember where the flame was but I will tell you that if you (my husband) put, say, a wet backpack onto the grate "to dry," and then leave the house, your spouse (me) will come home to a smoke-filled house and the plastic parts of the backpack straps melting onto the grate and into the heating system. Thank god it didn't escalate to anything worse. Don't be my husband.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:05 AM on September 12 [9 favorites]

We had one like that, and it was the only heat register for the first floor. It was passive, no fan blowing, just heat rising up from the furnace in the basement. It gets warm, not hot, won't burn your feet or paws of your cat. The furnace we had was coal fired and the date on it was 1910 or there about. That kind of arrangement was pretty common at one point, especially if you had no electric. I'm sort of surprised there are some still in use.
posted by james33 at 7:09 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

That is called a "floor furnace" and it's an older, but pretty common, heating system. You might ask the landlord have it cleaned & get the filter replaced but otherwise they seem to work as good as any.
posted by niicholas at 7:20 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

I've lived in a couple of places with this system, and there have been no issues. Certainly neither cats nor humans were stepping directly on an uncomfortable metal grate to begin with, but no, it was never remarkably hot. And certainly no cat is going to walk on a hot grate twice.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 7:26 AM on September 12

I have this in the house I rent. I do not dislike it. It keeps my house livable in the winter but I do tend to layer up and run a colder home than the average person.

I don't know what make and model yours is but mine is the Cozy Challenger 90N50, which I learned by lifting the grate and looking at the labeling near the control panel. Yours should have similar markings on the inside somewhere. I took a few photos of mine to help you orient.

1) It will get fairly warm. With the spacing of the grating I find it is uncomfortable to step on with bare feet even when it is completely cold. In general I just step over it with bare feet. I've never burned my feet. It should be safe but also it should be obvious not to leave anything sitting on the grate while in operation (BlahLaLa's husband: 😐)

2) There will be a live flame inside. Once lit, the pilot light will be a constant small yellow-to-blue flame that will be visible through the inspection hole. When the furnace is in operation there will be yellow flames on the inside of the big metal chamber, also visible through the inspection hole. In a dark house at night they will throw interesting dancing grate shadows into the room the furnace is in. The flames will not be on the outside of the furnace, they will be contained inside the big rusty chamber. The only thing that will be coming out of the grate will be warm air, rising naturally (there is no fan).

3) The system is likely as old as the structure, but maybe not. They do get rusty. Mine is rusty. It is not abnormal. My local utility will light the pilot light on appointment but they require that the unit has been cleaned for the season before-hand, which I take to mean all the random floor debris that has fallen down in the grate over the non-use season has been vacuumed up so there are no obvious fire hazards down there like bits of dried grass and leaves that have been tracked in. My landlord's service crew will also light the pilot light on appointment and they are less fastidious about their pre-requirements.

The grate is not fastened down. It is just sitting in the hole secured by gravity. To service the unit you just lift up on any side of the grate and set the grate aside. There is likely an aluminum card, attached to a chain, with information about the system inside the unit. It will have instructions on shutting down the pilot light for the summer and how to light it although I tried to light it once myself without the proper preparation and I ended up scaring the shit out of myself and deciding I would just call someone to come do it from then on.
posted by glonous keming at 8:29 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

Yeah, forced air heating is surprisingly recent, since it requires a reliable fractional horsepower motor. If you go back one more generation, the tile stove is basically a big brick box that encloses a fire and has been used with little change since the Renaissance. What you have in your place is just a big natural gas burner, like one you'd find on a stove, but bigger. The metal coils on top conduct the heat into your living space from the combustion chamber, which is vented to the outside. (Thank goodness, because if it malfunctioned, you would die. My grandmother's 100+ year-old house had some heaters that were just big exposed burners in the living space!) Cats are smart enough to avoid direct contact, not babies, though.

The rust is because the typical thing you would use to prevent rust, WD-40, is flammable. (This is actually the application WD-40 was designed for, everyone uses it as a lubricant, which is hilarious because it's not good at that, but it is amazing at keeping things rust-free and preventing future rust.) In theory I'm sure the rust impairs the efficiency of the furnace because the coils are less conductive, but I would bet it's got plenty of life ahead of it.
posted by wnissen at 8:36 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

It's probably gas-heated hot air. As a kid, I'd stand over a grate in my long nightie, heavenly. If the grate is uncomfortable underfoot, get metal screening or finer-gauge hardware cloth, cut to fit, tape the sharp edges.
posted by theora55 at 8:47 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

As others have already said, don't leave anything you value over the grate; laptops, for example, melt.
posted by anadem at 11:13 AM on September 12

Thanks for the input, everyone! I feel much more at ease, thanks for your help. :)
posted by Guess What at 2:23 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Agree with everyone above that living with a floor furnace like that works with cats, but if you leave stuff on it it can melt.

Be sure to have a functioning carbon monoxide detector. And door be surprised that when it starts up in the fall it's going to smell like burning dust for a bit.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:52 PM on September 13

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