People say it all the time: during any renovation, surprises happen. Curveballs, if you prefer that kind of athletic terminology. I do not because I do not enjoy sports.
The cottage renovation has been almost eerily lacking in them, all things considered. Yes, there was the rotted sill plate that needed to be replaced in the front, and I guess the original wall framing inside was worse than anticipated, and there’s the ongoing lack of gas service, but…is that it? I don’t really know what I was expecting. Maybe it’s just what you get when you buy a condemned shell of a house…you kind of expect everything to be disastrous so it feels like a little bonus when certain aspects are actually pretty OK. It’s possible my definition of “OK” has just gotten a little skewed and kooky.
I fully admit, own, and embrace that I am not an expert on…really anything. During the early planning stages of the renovation (which started pre-purchase, since I had to figure out a budget and all that…), I met my plumber, Carl, at the cottage to talk about the plumbing and the heat system in the house—namely, that there was none, and we’d be starting from scratch. I remember offering that the intelligent and modern thing to do would be to install a forced air system for heat, and I remember him quickly agreeing with me that this would be the correct and most cost-effective solution.
BAM. I know, you don’t have to tell me how hip and with it I am. I was even a little excited about the new fancy forced air system that this house would have because, for some extra cash, it could also be an A/C system! AIR. CONDITIONING. In an old house. This place was basically shaping up to be a fucking SPA.
So that was the plan. Now you know.
Fast-forward warp-speed-style to a couple of weeks ago. Demo is done, new framing is done, I’ve switched to present tense, and I ask Carl if we can get going on installing the ducts and the furnace. That way, everything will be in place when the dumb gas line finally decides to materialize. So Carl sends some of his dudes over to the house that evening. I meet them there.
Carl has several dudes who work for him. I really like them all. They’re funny and smart and they are all OBSESSED with Mekko and in general we just have a nice time getting frustrated about plumbing. Plumbing is really frustrating in general so you can choose to be a dick all the time or you can choose to be a cool and groovy dude. These are cool and groovy types. I know how most of them take their coffee so I consider us all very good friends at this point.
Anyway. Dudes walk through newly-gutted, newly-reframed house. Dudes exchange worried looks.
“And you said you wanted to put forced air in here?”
There’s this one guy who works for Carl who I would still say is pretty cool but his attitude is not so groovy. He’s what we call crotchety. On the surface he sort of seems to hate everything and everyone but I know he’s really a softie. We’ll call him Joe.
“No fucking way you’re running ducts in this house,” says Joe. “No way, no how.” He’s visibly angry already, just at the prospect of even attempting the job.
I ask him to elaborate.
The basic gist of the story is that in a house with no attic and only a partial basement, running the necessary ductwork from room to room becomes much more complicated, so almost everything has to be run within the living spaces—not above or below them. With framing to accommodate the ducts, this isn’t really a problem…but this is a small house with 7.5 foot ceilings. Joe begins mapping his best guess of how the ducts would need to be run: through a chase that would need to be built in this corner, across a soffit on this wall…the picture he paints takes up a lot of space and looks super ugly. He quickly gets flustered and goes out to the van to smoke a Newport.
One of the guys calls Carl. Carl says he’ll be on his way as soon as he gets done with whatever he’s doing.
Joe sits in the van and smokes. Me and the other guys stand around outside, where it’s a little bit lighter, and shoot the shit. We talk about the neighborhood, about Kingston, about the house, about their haircare regimens, about cars, about their pocket-knives, about how cold it is. Eventually, Carl shows. We all go back inside, cellphone flashlights activated.
Carl looks around. He explains that the forced air system isn’t impossible, but would involve some soffits and chases and custom ductwork, meaning added cost. At one point he just stops. “Wait, why do you want forced air in here, anyway?”
“I just thought that’s what people did.”
“Honestly, you’d be better off with radiators. A lot easier to snake pipes than run all these ducts. We can do the same system we put in your house.”
“Like…baseboard radiators?” I ask.
Allow me to explain something: I have this thing about baseboard radiators, and the thing is that I dislike them. I don’t mean that to make anybody feel badly about their baseboard radiators. I know full well that I sound like a dick. It just seems like they take up too much space, the heat they radiate isn’t all that nice, and they somehow look neither vintage/interesting nor modern/inconspicuous. The thought of putting them in this house (particularly since I’ve just finished removing vestiges of the former, defunct baseboard radiator system) makes me sad and upset.
Then I have a Dangerous Idea.
“Carl,” I ask, “is there any big difference from your perspective if I wanted to use old cast iron radiators instead? If I bought them all and got them in the house and everything?”
“No, not really. If that’s what you want.”
Even though I don’t love baseboard radiators, I do love old cast iron radiators. They’re beautiful, they’re effective, and the heat they give off is comfortable and gentle. They also just add instant character to a room, which is something this house is going to need.
So, yeah…I’ve made it my mission to find, purchase, and move about 7 vintage cast iron radiators for this house. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen/heard of this being done, so I guess we’ll all find out together how it works out.
I’m an idiot.
Naturally, this exciting choice of mine has turned out to be more complicated than I initially thought. This is because I don’t always think things through. My first instinct was basically to measure the spots in the house where a radiator could/should reasonably go, then find a radiator that would fill the space nicely and look good in said spot.
Wrong. Wrong strategy. I even spent a couple hours shopping, picked out a bunch of radiators, and got the dude to quote me a price armed with only this information. It wasn’t one of my more intelligent moments, but I didn’t buy them so I guess that’s something.
As it turns out, sizing radiators is actually a fairly exact and math-y thing that involves more than saying “yeah, that’d look good under that window.” Go figure.
Here’s what I’ve deduced with a little help from the internet and a little help from Carl:
1. The first thing you need to do is figure out the BTUs (British Thermal Units) required to effectively heat a room. This depends on many factors about the room itself, but luckily there are online calculators out there to help you take those factors into account and figure it out. I used this one. Using my SketchUp models as a guide, I went through the cottage room by room and figured out the BTUs required to heat each space. Then I wrote them all down in a notebook for easy reference while I’m shopping.
2. When shopping for radiators, you need to know how to calculate the BTUs per hour that a given radiator will produce. You do this by calculating the square footage of the surface area of a radiator (which depends on whether it is tube-type or column-type, its height, depth, and number of sections), and then multiplying that number by the heat emission rate per square foot, which is reliant on the water temperature produced by the boiler (hot water standard is 170 BTUs/hr, steam is 240 BTUs/hr). This guide makes things pretty straightforward.
3. Make sure you can identify the difference between steam radiators and hot water radiators. I think the easiest way to do this is to look at the ends. Hot water radiators should have a pipe at either end for the supply and return. Steam radiators have one pipe because they only need a supply line. I’ll be installing a hot water system because it’s easier and more efficient.
4. It’s better to be too big than too small (har, har). Temperature to the system can be decreased but not increased beyond the standard capacity of the boiler. Just be careful because you don’t want one radiator that’s too oversized and the rest to be correctly sized—this is what leads to big temperature discrepancies between different spaces.
ANYWAY. This is what I’ve learned…or at least I think I’ve learned. Now I have to go find them! Hopefully it won’t be too bad. I’m aiming to spend $1,000-$1,500 for all the radiators. They aren’t super expensive but they aren’t cheap either. Luckily this is a modest house, which means modest radiators—nothing super ornate or fancy looking, which is more expensive.
Even though I’ve been looking at Craigslist a fair amount, I think my best bet is a good salvage place that will just have a ton of selection. The size guidelines of the radiators combined with the space constraints of the house means that I’ll have to be looking for pretty specific radiators—in other words, I need them to be effective and fit in their designated spots. It feels like a tall order, but possible!