All posts tagged: Radiators

Hunting Radiators

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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.

“Yeah.”

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.

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“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.

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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!

The Great Radiator Shuffle!

There’s this hip new dance in town called the Radiator Shuffle, which involves multiple strong plumber men removing century-old cast iron radiators. Then, once they’ve all left, a small nice Jewish boy pushes said radiators around into different rooms with all the strength in his arms and legs because he’s an anal weirdo.

It’s really fun.

So this is what happened.

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You might remember these heat pipes that went up the corner of our dining room, next to the now-removed non-original closet. You probably don’t. But you MIGHT because many (like, probably at least 3) commenters brought up that I should consider removing the pipes when they appeared in photographs in earlier posts. The long and short of it is that the radiators were probably installed around 1900, and our house was probably built around 1840, and so almost all of the radiator pipes serving second floor radiators are exposed throughout the house because the whole heat system was retrofitted. It doesn’t really bother me—it’s part of the history, and they’re not all that obtrusive—and these were particularly out of the way, so I kind of disregarded the idea of trying to get them removed. What a hassle. I hate hassle.

JK, I love hassle. My whole life is hassle, and finding ways to create more hassle. I thrive on it.

So when my plumber mentioned that while the pantry was gutted anyway (oh yeah, remember how I’m supposedly renovating a pantry, too? How’s that going? Shut your goddamned mouth. That’s how.), it would be pretty easy to remove the unsightly-ish pipes and have them buried in the wall.

I hemmed and hawed very slightly, but going ahead with this relatively simple and relatively inexpensive change affords multiple benefits.

1. The pipes aren’t terrible looking but the room would look better (and more historically accurate) without them. So there’s that.

2. The pipes had to be messed with anyway because one of the pipes actually branched off into two pipes above the ceiling level. One pipe fed the radiator above, and the other one went straight up to a big holding tank in the attic from when the system operated differently than it does now. The holding tank was removed when the boiler was replaced, but because we still had a dining room ceiling then, the pipe had to just be capped about a foot above the floor on the second floor. Not a cute look. So that pipe had to be disconnected and capped at the joint under the floor, which is easier said than done. I have no idea if this is making any sense. Bear with me.

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3. This is the radiator the pipes were feeding (the pipe that goes straight up is the one leading to the tank in the attic). Note how it is sitting on a weird white wood platform instead of on the floor. I really don’t know why this is. A leak might have rotted the floor boards at some point, leading to them getting cut out and this piece of wood artfully put in its place? I don’t know. I don’t really care. Removing the radiator would give me the opportunity to feather in new floor boards to cover this area, which was very appealing. It would also give me the opportunity to move the radiator over a few inches to center it on the wall (between the corner and the door to what used to be the upstairs kitchen, which is frustratingly right out of frame), which I like. I like centering things.

4. Our heat system originally relied on steam, and at some point it was converted to hot water. I’m glad this was done, whenever it was done—there are more options for hot water boilers, I believe it’s more efficient, quieter (steam radiators “knock” as the pipes heat and cool), and I find the heat a little nicer (steam radiators get hotter—ours are never too hot to touch but they work EXTREMELY well regardless). ANYWAY, steam radiators require quite large pipes, since they have to transport steam. Hot water radiators, by contrast, need much smaller pipes—I believe 3/4″ is standard. Since our system was converted but the pipes were never swapped out, this essentially means that we are wasting energy (and money) heating a bunch of hot water to fill these huge-ass pipes when we could be filling very small pipes and saving a lot of energy. Even though I’m really pleasantly surprised by how low our heat bills were this winter (especially when compared to our friends with oil-powered systems—YIKES YIKES), the idea that we could be doing better by exchanging some of the huge pipes for little pipes was appealing. The new pipes will be run with Pex, which is a relatively new type of flexible plastic piping that is much cheaper and easier to install than copper, but seems to be just as good (if not better, since copper pipes tend to corrode around the joints after many years, and burst easily if they freeze).

SO. DECISION MADE. LET’S DO IT.

The pipes came out. The radiator was moved out of the way a couple of feet. I lifted up that little platform under the radiator  so I could start thinking about how to repair the floor.

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So, this is not so great, FYI. Because so much of the subfloor had been cut out, the plumbers were actually surprised and amazed that the radiator had never come crashing through the dining room ceiling. That would have been really bad, considering these things weigh several hundred pounds and I do NOT like surprises that weigh several hundred pounds.

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Removing these pipes obviously means that I have to do some floor patching in this room, which got me thinking about moving the dining room radiator.

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Here’s a bad picture of it in its original location. It was sort of an awkward spot because there’s already so much going on with this wall, between the window and the archway to the bay window. The radiator covered a lot of the molding, which just looked sort of bad and lame.

diningroomwallbefore

Lurking in the back of my mind for a while had been moving this radiator to this wall. This is the back of the wall where I’m installing the faux-fireplace in the library, and at some point in time I’m almost certain there was another mantel here with some kind of stove for heat. When the mantel was removed, the baseboard was patched in pretty poorly, and it just seemed like a good location for the radiator to live to hide that.

Typically radiators are installed under or at least near windows (for good reason—the radiator is supposed to warm the cool draft coming in from the window before it alters the temperature of the room), but my plumber assured me that moving the radiator to this wall wouldn’t make any appreciable difference for how our heat would disperse and that I should do whatever I wanted.

Nobody should ever tell me that, btw. “Whatever I want” is usually a recipe for disaster and devastation.

So out that awkwardly-positioned radiator went, out went the big pipes in the basement leading to it, and over I shimmied it to the opposite wall (on some furniture mover things, which are pretty amazing if you need to move heavy shit alone).

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Here it is, freshly shimmied. I like this location for a radiator—after all, it’s the location of an original heat source, and I think it just looks nice. Anyway. Whatever.

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Removing the dining room radiator had the added benefit of revealing some interesting information about how the house was finished originally, or at least around the turn of the century when the radiator was presumably installed! That’s not wood (or poop) you’re seeing on the moldings—it’s actually faux-painted to look like wood. The moldings themselves are made out of wood, obviously, but often this was done in houses of this era to make the actual lower-grade wood look like nicer wood. I’ve never considered trying to strip the woodwork in this house (except occasionally when it’s really bad, but even then only to repaint it), but this pretty much confirms to me that the woodwork was never not painted—whether it was this faux-finish or various shades of white and beige.

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This wallpaper was also lurking behind the radiator, right over the original plaster. You can’t really tell, but the dark lines in the pattern are actually a gold metallic. Fancy!

ANYWAY.

Moving that radiator in the dining room led, naturally, to me wanting to move another radiator—the one in the foyer. You know, while we’re having so much fun.

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Maybe it looks OK in pictures, but this radiator, while beautiful, was also rather strangely located. It’s in the center-ish of the entire space, which makes a certain degree of sense, so as to diffuse throughout the entry/hallway evenly, but this space between the stairwell and the wall is only 3 feet wide. Add in a radiator that sticks out 10-11″ from the wall, and you’re left with a passageway just about 2 feet wide. It made the hallway feel unnecessarily cramped and strange, and impossible to move large objects through. Additionally, the area of the hallway/entryway that gets really cold in the winter is by the door. Even with more effective weather-stripping, I think this will pretty much always be the case, whereas the middle and back of the hallway seem to get enough heat from the surrounding rooms to be pretty comfy. My plumber concurred with all of this.

So out that radiator went, and moved closer to the door. The foyer space before the stairwell is really quite large (about 6′ wide), so it feels much less obstructive there, and it’s SO nice to have the hallway next to the stairwell restored to the right width.

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Once those pipes are gone and the floor is patched in, it’s going to be awesome. I love this change.

But then I had another idea. The radiator in the dining room, in its new location, looked a little small to me. The radiator in the entryway, in its new location, looked a bit large. Additionally, the dining room is a much bigger space that we actually live in, whereas the entryway is comparatively small and functions as a pass-through to the other rooms. And the plumbing needs to be re-run anyway, so what if I just swapped the two? It’s literally no extra work.

The radiator from the hallway? So. Fucking. Heavy. Even on furniture movers, it was almost impossible to budge. But I did it because I have a lot of determination and a lot of self-doubt and needed to just to see how it would look.

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It looks awesome. I feel like the size is just right.

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And the old dining room radiator works really well for the entryway, I think! My plumber actually wants me to move the radiator even closer to the entry door, but I’m stubborn and I like it where it’s sitting now—closer to the doorway to the library. I think closer to the front door would feel a little crowded and sort of take up the entire wall, whereas in this position we still have the option to add some coat hooks to the right of the radiator.

Oh yeah, I might have stripped down the front doors. The house looks more shanty than ever! Awesome.

I didn’t rush to have the new plumbing run and the radiators reinstalled because having them disconnected means it’s a pretty swell time to have them sandblasted to remove all the layers of old paint and caulk (yes, caulk) and garbage that has been layered on over the years. Cast iron radiators lose efficiency the more times they’re painted, so not only will stripping them down make them look super fancy and bring out the intricate patterns on them, but they should also work better. It was with this terrific plan in mind that I asked the plumbers to also disconnect the awesome corner radiator in the library (which is extra caulk-y)  in the hopes that I can just get them all done at once (and by “all,” I really mean 4—there are 11 in the house).

Once the plumbers left, it suddenly felt like pressure was ON. I mean, ideally these rooms (hallway/foyer, library, and dining room) would be DONE by the time the radiators return and get re-installed, so they don’t get damaged during the ceiling installation and all of the wall repair and painting. Which means I really want these rooms done(ish) by…late September?

It’s the end of July, FYI. I might be overly ambitious. But I REALLY want those rooms to be functional and finished looking. It’s about time! I’m tired of having so many spaces under construction and actually living in so little of the house. I need to spread my wings and fly. And also get some of the furniture and art out of the upstairs kitchen, basement, and garage. It’s piling up and I feel like a crazed hoarder.

Bright-ish spots:

1. The sandblasters are currently BOOKED BOOKED BOOKED and said I couldn’t get any of my stuff in until late August-early September. That’s actually OK—it buys me some time to figure out what to do with the radiators, exactly. Which feels largely reliant on what we’re doing with the floors, which is the subject of the majority of my inner turmoil nowadays. Stay tuned for some whining about that another day. Anyway, it also gives me lots of time to consider renting a sandblaster and doing it myself in the backyard, which seems like a bad idea all around but one that I continue to think about. A lot. Someone talk me out of it. Or INTO IT.

2. Originally I thought that having the radiators out also meant that the pressure was on to refinish the floors before the radiators needed to be reinstalled. I met with a floor refinisher the other day, though, and he said this was not the case. Which makes a lot of sense, since obviously not everyone who has their floors refinished also removes all of their radiators in preparation. ANYWAY, he said that since they’re out already, he might as well rough-sand the area underneath where they’ll go, just to make things a little easier, and then we can refinish the floors for real when everything is done-done, but any pro floor refinisher should have the necessary equipment to sand and refinish around radiators. So that takes a little of the pressure off, I guess, although definitely makes the DIY floor refinishing idea seem even more complex and impossible. Anyway, even though I’m really excited to refinish at least some of the flooring (on the first floor, only the dining room, library, and hallway have hardwood, so it isn’t a big job), the more responsible move is to wait until more of the house is done so I don’t have to panic over every paint drip or scratch or joint compound puddle or whatever. Renovating is tough on floors, even if they’re protected with paper and dropcloths, so I definitely want the bulk of that stuff out of the way first. Floors might end up being a 2015 or 2016 or 2030 project. Sighs.

3. The electricians are DONE (for now) AND we passed electrical inspection yesterday! This is VERY exciting, since it means we can now drywall the ceilings! AHHHHH! Considering we took down the ceilings back in December and January, I’m SO ready to have ceilings again. The ceilings are pretty much holding up everything at this point—there’s no sense in doing a ton of wall repair when there’ll just be a ton more to fill in the crumbling areas between the old walls and the new ceilings. I want ceilings bad and I want them now. Or yesterday.

4. I’m still debating whether to do the ceilings myself or not. On one hand, I met a semi-sketchy dude who wants to help me with them and says he has lots of experience, and it wouldn’t cost a lot to enlist his second set of hands. On the other hand, this isn’t something I have any experience with, and because our house was built pre-industrial revolution, our beams are not at all level—meaning wonky drywall unless the beams are properly and carefully shimmed out. I met with a contractor (this is #4…all the others were either super pricey or I didn’t feel comfortable with them…) who I really liked, so I’m waiting for his bid…if we can afford it, this is one thing I’m inclined to hire out. After redoing the office I feel comfortable doing all the necessary wall repair and skim-coating—and there’s a lot of it—but the ceiling isn’t really something I want to gamble with. Also it sounds like the opposite of fun as a DIY.

I’ll stop rambling now.

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