Old house keep or upgrade cast iron radiators?

needinfo1April 5, 2014

We live in a 1916 vaguely craftsman/Prairie style house in an upscale neighborhood and had a furnace failure and freeze up while out of town on vacation. Our entire hot water heating system needs to be replaced, and I need to make radiator decisions. We are trying to balance out practicality with esthetics in the decisions we make.

Our decorating style is eclectic/European/traditional and fits right in with the vintage of the house. Our original radiators are clunky and do take up valuable space. So, we are contemplating flat panel replacements. But, I am a bit leery of how these will change the look and feel of the house because they obviously are more contemporary and not of the vintage of the house.

Does anyone have any thoughts? Or, has anyone been through something similar? What was your solution? Thanks.

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Why not just keep the old radiators and buy or make covers for them? I grew up in a 1900 brownstone, and that's what my parents did back in the 1970s. They're all still there, and they look great. There's are like these (metal front panel. and they put ceramic tile on top of the one in the front hall so stuff can be put on it.

Here is a link that might be useful: How to build a radiator cover

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:31AM
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Yes, keep. Depending on their size and location, they are great for growing cacti or plants. (I'm serious)

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:33AM
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nosoccermom, I'd be willing to be they're better at heating too. Stuff like that was so much better "back then".

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:39AM
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I'm jealous of all who have old homes, tho DH, the handy man, is not :>/, and have always found the radiators a charming piece of their appeal. How about just putting a top on to make them useful.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:51AM
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If you have, or expect to have, young children around, you do want to fully cover them so no one gets burned!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:55AM
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How bad is the space situation? I lean to keeping original fixtures, but sometimes it can be very awkward. (For example I just had the original sconces removed from dd's bedroom in part because there was one in the MIDDLE of every wall so you couldn't reasonably have an armoire or hang art anywhere in the room--I did save the scones and they are clearly labeled for any future home owners).

If there are particular problem spaces, maybe you could replace just in those. I'm thinking of very small bedrooms for example.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 11:57AM
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The only thing is that the slim radiators are more efficient because it takes less time to heat up the water.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 12:30PM
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This is a subject I'm completely torn on.

On the one hand, the old radiators give out great heat. I love them and how they look and that you can dry mittens and other things on them. I don't mind how they look and I don't think they take up that much space. There is some evidence that a covered radiator is a bit more energy efficient, because the cover keeps the heat from just rising up to the ceiling, and helps send it out into the room. There's at least one company that will custom make covers and that can add a tray inside for water, so you can humidify your house.

So from a purely-from-the-heart perspective, I'd go with the old radiators.

On the other hand, the old radiators are not the most energy-efficient things around. Baseboard radiators are better. I don't know about the flat panel one, but that's something I'd check out before deciding. New radiators could make a huge difference in your fuel bill.

If you get flat panel radiators that be painted, they will pretty much disappear in the room. That could be a plus.

I was glad to see that you weren't going with the baseboard radiators. They are a huge pain when trying to place furniture in a room.

In your case, where you are concerned about how the radiators will look in your rooms, I might put the flat panel radiators in the bedrooms, where space is usually at a premium, and keep the original radiators in the living and dining rooms, to go with the period of the house. Then your big decision would be to cover or not cover them.

And if you keep some of the original ones, this would be the time to get them really clean and maybe even get them professionally powdercoated.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 12:49PM
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Lots of help here. Thanks.

I guess I should clarify though. Keeping my old radiators is not possible because in the furnace failure the water in the radiators turned to ice and expanded, cracking the radiators. Our entire heating system--boiler and radiators--needs to be replaced. My choices are to go with the flat panel, find old salvage ones that will work or try to find brand new cast iron replicas of old radiators. And, I have learned from the heating contractors that all radiators on the same zone to be the same type of materials, so I can't mix and match the cast iron ones with the newer flat panel.

The first floor sunroom is the room where I would most like to reduce the size of the radiator because it is only about 10" by 14" and has french doors on two walls and lots of windows on the others, so furniture arrangement is extremely difficult. Currently we are thinking of flat panels throughout the entire house but hiding the living room and dining room ones in the existing radiator covers.

And, of course, with this type of emergency situation we don't have much time to make a decision as to what to do.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 2:05PM
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While old houses with radiators have their charm, I vote baseboard radiators with an updated system. We put in low baseboard hot water heat.....loved it. My grandma had to warn everyone not to touch her radiators....get burned. They (the radiators were handy to dry shoes, socks and other outdoor clothing however).

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 2:17PM
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You might want to check out getting baseboard radiators in cast iron, yes, they might cost a little more but you'll never get the heat your used to out of copper baseboard..trust me.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 2:20PM
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There are multiple companies that still make cast iron radiators in several styles as well as cast iron baseboard. There are also the salvage places. The problem with cast iron is the cost. It's been a while since I checked, but new cast iron baseboard is around $45 to $50 a foot while steel fin tube baseboard is under $10 a foot. That's why cast iron is not used much these days. It's a luxury.

I have cast iron baseboard in my house and really like it. When I finished my basement, I bit the bullet and installed the same there.

My vote would be to get cast iron radiators to fit the style of the house and if there are some rooms where it won't work, use cast iron baseboard.

This post was edited by DreamingoftheUP on Sat, Apr 5, 14 at 18:08

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 6:07PM
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You might ask if your radiators can be repaired.

Whoever gets them as scrap will make money on them, so ask someone who will not be that person.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 6:36PM
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Re: having to get radiator covers if youngsters are in the house...I can only imagine how many children grew up in houses with uncovered radiators over the last 135+ years, myself included, and learned quickly to mind parental warnings! I also vote for the same cast iron if available - how devastated you must have been on retuning home - yikes!!

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 6:45PM
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Needinfo, You said it....

But, I am a bit leery of how these will change the look and feel of the house because they obviously are more contemporary and not of the vintage of the house.

The flat panel will look odd. Get more of what you need. Salvage places always have radiators.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 6:52PM
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Holly- Kay

I vote to go with the reproduction radiators. I adore old homes, and IMO, radiators add to the charm. I especially like ones that have a cover to make the top usable like Martinca posted.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2014 at 9:20PM
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Wow, that sounds like a major disaster in your house. I'm sorry that happened to you.

One thing about the baseboard radiators--my current house has them. Someone at some point took out the old cast iron radiators and put in the baseboard ones. Every inch of exterior wall has them.

This makes furniture placement tricky in some rooms. It's not a big deal to pull a sofa out from the radiator by six inches or so. But I have several bookcases and a large armoire. These can't be shoved right up to the radiator, both because of the fire danger and because they would completely block the heat. So either they stand out from the wall by a foot or more, in which case it just looks odd if you are looking at them from a side angle, or the bookcases have to go on a wall without the radiators.

You also need to be careful of long curtains that might touch the radiators.

Not knowing what furniture you need to put where in your house, this might or might not be a problem for you. But I'd check with the people doing the work to see just how long a run of baseboard radiator each room will need, and where it will have to go, to see if it will affect your furniture placement.

Given the constraints you are under, using the flat panel radiators and hiding some under the existing covers sounds like a good compromise.

As an aside, I have to say I'm surprised so many people see the old radiators as a burn hazard. None of us kids ever got burned on one. Most of them were at least partially blocked by furniture in some way. Those that weren't--well, there wasn't any reason to touch them, so we didn't. And with eight kids in the house, you'd figure someone would be crazy enough to try, but no one was ever hurt, at least not by a radiator.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 8:39AM
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You mentioned that the room you would most like to save space in is your sunroom. I dont know a lot about your house or climate, but you may want to ask your contracter if the sunroom can be removed from the zone, and put on its own zone, maybe with electric in floor radiant heat.
I have a sunroom and it is very cozy all year long - when the sun is shining- when it is not the floor always felt chilly.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 9:00AM
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I too would never have considered not using cast iron radiators because of the potential burn factor. We raised our three kids in this house and never gave it a second thought. I really don't think of hot water radiators as anything that would harm a child.

Yes, this whole situation is a major pain, but we are trying to look at the up side of this and figure that we'll have a brand new heating system out of it. So, we are trying to make choices that will be the best for our particular house because, as we all know, every house has its own unique quirks and issues.

The idea of zoning the sunroom separately is a good one that we'll consider. We live in super cold Minnesota so we need lots of heat, especially in a room that juts out, and has so many windows.

We are now contemplating using in-floor heating under our hardwood floors for the entire first floor, with two radiators (the ones that already have built-in covers) as supplements for really bad weather. All of this work for in-floor could be done from our basement, so it wouldn't involve a ton of extra tear out and repair since our basement is minimally finished. We'd have to pay an upcharge over what insurance will cover, but, in the big picture, it isn't all that much money.

Thanks again to all.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 11:22AM
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I think some radiators get very hot and are burn hazards and some do not. I've owned two places with radiator heat. At our old house, the radiators never got beyond mildly hot. Like touching a heating pad pad. At our current place, the radiators can get extremely hot. I've never been burned but they definitely get 'can't touch hot'. I imagine a young child or the otherwise in cautious might get hurt on them.

Wow. It sounds like you have a real disaster to deal with, and an expensive one. I know how expensive it was just to replace our boiler.

If it were me, I'd want the big cast iron radiators, in the radiator covers (they have very nice looking craftsman style ones), plus the sunroom on its own zone. Radiant floors are lovely. Or those electric baseboard heaters can work really well for small spaces. My first apartment had them and warmed up really well with them.

Here is a link that might be useful: Radiator covers

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 12:33PM
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Be absolutely sure to read up on radiant floor heat and hardwood floors and have a good talk with your heating guy.

Hot water heat does not make the radiators hot enough to burn skin. Usually the top temperature leaving the boiler is 180 to 190, but by the time it gets to the rooms it's dropped some. That temperature is hot to the point when you touch the radiator, you'll automatically pull your hand away but it's not hot enough to instantly burn you. And the water temp will only get that high on the coldest days. There is no danger of curtains, rugs or furniture igniting at those temperatures.

Steam heat, however, gets hotter, but that's a whole other animal.

Electric resistance baseboard also requires more care.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 1:28PM
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Agree with dreaming. Many of the comments made on this thread are not correct.

As long as you are getting an entire new whole house system (boiler, pump, piping, radiators) then the contractor should size the system to provide enough heat for each room, regardless of the materials the rads are made from. The load calculations will factor in the heat transfer properties of the radiator.

I see no good reason to pay more for cast iron just because it happened to be there before.

I would look at the appearance of your options and your budget and decide based on that.

This post was edited by juliekcmo on Sun, Apr 6, 14 at 16:50

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 4:28PM
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I vote for cast iron! I just had a steam radiator replaced in the bathroom, with a burnham slendorizer version, 25-4. It cranks out a lot of heat. Cost me $735 for the radiator with labor. No real choices with steam, could not do cast iron baseboard unless the whole house was redone.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 5:47PM
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We have lovely 10" baseboards (quarter-sawn oak on the main floor and painted on the second), so I am not willing to cover those baseboards up with baseboard radiators.

sloyd--I'm curious as to how many "fins" if that is the term your bathroom radiator has. I've taken a look at their website and see many different models.

I've been doing some reading about hardwood floors and in-floor heating. Some sources say only to use this with a manufactured floor like Pergo, but others say that is a myth and use with real hardwood is fine.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 6:14PM
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Baseboard would not be covered up with baseboard radiators. It would be cut out and removed since the baseboard heat is installed flush to the plaster wall. That would be a tragedy of the highest order. 10" high oak baseboard (quarter-sawn, no less) would cost a fortune to replace or install new. Now you're being a tease! Please consider sharing a picture of the trim in your house. It must be beautiful.

Hardwood flooring doesn't conduct heat well and yours is probably 3/4" thick or more. The flooring is probably on sleepers, so there's an air gap between it and the subfloor. I'd question how well the heat would transfer into the room. There's also the concern of possibly drying out your flooring with direct heat like that. It's been happy and used to its environment all these years. Get opinions from several different pros who can come and look at your home.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2014 at 10:27PM
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I love old houses and adore original finishes and fixtures.

However, assuming the flat panels are more energy efficient (and I'd think they would be), I'd go with those. I think it's just more practical and heating an old house in such a cold location is no joke. I'm so sorry this happened to you -- I can't even imagine! -- but hopefully you can take this opportunity to upgrade everything.

My old houses have both had forced air (though I've lived with radiators) and while it's certainly far less charming, I also got A/C. :)

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 11:00AM
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Yes, this is the pits to have to deal with. And, the reality just hit home today when we had the plumber out, and I asked him how long we should be planning on living in rental sp0ace. He said a couple months. Somehow I'd been fantasizing a couple weeks maybe.

On the bright side though we will end up having an entire new heating system, new toilets, new dishwasher, some new plumbing and upgraded everything.

I think we are leaning towards radiant floor heat on the main floor (with a couple supplemental radiators hidden in the current built-ins) and panel radiators upstairs in the bedrooms. It just seems to make the most sense as far as heat efficiency.

So, the lesson in all of this to everyone is to make sure you have some sort of low heat notification system in place if you leave your house for a vacation in the bitter winter weather. Of course, we are also quite sure that this winter's terrible winter weather was a major contributor here because normally the temps wouldn't have been so low.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2014 at 3:19PM
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