For apartment dwellers who don't have control of their own thermostats, getting the indoor temperature just right in the winter can be challenging. If the apartment has steam or hot water radiators, you can blame the building's old-school heating system for the inconsistent—and uncontrollable—heat.
In a nutshell, old radiator systems were built when fuel costs were cheap and wasting energy wasn't a big deal. Opening windows to cool down overheated spaces was part of the original design. But even turning down the thermostat wouldn't necessarily solve the problem.
Steam heating systems are notorious for distributing heat unevenly. While some apartments get too hot, others in the same building can be so chilly that they barely meet the minimum local heat requirements.
So what can you do if yours is a hot apartment? Here are three tips to cool a hot apartment in cold weather.
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Take Control of Your Radiator
The problem with old-fashioned radiators is they often lack a heat adjustment. Each radiator must be fully on or fully off; there is no "warm" setting. If you've fiddled with that round knob on your radiator to adjust the temperature, you might have figured out this often doesn't work, especially with systems in which the radiators circulate true steam rather than hot water.
However, there is one way to adjust the heat on a steam radiator: installing a thermostatic radiator valve. This adjusts room temperature by using air to reduce or increase the amount of steam that warms your radiator.
Radiators come in two types: one-pipe and two-pipe. They have different types of boiler systems. But all you need to know is one-pipe steam systems have one pipe connected to each radiator, and two-pipe steam systems have two pipes at each radiator. For a two-pipe system, you'll need a valve called a high-capacity thermostatic radiator actuator, which precisely controls how hot your radiator gets by modulating the flow of steam. A thermostatic valve or actuator should be installed by your super or a plumber. It's not a complicated job, but if something goes wrong (such as with old parts), you could create a disaster by doing it yourself.
Radiators in apartment buildings, whether they're steam or hot water, always contain scalding hot liquid under pressure during heating season. Never perform plumbing work on a radiator unless the boiler system has been shut down or otherwise segregated. Severe injury will result from not following strict safety procedures. Authorization to perform the work must always be obtained from your building's maintenance team. It's best to simply have the work performed by the team.
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Block Your Radiator's Heat
The hotter a steam radiator gets, the more warmth it radiates. So covering it up with a blanket or sheet is a simple solution for limiting the amount of heat the radiator puts out into the room. Radiators use natural air convection to heat a room. Hot air rises from the radiator while cool air near the floor is pulled up and heated by the radiator, creating a circular air pattern. By covering the radiator, you limit this airflow.
Covering a radiator is safe to do only if you use heat-resistant fabrics. Steam radiators can warm up to 215 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not hot enough to ignite most materials. However, some synthetic fabrics, such as fleece, can melt if placed on a piping hot radiator for several hours. Instead, use a wool blanket, which is naturally flame resistant up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
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Fan and Ventilate the Heat
If you have a ceiling fan and double-hung windows (which open at both the top and bottom), there's a simple way to get some relief from your radiator's stifling heat. Because hot air rises, you can let some of it escape by opening the top half of your windows several inches. Although it is a waste of energy, it might be your best option if you don't have control over the radiators.
A ceiling fan isn't essential, but you can use it to accelerate the cool-down process. The downdraft it creates will cool off your hot room while pushing heated air up so it can escape out the windows.
If your ceiling fan runs in both directions, remember that counterclockwise is the standard setting for cooling a room. This blows the air down, and such airflow helps to pull heat away from your skin, cooling down your body. Conversely, if you want more even heat in the winter, run the ceiling fan clockwise at a low setting. This will circulate the hot air that has floated up to the ceiling.
Flame Resistance. International Wool Textile Organization.