For many apartment dwellers who don't have thermostats, getting the indoor temperature just right in winter can be challenging.
If you have steam or hot water radiators, you can blame your building's old-school heating system for the inconsistent—and uncontrollable—heat. In a nutshell, old steam radiator systems such as these were built when fuel costs were cheap and wasting energy wasn't a big deal. Opening up windows to cool down overheated spaces was a part of steam heating's original design and operation, according to a study by the Center for Energy Environment.
So why doesn’t your super just dial down the thermostat? That wouldn't necessarily solve the problem. Steam heating systems are notorious for distributing heat unevenly. While some apartments such as yours get too hot, others in the same building may be so chilly that they barely meet the minimum local heat requirements.
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Take Control of Your Piping Hot Radiator
The problem with old-fashioned radiators is that they often lack 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 old radiator to adjust the temperature, you may 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. These differences reflect different types of boiler systems—some two-pipe systems are circulating hot water rather than gaseous steam—but this distinction is not important for your purposes. All you need to know is that one-pipe steam systems have one pipe connected to each radiator, and two-pipe steam systems have two pipes at each radiator.
Thermostatic radiator valves are specific to the system type, but they can work with either hot water or hot water systems. For a two-pipe system, you'll need a valve called a high-capacity thermostatic radiator actuator. It 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, rusted parts), you could create a disaster by doing it yourself.
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Block Your Radiator's Heat
The hotter a steam radiator gets, the more warmth it radiates. Covering it up with a blanket or sheet is an old-timey solution for limiting the amount of heat a radiator gives off. This is effective because 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 radiators, you limit this airflow.
Note: This 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. But some synthetic fabrics such as fleece may melt if placed on a piping-hot radiator for several hours. A better choice would be a wool blanket. Wool 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 really 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. True, doing this is a waste of energy, but if your apartment super is unable to give you control over the radiators, you may have no option.
If you also have a ceiling fan, 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 you down. This blows the air down, and the airflow helps to pull heat away from your skin, cooling down your body.
Conversely, if you want more even heat in the winter, you run the ceiling fan clockwise at a low setting so it circulates the hot air that has floated up to the ceiling.