If you have a cast-iron radiator, you are in luck—at least from an efficiency standpoint. Radiators, either steam or hot-water, provide your house with zone-able, soft warmth. Sometimes, inventions that are many decades old are still good ideas.
From the standpoint of looks, though, most radiators leave something to be desired. With their multiple fins, radiators tend to attract dust, cobwebs, and debris. Old cast-iron radiators can become eyesores when they begin to become discolored.
The absolute best way to ensure maximum heat flow is to leave your radiator unpainted and uncovered. However, many homeowners understandably dislike the look of radiators and wish to cover them.
Radiator covers range from utilitarian, powder-coated metal enclosures with cloverleaf-style grilles to fancy wood enclosures that double as bookshelves.
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Radiator Cover Manufacturers
Beautiful Radiators: These utilitarian metal radiator covers are basic and straightforward. They come in six colors and three different types of metal patterns. Models start at $467.
Fichman: If you want your radiator cover to be right, go with the experts. Fichman is a furniture supplier based in upstate New York that specializes in radiator covers. They have several radiator covers, starting at $214, constructed of MDF that comes flat-packed and you assemble it. They even have a do-it-yourself radiator cover kit starting at $199.
Shutter Shack: Shutter Shack offers a selection of radiator covers that start at $536.
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Wood Radiator Covers
Solid wood radiator covers can be more expensive than other types. These covers act more like pieces of furniture since the wood tops provide enough insulation against heat so that you can place some curios on them.
Even though wood does insulate to some degree, you should still avoid putting anything on them that could be affected by heat on them. The main concern about the functionality of wood covers is that wood and water do not mix.
Whether yours are steam or hot-water radiators, the chances are good that at least one of them leaks—or will leak in the future. Even without water hitting the wood, the constant on/off heat cycles will eventually cause the wood to expand and contract, leading to warping and cracking.
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Do Radiator Covers Impede Heat Flow?
Radiator covers do limit the flow of heat. So, it's more a matter of how much heat is slowed down with the radiator cover.
Powder-coated metal radiator covers do an excellent job of transmitting most of the radiator's heat back into the house. As heat flows upward, it hits the closed top and begins to flow sideways from the grilles. The top itself, being metal, captures heat and transmits it to the room.
Because wood is a good insulator, wood radiator enclosures will not transmit heat to the degree that metal covers will. So, if your house is so cold that it needs to take advantage of every BTU that your radiators can offer, you may not want to choose wood covers.
One benefit is that some covers are fitted with pans that can be filled with distilled water to provide humidified air to the room. Putting water pans atop radiators is an age-old practice. But covers allow you to better hide the pans.
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Do Covers Keep the Radiator Cleaner?
Radiator covers do help you keep your radiator cleaner. Radiators' narrow spaces and floor-hugging profiles are sheer dust magnets. While diligent cleaning with vacuum nozzle attachments can limit the dust, avoiding the dust in the first place is the best route.
Covers keep radiators cleaner in two areas: top and sides.
Dust and dirt settle on the flat, closed wipeable top surface of the radiator cover, rather than settle into the baffles. When the cover has cooled down, you can easily wipe it down with a wet cloth.
Dust can work its way through the open side grills. But because access is limited, you only get about half of the amount of dust. Dust that clings to the grille itself can be vacuumed off. Or, in the spring, remove the cover entirely and hose off outside.
Brady, Laurence, et al. An Investigation Into the Effect of Decorative Covers on the Heat Output from LPHW Radiators.
Energy and Buildings, vol. 133, 2016, pp. 414-422. doi:10.1016/j.enbuild.2016.09.065