When replacing a radiator, consider downsizing to a smaller unit. "Back at the turn of the century, houses didn't have much wall insulation. "It took giant radiators to warm them," says James. Those same houses have since been weatherized, and a new radiator that's the same size as the original will overheat the space and "cook you out," he says.

The most common problem with old radiators is leaking—either through a faulty shut–off valve, a damaged bushing (the metal sleeve that seals fin connections) or a cracked fin. Such cracks typically occur when radiators aren't in constant use during the winter, and water left inside freezes and expands. With replacement parts hard to find, it often makes more sense to replace a cracked radiator than to repair it.

Some salvage dealers test their inventory for leaks by pumping the radiators full of air. If the air pressure goes down, it's a lemon. In the absence of a "pressure test" guarantee, make sure any dealer you buy from will replace a radiator or issue a refund if it leaks.

Find the right radiator

Radiators are often priced by the fin and cost between $10 and $20 per section depending on height, depth, and decoration. Shorter radiators that fit under windows are more scarce than tall models and tend to be on the higher end of the price range, says Bauer.

Most salvage yards sell radiators caked with old paint, much of which contains toxic lead. Buyers can either strip the radiators themselves, taking precautions to avoid releasing lead dust or fumes into the air, or hire a professional to sandblast them. Either way, it's important to immediately coat the bare metal with an oil-based primer. Left untreated for more than a day, the cast iron will begin to rust, says Bauer. Most radiators are then finished with an oil-based enamel that holds up well to heat.

Finding just the right radiators for your space, getting them cleaned up, and hiring a plumber to install them may seem like a hassle. But before you resort to tinny electric baseboards, remember that these coils of cast iron have been warming homes for more than a hundred years. They must be worth the trouble.
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