They dry wet gloves, warm homemade pies, and, topped with a pan of water, they can even humidify the air. But the primary reason old cast-iron radiators stand in millions of American houses today is for their ability to gently and evenly heat a room. Late Victorian–era ones with embossed scrollwork and floral motifs are also a reminder of a time when even the most utilitarian fixtures featured high-style design and fine craftsmanship.
Freestanding radiators date to the 1860s, when pioneering American heating contractor Joseph Nason designed an accordion–shaped iron manifold with a central rod to hold its fins, or sections, together. This steam system had a single pipe connecting the radiator to a boiler. As the water boiled and steam rose to fill the radiator, it circulated through the fins and transferred heat to the room. When the steam cooled, it condensed to water and drained back down the pipe and into the boiler, where it was reheated.
By the early 1900s, these one-pipe steam radiators were being replaced by hot-water versions with two pipes—one to carry water from the boiler to the radiator, and a second by which it exited and traveled back to the source to repeat the cycle. These two–pipe radiators are the most desirable ones found at salvage yards today because they work with both hot-water and steam boilers, says Chuck Bauer, co–owner of Bauer Brothers Salvage in Minneapolis, Minnesota. So whether you want just one vintage radiator to complete that finished basement or enough to outfit a new addition, you need to figure out which kind of heating system you have before you shop.
Work with a plumber
Harry James, co–owner of New England Demolition and Salvage in East Wareham, Massachusetts, tells his customers to work with a plumber to determine how big or small the radiator should be based on the Btu—a measure of a radiator's firepower—needed to efficiently heat the room. The dimensions of the space where you plan to install it need to be factored in as well. A tall, slim six–fin unit may fit nicely between two windows in a front parlor, but two short eight–fin radiators that tuck under the windows may heat the room better.
If you plan to install a radiator in a newly built kitchen, for instance, find one that closely matches those in the rest of the house to help blend the new construction with the old. Your house's architectural style should also influence your choice. A plain radiator with squared–off corners is well–suited for a clean–lined Craftsman, while an ornately embossed one with rounded fins and curved feet is better for an Italianate. The raised patterns on Victorian–era radiators have even inspired people to use them in purely decorative ways.
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.
How to Turn Them Into a Table
Victorian-era housewives topped cast-iron radiators with marble slabs so they could do double duty as food-warming stations. Today, a salvager with a bit of imagination might use them as legs for a console table for the front hall. Here's how:
1) Select a pair of tall decorative radiators with flat tops. Narrow five- or six-fin radiators work best where space is tight.
2) Position radiators about 3 feet apart, ends facing the wall.
3) Slide a section of perforated galvanized pipe strap (shown inset), available at plumbing supply stores, around the top section of the fin closest to the wall.
4) Fold strap ends so holes line up, and secure to the wall with a toggle bolt (for drywall) or a screw and anchor (for plaster).
5) Top with a stone slab, thick glass, or wood plank cut to overhang the radiators by 2 inches in front and on the sides; the back edge should sit flush against the wall. Protect the underside of the top from scratches with felt pads or clear rubber disks.
Where to find it:
New England Demolition and
Salvage, East Wareham, MA
Bauer Brothers Salvage Inc.