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Restore 100-year-old radiators?

We're gut-renovating an old house that currently has the original steam radiator system. We plan to replace the boiler and all the plumbing. We were originally going to rip out the radiators and put in in-floor radiant heat (WarmBoard). But, even though the reviews all seem to be great, I can't bring myself to run water through all our floors.

I really want radiant heat (can't stand forced air) and upon examining the existing radiators more closely, they're originals from the American Radiator Company (one-pipe, I believe). I would love to restore them, but can that be done? Can we install a new boiler and new pipes and keep the original radiators? Will we be setting ourselves up for problems down the road?

I have no idea of their condition. They seem to heat the house, although with all the drafty windows and lack of insulation it's hard to tell. There's also water damage near several of the radiators but it's unclear whether that's coming from the brick facade, a waste pipe from the roof drain, the radiators themselves, or something else entirely (the house needs some serious help). Who's the right person to assess whether the radiators are in good enough condition to restore?

And assuming we can restore them, can we stick with steam or would we need to, or be better off switching to a hot-water system?

Any other advice would be most welcome.

Thank you!

Comments

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 18,923
    They surely can be restored. Furthermore, it is unlikely that any of the piping will have to be disturbed.

    Stick with the steam -- since you have it, you will find that it is even, warm, cosy, comfortable, efficient, etc. etc You will find that the comfort of steam heat is very like radiant -- except for the warm floors, of course!

    More specifically. It is rare for a radiator to be so damaged that it is unusable. Once in a very long time one may develop a leak -- but it is almost always between sections, and that is repairable quite easily. The valves and unions do sometimes leak -- but again, that is completely repairable (usually just with a nice wrench!). Some types of steam systems have traps. These may need replacing -- a simple job. Some have radiator vents. These may very likely need replacing; another simple job.

    If they need refinishing -- which wouldn't surprise me -- there are a variety of ways to do that, ranging from really simple (wire brushing and painting) to pretty fancy (bead blasting and powder coating).

    The boiler may or may not need replacing. If it is more than 15 years old, it probably does.

    You state you want to replace all the plumbing. For the domestic water, perhaps. But may I ask why you want to replace the steam piping? I would approach that with a good deal of caution. While it certainly can be done, there should be a very good reason to do so -- and not because it is old. There may be a few pipes low down in the basement which are doubtful, but otherwise steam piping simply doesn't get old (the piping -- and radiators -- in the place I care for are over 80 years old, and in very very good condition, to give you the idea -- I expect them to last another century or so).

    Give us some more information about your system, and we can probably help you further. You might also want to look into a couple of books: The Lost Art of Steam Heating and Greening Steam, both of which are available from the store on this site or from Amazon.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Thank you so much, Jamie. This is extremely encouraging.

    From the inspector's report (from when we went into contract 14 months ago) ---

    The boiler is a natural gas, Weil McLain steam boiler, capacity 300,000 BTUs, estimated to be 20 years old.

    The pipes are made of iron. Older sections of pipe and components were noted.

    System was found functional but not fully tested due to the weather (then) being too warm to properly test. Routine maintenance to system should be anticipated. Various radiators need new valves. Service by plumber needed.

    Because we had originally assumed we'd be ripping everything out and putting in Warmboard, we never did have a plumber service the boiler or radiators, other than to change the glass tube (not sure of the name) that was dripping/leaking, and we haven't done any routine maintenance over the past 14 months. How much damage will that have caused? And, I presume I should be getting someone in there asap.

    As for replacing the steam pipes, I had just assumed we'd need to ... because they're old. It's wonderful to hear we might not need to. Would a plumber be able to make that determination for us?

    Thank you for the book recommendation and for taking the time to respond. I so appreciate it.
  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,518
    edited December 2016
    The steam piping in my house is 115 years old and many on this site have even older steam pipes. They will last almost indefinitely as long as the horizontals have proper pitch and there isn't a lot of fresh water added to the boiler, on a regular basis. About the only piping that will be suspect are any wet returns (pipes below the boiler water line) in the basement. When you have the boiler serviced, it would be a good idea to have those looked at and possible flushed out if there is access to open them up and clean out. If, when you have walls opened up or are inspecting the pipes in the basement, you see signs of rusty water runs on a pipe or around a fitting, that might be worth a closer look but I wouldn't replace all the steam pipes.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,330
    edited December 2016
    Definitely keep the steam. The steam pipes should be in good shape, as well as the radiators. Where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Thank you. Thank you.

    We're in New York City.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,330
    Go here to see our Find a Contractor listing for New York:

    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/state/NY
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Will do. Thank you. This site is amazing.