Dear PoP – Radiators or Forced Air?

Photo by PoPville flickr user rjs1322

“Dear PoP,

My fiancée and I are renovating our home on North Capitol St in Brookland. It was built in 19-0-something, like the rest of the homes in the area, and has a good deal of original detail. The kitchen is to be modern, but we plan on preserving the wood trim, etc at the rest of the house (or at least replacing it with the same millwork look).

The one thing we cannot seem to make up our mind on is the boiler/radiator system. We are adding central air, and are not sure if we should be keeping the radiators or going to forced air gas heat. We are leaning towards taking them out (mostly because of the low lying pipes in the basement), but I’d hate to ruin something that may be considered vintage.

Are radiators considered “antique” or just “old?””

I seem to recall some folks have pretty strong opinions about this. Personally I love radiator heat. What do you guys think he should do – keep the radiators and add central AC only?

52 Comment

  • Radiators are much more efficient heat but in this climate it might not make a difference. If you travel farther north – almost all houses have radiators.

  • From what I’ve heard… The major disadvantage to using forced air heating is your house becomes very dry. The radiators are allegedly more cost efficient too. I think the major advantage would be freeing up the space that radiators take up.

    • ah

      I don’t think the dryness point is true. Dryness is caused by heating cold, dry air. The heating process makes it even drier by reducing relative humidity. So taking 25 degree air and heating it to 70 degrees is going to have the same effect on humidity.

      Forced air does allow you to add a whole-house humidifier, which can reduce the dryness.

      That all said, radiators definitely provide a more even, balanced heat than forced air. We prefer them in our new house to our old house’s force air.

  • I’ve lived with both & strongly prefer radiators, for what it’s worth….

    • saf

      What he said. I could type a LOT about why, but it comes down to more even heat, lower gas bills, less flying dust, and happy cats.

  • I’d vote for keeping the radiators, they are efficient, especially if you upgrade an old boiler which isn’t too expensive. We have friends who removed their radiators, only to regret it come winter. With forced air they now have to use their fireplace to keep the house comfortable in the winter.

    BTW-I recommend Polar Bear Air for any of these projects, including AC install.

  • without a doubt i’d go with radiators. much better heat and it doesnt dry out your house like forced air. wish i had them.

    also, north capitol doesn’t go through brookland. edgewood maybe?

  • Radiators!!! End of story.

  • When you replace your boiler, you can have the HVAC guys replace the 2 1/2″ pipes in your basement with smaller copper piping. It makes a world of difference, especially for the elbows… it might cost another $800-$1000. Some of those radiators way several hundred pounds each, unless you are removing them yourself, the removal/disposal will be factored into the price of replacing the system with forced heat, making the $800/$1000 less of a hit.

    • that would be weigh and I used Argent HVAC

    • In a one-pipe steam system like I have, smaller diameter piping doesn’t permit the steam to pass smoothly by the returning water condensate. The result is a lot of pressure build up and banging. Keep your large diameter iron pipes!

      Generally, steam systems seem fussier than hot water radiators, but they give off a nice moist heat.

      To the original question in this post, the main drawback of radiators is the cost of all the plumbing. If the system is already installed and functioning, you should keep it.

      • Likely your installer chose the wrong size pipe. There’s a correct size for every system, but most of these guys just go by their working experience and are prone to error.

        You get noise in hot water radiator systems too when you exceed the flow rate of the pipe size, but you can google the correct sizes.

  • I’d give anything to have the radiators back in my house. Forced air is useless.

  • Perhaps you can look into moving those low hanging pipes a bit as a variation of the “keep the radiators” theme?

  • I would really, really suggest looking into a ductless system. (the “euro” kind of ac/heating) It’s amazingly cheap, about a billion times better for the environment, and very cost efficient to install. And you get some nice tax breaks because of the “green”ness. Each room has their own control, which only helps with utility bills. And you could keep the historic radiators for backup heat if you like the look.

  • I’m keeping my radiators and redoing the pipework. If you still have all the big 3-4″ lines in your basement, you can yank them once you have a pump installed and replace them with 1-1.25″ copper (depending on your heating needs). These can be routed in the beams if you don’t like them attached to the ceiling. The big lines were from the pre-pump days when the radiators were gravity fed.

    I think AC+radiators is the aesthetically preferred method these days. A lot depends on the attractiveness of your radiators and whether the overall system is in good shape. If your system keeps the house warm and they’re even modestly decent looking, then don’t tear them out.

    Two things to note: you can recycle the heavy cast iron pipes and radiators at the scrap yard in SW.

    Also, Brass Knob has a yard full of radiators if you don’t like your style radiators.

  • I think my comment was erased. sigh.

    I strongly suggest looking into a ductless ac/heating system. Google it for some visuals. There is temp control in every room, it’s very cost efficient to install, and your utility bills will be super cheap. Plus it’s the best option for the environment, and you can get some “green” tax breaks.

    • Apologies if this posts multiple times…I’m getting an error message.

      Do you have a ductless system? Any recommendations for installers? I desperately want one for our upstairs.

      • I used HD Johnson. There are a few good companies around here with similar prices, I guess because this is the “new” thing and they’re keeping competitive.

        My decision was made because HD Johnson hoisted the main unit to my roof with good ol’ fashioned man power, and didn’t force me to rent a crane for $5000!

        I LOVE my system. I’ve raved about it before on PoP. My bills are crazy low, and I got a big tax break this year because of having it installed last summer.

  • Another thing to note is the lifespan of your boiler…

    • A natural gas boiler has a life span of 50 years. Have it inspected and if it isn’t broken don’t fix it. Sure, you can replace it with a more efficient new boiler. But my guess is that even with the tax credit it will take many years to recoup your investment. Replace your boiler only when it is at the end of its life and you will likely save money in the long run.

      Hot water radiators provide some of the most efficient heating money can buy. How? Because water is a much more efficient way to move energy. It can carry exponentially more heat energy in comparison to air.

      However, if you prefer the look of a radiator-less house, there are some reasonably efficient options for forced air. But none will approach the efficiency of a comparable water boiler.

      Also, on dry air–if you are starting over from scratch and want to go with forced air, you can install a whole house humidifier to add moisture to the heated dry air.

  • I have a dual pipe system and an automatic bleeder for the newer units. I typically bleed the original radiators twice a winter and never have banging issues.

  • Steam radiators are a totally different animal…
    I wouldn’t mess with a steam system…
    Black Magic….

  • Radiators. There’s no advantage to removing them even if you’re adding central air. The only reason people do is because it makes gut renovations cheaper and easier, but the end result is less efficient heating and a more complex HVAC system. You could also call the reclaimed wall space an advantage, but it’s a pretty minor issue most of the time.

    If you’re adding central air, it will be significantly cheaper to just do cooling. You can also keep the entire unit on your roof and in your attic, which saves tons of space in the basement from a big hvac unit and ducting needed in the basement.

    The concern noted above about steam systems, by the way, does not apply to hot water systems. Personally, I have never seen a steam system in DC, so I don’t know how common they are, but it seems not very. Steam heating systems seem a lot more prevalent in older (and colder) places such as New England.

    Some old hot-water systems in DC may not have a recirculating pump, but this can easily be retrofitted. If your system is that old, anyway, it should probably be replaced. Any modern hot-water boiler with a pump is quite efficient and certainly better (and more comfortable) than forced air.

    • ah

      I had a different experience re cost of adding heat to forced air. We opted to keep the radiators, but our contractor told us that if we added heat to the installed forced air A/C it would cost about $3000. We put that money (and a bunch more) to making sure the radiator heating was working well. We’re quite happy with that.

      • I’m a little confused – it cost you over $3k to “make sure” your heat worked? Was it broken before?

        I’m having a hard time understanding how you could spend more than that on a hot water heating system unless you were re-routing pipes or something. I had a complete boiler replacement when I bought my house 3 years ago. It was $4K exactly. To replace the boiler entirely. There isn’t much else that can go wrong in a hot water system.

        That was Magnolia Plumbing, btw. They seem to get mixed reviews, generally, but they did a great job, did a nice tight installation by moving it a few feet from the old location (which actually freed up a lot of space in my basement), and it was a reasonable price.

  • I would add central AC and keep the radiators if you can. And North Cap does go through Brookland. According to the city, the stretch from Hawaii Ave to Missouir/Riggs is considered Brookland. The Unit blocks of Buchanan and Crittenden (my street) and the main residential areas of this part.

    • You appear to be confused and using the dc tax neighborhood zones, which don’t go by historical neighborhood boundaries, just a tool to lump areas together for the city’s purposes.

  • I struggled with this issue last year, and decided to install AC only, and I’m very happy that I did, for many of the reasons discussed above. A friend decided to rip out her radiators, and wishes she hadn’t. There was substantial damage to the floors below the radiator, not to mention the hole left from the plumbing supply. She didn’t want to spend the money to replace her entire floors, so opted for replacing some of the boards. It’s practically impossible to match the old oak, so the difference in wood is somewhat noticeable. Just something to keep in mind if you aren’t going to be replacing the floors.

  • I’ve lived in homes and apartments with both forced air and radiators. I prefer radiators.

    Right now I own a house with forced air but I have major issues with dust (I also have capeted floors). Every time the air cycles on you get this whoosh of dust from the vents. You have to have the duct work cleaned out every year if not every 5 years. You have to purchase monthly or 3 month filters. I also like the heat from radiators better. It seems to last longer and is more consistant. And the heat is distributed throughout the house better with radiators. We have issues with one room being too hot and another being too cold. I never had that with radiators – they were easy to set at a particular temperature and be left alone. As soon as the forced air cycles off you start to feel the cold seeping back in. My radiators were noisy but that only contributed to their charm. It seemed like we needed fewer radiators in the hous – with the forced air you have to have a register (if not two) in every room. If it were not for the space issue I would strongly encourage you to keep the radiators.

    • I’ve never lived in a place with radiators, but I can agree with the fact that forced air never feels quite warm. I keep my heat at 68-70 at night in the winter, down to 64 during the day/unoccupied times, and I always had to crank up the heat in the morning to 74 to get the auxiliary heat going. It was the only way to feel warm.

      A question about radiators – can you control the actual temperature on them? I was under the impression it was an on or off kind of deal. I think I would love radiators, as long as I could personally turn them on and off with the season, such as in your own home, and not have building management controlling them, such as in an apartment/condo building.

  • I love my radiators! I just wish I knew how to deal with window dressing in the bedroom that has a radiator under 1 of 4 windows. I would love full length curtains but think it’s weird with one window having the radiator.
    Yes I am shallow.

    • get floor length curtain and make the rods long enough to extend a bit beyond the windows on either side, so the curtains hang to the floor on either end of the radiators (instead of draping over the radiators)

  • add me to all the recommendations to keep the radiators! We’re keeping ours and getting central air soon, I hope…

    We would like to use Spacepak (small duct system)– any recommendations for companies?

  • Sammy here, the one who asked the original Dear Pop Radiator question.

    Thank you all for your comments. My demo crew started this morning and I was able to call them this afternoon and save the radiators!

    We have one quote for $3k to convert the iron pipes to copper and raise them. I would like to think that we can have this done for much less. The boiler is “modern” and have a pump, but is not mew; mid 90’s.

    AS for the location, some refer to us as Ledroit, but we are across from McMillian and technically Brookland.

    Thanks again!

    • You technically don’t have a neighborhood. You have an entire neighborhood between you and Brookland (Edgewood) and between you and LeDroit Park (Bloomingdale).

      You could identify with Bloomingdale, even though you are on the wrong side of the street, or with Edgewood to make it clear you are in Northeast. In any case, you are quite far from the established neighborhood boundaries for Brookland and LeDroit Park.

      • I’d love just one time for commenters to just let the neighborhood thing slide. Everyone is so caught up on the identity issues wrapped up with neighborhood names.

        • Let the neighborhood thing slide? NEVER!

          Dave from Hamilton Street in Chevy Chase

    • Mid-90’s? Not new? Dude, my boiler rolled off the assembly line in 1974!

    • sammy: you neighborhood DOES have a name—it’s stronghold. check here, where you can get in touch with the president of your civic association (who happens to be running for the ward 5 city council seat.

      for everyone else—please, it has been said a million times, but probably has to be said a million more—the neighborhood names that the tax office uses are simply placeholders that they created so that every house would fall into a designated area. in many places where the neighborhoods are small (like a stronghold, or an edgewood), the tax office simply grouped neighborhoods together so they could avoid having to deal with more groups than they felt they needed. there are 67 “neighborhoods” according to the tax office, but those are just placeholders, not the real thing.

  • We to love our radiators and to make use of the space and to make them look nicer we bought radiator covers from The Wooden Radiator Cabinet Company which were more on the expensive side but they came out excellent. For the radiator in our kitchen we added a side bookshelf for storage and cook books.

  • Yes, you can control the temperature on radiators with a thermostat just like you would with forced air. It takes a little longer to adjust than air, but I agree with all the pro-radiator comments. The heat is just so much better. Our house is tiny but I would never take them out.

  • I have a question about my house on N. Capitol St. in Georgetown. Should I get a new AC unit or just open the windows and use a fan?

  • Sammy Jenkins,

    We are now out of our D.C. heating season (late Oct through April), but here’s a short lesson from an old Washington D.C. landlord on forced air systems versus radiated heat:

    Enter a home that has radiated heat in January or February and you’ll easily notice the difference -a cozy feeling as you first enter.

    Refrigeration, HVAC central heating/AC, and radiated heating systems are best understood beginning with the physics premise that spacial cold does not exist;
    it is an absence of heat.

    In northern climates, forced air heating systems are an unnatural, very dry air heat system that is less desirable in many ways, and less efficient as well.

    Gradual radiated heating systems are far superior to forced air for heating by retaining ambient winter humidity within living spaces. It’s better for the contents of a home, the house itself, and people as well, especially noses and throats.

    Two types of radiators: hot water and steam.

    Radiators heated with hot water circulating systems are better and easier to maintain than high pressure steam heated radiator systems. Steam radiators have a valve on one end, are noisier, can leak and stain flooring. (Hot water radiators have no valves with a visible pipe in one end and out the other.)

    Bulky radiators and subsequent space robbing perimeter baseboards with copper fins have been replaced in modern construction with radiant floor systems of serpentine tubing underneath sub flooring with slow constantly circulating hot water throughout the home flooring -nice in bathrooms.

    The tubing is seamless, continuous break free with no couplings to prevent leaks. This system while more costly up front, consumes much less energy in the long run, and is far more comfortable.

    Divert the incoming cold municipal water into your home to a system that sends the water deep into the warm earth below your property and returns up before entering the boiler and you have the most natural energy efficient heating system.

    The combination of both central air conditioning and a hot water circulating radiated heat system in a home is considered most desirable and the absolute best.

    Without exception, everyone I’ve known to have removed the radiators from their D.C. home has later regretted doing so.

    Good luck to you and your fiancée in your new D.C. home.

  • I just bought a house in Brookland, moving from Shaw. If N. Capitol Street is in Brookland, then my house must be in Anne Arundel County, MD.

    That stretch of North Cap. St. is either Bloomingdale or Edgewood depending on how fancy you feel.

    Oh, and by the way, the best and most efficient thing to do for your heating and cooling is to run radiator heat and modern multiple-zoned central a/c. That’s what we do. But what we do may not work on your house on N. Capitol St. in Dupont Circle.

  • City tax records call my neigborhood (between Ft Totten and North Cap) Brookland. Would love to call it Bloomoingdale, but don’t think anyone in their right mind would let me get away with it.

    Captcha – sciatica deity….god of all back aches

  • I have a question about my house on N. Capitol St. in Spring Valley. Should I install a new boiler or just light a fire in the dining room?

  • Somewhere out there is a company that does AC specifically for homes with radiant heat. I don’t remember who they are, but I’m sure you can find them somewhere.

  • We kept our radiators and are very happy we did, personally I hate forced hot air, I feel miserable and dried out all winter, but this doesn’t happen for me with radiators. We added central AC and used a high velocity system that uses 4″ flexible ducts that were snaked through existing walls and ceilings so we didn’t have to add any ugly bulkheads to house conventional central AC duct work. I think the manufacturer was SpacePak.
    Energy Systems did the work for us, I would highly recommend their services. They’re experts at radiant heat, all kinds of AC including ductless (euro style) which we added to the basement unit. We’re planning an addition off the back of the house and have talked through the add ons to the radiant heat system. They now have flexible piping for existing hot water systems (aluminum with a ceramic component I think) that is low profile and will take up much less space than the old iron pipes. Energy Sytems told us about it, then recently I saw an episode of This Old House that used it. Check it out.

    Energy Systems
    301-252-7428 – Ask for Dave

  • Anon 10:19 – I would suggest the fire.

  • When doing extensive renovation work when I first bought my house in 2001, I kept the radiator heat and just added central air. Love it. Also I got cute wooden radiator covers built so that in each room the radiator looks like furniture and blends in with the decor….

  • Go for central air, keep the radiators. We have forced air heat, and it never quite feels warm and cozy the same way radiator heat does. It’s also very drying, as others have mentioned.

    Also the neighborhood thing: why do people care? It’s a question about his house, not his neighborhood or which one he supposedly lives in. And really, don’t you have to be a monstrous wanker to actually get caught up in such things?

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