Dear PoPville – Basement Ceilings and Radiator Pipes

Photo by PoPville flickr user caroline.angelo

“Dear PoPville,

Like many rowhomes in the area, I have a basement with a low ceiling. Currently, the ceiling is exposed (i.e. can see the rafters and plumbing and electrical work). I’m looking for ideas on how to finish it off, without compromising height and maintaining some sort of access to the plumbing and electrical. Because of this, drop ceilings and drywall are out. Other suggestions I’ve heard are paint (either white or black), beadboard with access panels, burlap (yes, burlap), or just leaving it alone. Has anyone tried these options? Are you happy with them? Any other suggestions? Digging out the floor is not an option – I’m not looking to convert the basement into a money pit, just a semi-finished space for a rec room. I’m leaning toward painting it white, but am concerned about whether over time this will just serve to highlight dust on the exposed pipes.”

and somewhat related:

Photo by PoPville flickr user JosephLeonardo

“Dear PoPville,

I am in the process of finishing the basement in my Petworth rowhouse, and I haven’t yet installed a ceiling. Like most old D.C. basements, large, old radiator pipes (about 2″ diameter) hang about 8 inches below the joists in several spots. Instead of ultimately leaving the pipes hanging below the ceiling or enclosing them in awkward soffits, I would like to raise them in between the joists if possible. A friend told me that they could be replaced with much smaller copper pipes that could be hidden underneath the drywall ceiling. Anyone have experience doing this? About how much did it cost? Any recommendations for someone who does this type of work?”

15 Comment

  • @1st poster – We just left the beams exposed(painted white) and went for an industrial look. I haven’t particularly noticed dust on the pipes but they also (conveniently) run across one wall so they aren’t in the middle of the room.

    We have received a ton of compliments on the basement so I guess it worked…

  • @2nd poster… when we rehabbed our basement we re-routed the water and gas pipes into a single cluster that runs along our supporting axial iron beam. That way a single wide wall running the length of the basement can hide all the pipes. They then splay off the central axis by running within the bays between the joists.

    • We did the same. If your pipes hang well below the ceiling, you can have them raised up, but doing as petworthy said, worked well for us. And we did box them in and use dry wall. No more of an issue in the basement than the first or second floors. We had Barry Plumbing do it.

  • White in a basement is your best bet.

    Whatever you do with the pipes do not let some idiot contractor cut or drill through your existing joists. It happens all the time.

  • Isn’t a drop ceiling made for that type of installation? So you can access all the stuff above it?

    • yup, drop ceilings allow for access, but my problem with them is the drop part – with most you loose precious inches, so it compromises the height.

  • We use our basement as a rec room. We painted out basement ceiling white & it makes a huge difference. You will be very happy with the results. I actually think the dust, etc. is actually less noticable now. Rent a sprayer from home depot – it is worth every penny. Our next thing to figure out in our rec room is the lighting – currently we just have shop fluorescent lights, so it would be nice to upgrade to something nicer that won’t take up much head room.

  • More accurately, make sure they follow building codes when cutting or drilling through existing joists (see google and DCRA’s code page below). It happens all the time because it is legal, but you have to know exactly where and how much you can cut without compromising the strength of the joist. This is where idiot contractors can go wrong.

  • While I have never tried this on a project before, I think the idea of a fabric ceiling is intriguing. One could run the fabric just below the joists or even create a more complex coffered section. Lightweight, removable, cleanable and enhanced acoustic performance. I dont know if the product is translucent, but what if you could backlight it? Kinda cool and space saving. Search for QuietZone SOLSERENE Fabric Ceiling System and see what you think.

  • First poster — I would seriously look into raising your pipes if you plan to sell anytime in the next 10 years or so, even if you don’t mind the low ceilings. We have very low ceilings in our basement, and every realtor we had look at the place said to fix up the basement as cheaply as possible. We never paid extra to bring the pipes up, and nearly every potential buyer who looked at our house said the basement ceilings were too low. A friend raised his pipes for something like $6k — not doing so cost us MUCH more.

  • Second poster: In my one-pipe steam radiator system, cast iron is preferable to copper. You need something with fairly large diameter to allow sufficient volume of steam to pass at low pressure. But copper pipes of large diameter are suceptible to rapid expansion and contraction, which makes pipes bang loudly. Copper pipes also conduct heat better than iron, which means greater heat loss on the way to the radiators.

    I did not know any of this when I bought my house, and I wish I never had occasion to learn it.

  • tin ceiling tiles? you can get white ones, or any variety of coating. i like the look, used these for a backsplash.

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