Tag Archives: air conditioning

Your New Noisy Roommate: Steam Radiators in Chicago Apartments

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that this article was linked on October 18, 2012 from a certain HVAC newsletter with the instructions to “find as many errors as possible” in the article. This has resulted in a stream of hate mail and comments including some threatening me with injury and death. As such I have disabled all comments other than one from a solitary, polite commenter which explains how radiators are supposed to work in a perfect situation, even if they don’t work that way in most budget-range Chicago apartments.

So, it was 41 degrees last night in Chicago. Many of you probably found yourself searching the web for “Chicago heating laws” or something similar. They exist. It gets cold here. Heat is considered a life-essential service for a little less than 3/4 of the year. Today we’re featuring a handful of facts that you should know if you’re owning or living in an apartment with landlord-provided steam heat.

They will make noises, but they shouldn’t be too loud.

Here’s the basic premise of a steam radiator. Water is heated in a boiler down in the basement. It turns to steam, which flows up a big pipe, past a few safety valves and into your big clunky radiators. The metal radiators absorb the heat from the steam, which condenses back into water as it cools. The water flows back down to the boiler either through the same pipe or through a separate, slightly narrower pipe. Repeat ad infinitum. These are called one-pipe and two-pipe systems, respectively, and they are very, very common in Chicago’s old-school vintage walkup apartment buildings.

That’s a lot of physics going on. In a perfect situation you would hear no noise, but these are Chicago apartments we’re talking about here. The systems are rarely in good condition, but they’ll suffice. What’s important here is to know what’s reasonable and what’s dangerous. You will hear some ticking as the metal radiator expands & contracts in reaction to the temperature changes. There will be some hissing as excess air escapes through the pressure release valve on your radiator. You may even hear the gurgle of water as it flows back out. These are all normal sounds and part of living with your noisy new heat-giving friend. However, there’s one sound that you should not hear: knocking. (more…)