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Understanding Boiler Radiator Systems

by Matt Goering

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Boilers and radiators are not often installed in new homes, but many older residences still feature this type of heating system. Furthermore, because this type of heating works well in multi-residence situations and larger buildings, steam heating and hot-water heating are still common in many apartment buildings, multi-family dwellings, and older business buildings.

Steam Heating Systems: Pros
Steam and hot-water heating systems have several benefits that aren't often discussed. They have few moving parts, making them more reliable and durable if maintained than newer, more complicated heating systems. They also provide clean and dust-free heat, a huge plus for homeowners who react negatively to the dust and other allergens that can be stirred up by forced air and other modern heating systems. Finally, they fit the bill when it comes to staying true to older structures and historic homes, making it easy to see why some homeowners choose to overlook, and put up with, some of the quirks that have made steam heating systems lose popularity as a residential heating option over the years.

Boiler Systems Operation
In steam heating systems, a boiler heats water by means of a gas or oil-fired burner and turns it into steam. The steam travels through pipes to radiators or convectors, which give off heat and warm the room. As the steam cools, it condenses back into water, and returns to the boiler to be heated again. Hot water heating systems operate on the same principle, using hot water instead of steam to heat the radiators.

Steam Heating Systems Maintenance
While one of the advantages of boiler systems is their long life, they should still be serviced annually to ensure trouble-free operation. You can easily learn to check the safety valve, pressure level gauge, and water level gauge yourself, but for safety reasons more substantial heating system maintenance should be done by qualified service professional. Routine annual service should include checking the controls and gauges and inspecting and adjusting the burner. In addition, the chimney and flues from the boiler should be inspected for blockages or leaks, as well. If you have steam heating, the air valves on the radiators should also be checked and adjusted to regulate the heat.

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Steam Heating Systems: Cons
There is a reason steam heating isn't on the radar for most homeowners when it comes to updating their home heating system. In general steam heating isn't as efficient, provides less even heating, and presents a greater safety risk than other heating options. Add to that the fact that steam heating requires diligent regular maintenance if you expect your system to last, and it's easy to see why many homeowners choose to replace steam heating systems with more conventional heating options. In fact, if you have a system that is struggling or not working properly, you're probably wise to invest in a forced air furnace instead. The energy savings you experience, along with the convenience of maintenance free operation, make replacing steam heating systems a smart decision for any homeowner.

Talk to an HVAC Professional
Whether you choose to replace your boiler systems with forced air or other heating systems, or choose to maintain them and keep things running, it's a good move to call in an experienced technician to perform the work. Either way you'll be able to sleep easy knowing your home heating system has been installed and maintained correctly, and will keep you and yours warm when the winter sets in.

Matt Goering, formerly a carpenter and house painter, is a freelance writer for the home improvement industry who has published over 600 articles.