How to Survive NYC Radiator Season

Winter in New York brings with it some familiar sounds: Handel's messiah resounding from church doors, jingle bells ringing outside the department stores, and the incessant clanging of your apartment radiator. For most New York City renters, winter months are marked by erratic temperature swings and a chorus of banging, hissing, and popping.

As many as 70% of large apartment buildings in New York City are heated by steam radiators -- and it’s this combination of pressurized steam and cool condensation that causes the unabating noise during so-called Heat Season. According to New York law, landlords are required to keep apartments heated to 68 degrees between 6am and 10pm when temperatures fall below 55 degrees between October 1st and May 31st. Over the course of the night, landlords must maintain at least 55 degrees when it’s below 40 degrees outside.

Your prewar building -- with its crown molding and parquet wood floors -- may be charming, but there’s often only one boiler for the entire building. This makes it impossible to keep top-floor units cozy without sweating out tenants on the ground floor. And if your plumbing was any indication, those radiators haven’t been cleaned since the early 20th century.  

For some people, it may be enough to crack a window or sleep on a heating pad until spring comes. But most of us spend at least six months of the year sweating, drying out, and being woken every three hours by the proverbial angels of death trapped in our radiator.

Don’t let this be just another New York winter. Here's how to show your radiator who’s boss.

Channel an episode of This Old House

To be clear, you are almost definitely not a professional plumber -- and please don’t pretend to be one. But you can still attempt a few makeshift repairs to quiet the high-pitched whistling and clashing appliance. If it sounds like someone is banging on your radiator with a metal pipe, you may have a case of water hammer.

This is often because your radiator is not at a proper angle (pitched downward toward the pipe and away from the vent, so condensed water can drain back to the boiler). Elevate one end of your radiator with a shim (or a stack of magazines, or thick paper) so water doesn’t block the steam.

You can also replace the air vent -- the piece that hisses (or shrieks, depending on its condition). It’s easy enough to pick up a replacement vent at a plumbing supply store, and not an expensive item. But your landlord or super should be able to handle it. If all you really want is to turn down the sauna, a piece of tape over the air vent hole will keep hot air from escaping, effectively shutting off the radiator.

There’s also a DIY fix you can try if your problem is the temperature, rather than the ruckus. Cold radiators can be caused by a number of problems, including leaks (which should be fairly obvious) and trapped, cool air. The latter problem can be remedied by “bleeding,” or releasing, the chilly air inside the fins. Pick up a radiator key at your local hardware store (or see if a flathead screwdriver will do the trick) and open the bleed valve on top of the radiator. Turn the valve until water drips out, and do so with the rest of the radiators in your apartment. Cold air will now make space for hot air to enter, effectively freeing you from the electric blanket you’ve been sleeping in all winter.

Make sure it’s not an operator error

Before you go dialing 311 about the uninhabitable conditions, make sure the valve on your radiator isn’t shut all the way off. Doing so can make hot steam accumulate, cause leaks, and destroy your radiator. If you didn’t already have water hammer, you’ll definitely have it now. Many renters mistake the knob for a temperature-control valve, but it’s really just open or closed. Having a partially opened valve will ensure you’re woken by a cacophony of clanging.

Cover up your radiator

A steam heat expert, Dan Holohan, told City Lab that radiators only ever reach about 215 degrees, meaning it’s safe to cover them with a sheet, towel, or blanket to keep heat from escaping. Just avoid synthetics (think: polyester) which can melt.

Take care of yourself

If there’s one thing all steam radiators seem to do successfully, it’s dry out your skin and give you regular middle-of-the-night nosebleeds. During heat season, keep a humidifier running. You can pick these up at any home goods store, but we do love this USB-powered bottle humidifier from Urban Outfitters. It’s energy-efficient (shutting off after five hours of consecutive use) and will look decorative on your nightstand. For something a bit easier on the wallet, try covering your radiator with a wet cotton towel, rather than dry one.

Renters may also want to invest in good old-fashioned earplugs. A number of companies (Hush, QuietOn) are working on smart, noise-cancelling earbuds to lull you to sleep even in noisy, street-front apartments with clamorous steam radiators. But in the meantime, a white noise machine -- or app -- and a pair of earplugs will help.

Steam radiators are also known for exacerbating dry, itchy winter skin. Keep your nightstand stocked with vaseline for chapped lips and hands, stock up on moisturizing face masks, and stay hydrated.

You may never be happy with your steam radiator, but we promise -- you’ll survive it. And it helps to know that though renters with central heat may be sleeping soundly in comfortably warm rooms, they’re definitely, absolutely paying for it. Apartments heated by a single boiler often have heat and hot water included, as there’s no way for tenants to individually control the temperature of their units. Central heat is easy to control, but extremely costly. Keeping that in mind can help you survive another winter with your obnoxious (but free!) steam radiator.

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Melanie Lieberman counts her lucky stars that she now lives in a building with central heat.