Radiators will always be hot stuff

Radiators will always be hot stuff

Traditional radiators are still hot stuff in the style stakes, according to Kya deLongchamps.

With the onward march of heat pump technology favouring under-floor-heating (UFH) for best performance, sustainable central heating is pushing the old style radiator out of sight in new builds.

Radiators, especially the rippled 1960s “mattress” varieties, were often an aesthetically invasive thug — blocking wall positions from furniture and interfering with the appearance of curtains as they squatted, cheerfully conducting draughts from window positions to the whole room. 

Still, it’s worth remembering just how fashionable and hot those hefty grinning panels were when they first arrived in our living spaces in the 1800s.

A century-and-a-half ago, radiators were a status symbol, designed to be seen, but it was the middle of the 19th century before they actually erupted out of the floor and into view — and that was only in public spaces and the homes of high society. 

The water fed “wet” central heating (CH) systems we know today, were developed from steam fed piped heating of the 1790s in the mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution. 

Powered by a high-pressure steam engine — exhaust heat was guided through fat low-pressure pipes and grilles. 

Central heating, without the hazards of an open flame improved conditions in military barracks, made church services bearable in mid-winter and presented comfort by night in theatres, hospitals and music halls.

Domestic luxury

New RAL colour rocks the lines of a traditional radiator. Look for a model without fussy embossing for a modern space, see bisque.co.uk for suppliers in Ireland
New RAL colour rocks the lines of a traditional radiator. Look for a model without fussy embossing for a modern space, see bisque.co.uk for suppliers in Ireland

The English grandaddy of central heating, William Strutt (1756-1830), took some of the toxic dangers out of attempts to heat entire buildings with a single combustion site, replacing hot smoke with cleaned, heated air. 

London inventor, Angier Marsh Perkins (1799-1881), finally reduced the size of the pipe-work, increasing pressure and tuning steam fed central heating to a relatively safe domestic luxury.

In the 1850s the radiator finally trots into history on four supportive little legs. Russian inventor, Franz San Galli (1824-1908), was asked to improve the heat dispersal of a greenhouse in Tsarskoye Selo, an imperial home near St Petersburg. 

In 1855 he came up with a unit that transferred the thermal energy from the furnace, through the boiler and into the space with great efficiency. 

He termed this domestic interloper simply as the “hot box”. 

The American dispute San Galli’s claim to the first radiator, promoting their own man, Joseph Nason, who was playing around with cast-iron heat distributors attached to steam and hot water heating as early as 1841.

There’s no argument that the Americans delivered the look — that organic, beautiful, contoured line of a real or reproduced 19th-century rad — the “Bundy” loop c 1872. 

The loop allowed early steam radiators to be screwed together in sections to build them to the size required. 

With an impressed pattern in Art Nouveau motifs, many were far too beautiful to be boxed in, and once kept watertight and clean internally to prevent corrosion and blockages, they proved to be all but indestructible.

Original moulds

Many survived the demolition of period buildings here in Ireland, stacked and awaiting discovery in salvage yard across the country in a huge array of sizings. 

Many new cast-iron radiators on sale today are taken from original moulds of the 1860s-1920s and with that industrial thump in a plainer, smooth radiator (rather than an neo-classical, scrolled Parisian designs), they really look fantastic in a modern room finished in a rocking RAL colour to suit.

A later, slightly more refined modernist design of the 1930s in steel that suits both historic houses and today’s interiors, the German-made, Zehnder Charleston column radiator remains famous for its simply styled, slender Art Deco columns. 

It can run beautifully below a low sash window or hang handsomely in a bold vertical composition on a small area of otherwise orphaned wall behind a door. 

Zehnder products are still on the market and the company provide a lambswool cleaning tool to keep the dust from the surfaces of their radiators, which are available in high tech’ electric or traditional wet units.

Well priced

Zehnder Charleston column radiator in steel. Made since the 1930s, it’s available nationwide and suppliers include versatile.ie.
Zehnder Charleston column radiator in steel. Made since the 1930s, it’s available nationwide and suppliers include versatile.ie.

They are very well priced and available at most good heating supply specialists. Expect to pay for column radiators per upright column section before specifying your finish colour. 

Investigate ElectriCast® radiators from Tyrone entrepreneur Shane McCrory — innovative, fully controllable, cast-iron radiators teamed to low wattage electric elements, from €799 and 3c an hour operation costs in two styles, (electricast.ie).

Just a reminder here — radiators convect rather than radiating most of their heat. 

No matter the era of authenticity of the rad, it’s vital to remember that it’s the emitting end of your wet central heating system and each unit must be as efficient as possible.

Shaping up

For complex shapes, have your heating engineer work out the figures in kWs or British Thermal Units (BTUs). 

If you are using a heat pump (air, ground or water source) which operates the CH on lower, less reactive water temperatures of 40-50C — this will inevitably influence your choice of suitable radiators. 

Cast iron takes longer to heat than pressed steel, but in the case of longer running times with say an ASHP, this will matter less than with conventional boiler fed CH.

Presuming the insulation and air tightness of the house are correct — generally, the bigger, the better. 

In a renovation a proper survey of all your extant radiators and pipework is crucial.

If you are mixing up UFH and radiators, this will influence radiator positions and sizing. 

Get specialist advice, and don’t assume existing over-sized traditional radiators will manage the final equation.

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