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What to Look For to Ensure Your Radiator is Safe

By Amy Zimmer | December 10, 2016 12:02pm | Updated on December 12, 2016 7:33am
 Steam heat experts say that issues with valves are not uncommon in New York City buildings.
Steam heat experts say that issues with valves are not uncommon in New York City buildings.
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Shutterstock/Cynthia Farmer

BRONX — After two infant sisters were tragically killed in a Bronx apartment because of a problem with the aging radiator, many New Yorkers are now paying more attention to their own steam heating systems.

A weakened valve on the radiator is believed to have caused the accident in the first-floor bedroom where 1-year-old Scylee Vayoh Ambrose and 2-year-old Ibanez Ambrose were napping at 720 Hunts Point Ave., sources told DNAinfo.

Sources believe the valve had weakened due to normal wear and tear and may have fallen off when the heat was turned on, unleashing scalding steam into the room.

Though such "freak accidents" may be rare, steam heat experts say that issues with valves are not uncommon in New York City buildings, where old steam heat systems are often out of balance, causing some apartments to be too hot and others to be too cold.

Because of this, apartment dwellers or superintendents often look for quick fixes that might do more harm than good.

Here’s what to keep an eye on if you have a steam heating system:

Make sure your radiator’s valve and air vent are working properly.

When apartments are too cold, residents sometimes think they can better control the temperature by fiddling with the air vent, said Dan Holohan, author of The Lost Art of Steam Heating and founder of HeatingHelp.com, a resource for buildings with steam issues.

But, in fact, there’s no way to control temperature with a steam heat system like the one in the Hunts Point apartment, in which a radiator has one pipe feeding it.

Never remove an air vent (also called a valve but is different from the shut-off valve), he added.

Sometimes tenants might remove an air vent, thinking it can make a room warmer, or if it’s too hot they might turn the valve upside down.

“You do that a few times, and eventually it falls out,” Holohan said.

The steam can then permeate a room even though the opening is only one-eighth of an inch in diameter.

“If you have a closed door in a small bedroom, it’s like a steam room,” he said. “Steam displaces air. It fills the room. You’re breathing steam and there’s less and less air in the room.”

The only thing you can — and must — do is either keep the valve at the base of the radiator open the entire way or keep it closed the entire way, Holohan said.

Leaking valves are signs that your building’s systems is off-kilter, as are the banging sounds that tenants often hear from their radiators, he said.

If you’re having problems, you should contact your landlord, he noted.

Don’t turn up the pressure on a boiler.

When people complain about being too cold, many supers — who may know little about boiler maintenance — simply go to the basement with their screwdriver and erroneously crank up the pressure on the boiler, Holohan said.

“These guys, all they know is to crank the pressure up,” he said. “But they should crank it down and make sure the air vents are working. High-pressure steam moves slower than lower pressure steam, so it takes longer to heat.”

But if a vent pops with high-pressure steam, that can cause more of a problem than low-pressure steam, he added.

Cranking up the pressure is often done instead of looking at the bigger issues of a building’s heating system, like having pipes that are not properly insulated, Holohan said.

Many buildings may have removed asbestos around pipes years ago but never added other insulation in its place. This causes the steam to condense in the pipes instead of the radiator.

“No one wants to do anything about that,” Holohan said of what would likely be a pricey retrofit. “Landlords can’t charge more rent for doing that.”

Practice radiator safety.

Parents should teach children not to touch radiators, said Holohan, who added that families can cover radiators with blankets — they won’t catch fire.

He also said you should never hang things from a radiator vent.

Call your landlord or 311 if it’s too cold.

Heat season runs from Oct. 1 to May 31. That means property owners must follow certain rules when it comes to heating buildings:

• Between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., if the temperature outside falls below 55 degrees, the inside temperature must be at least 68 degrees.

• Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., if the temperature outside falls below 40 degrees, the inside temperature must be at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

If your landlord and city don’t fix the issue, housing court may be your next step.