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Then & Now: Clang, bing, bang, hiss!

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Posted on: February 9, 2023

BY RANDY FLETCHER

Our boiler made a huge fuss the first time it came on this season. My wife and I heard — and even felt — its loud rumble from our kitchen, which is directly above the boiler room. All the fuss quieted down after a while — or perhaps we just got used to the muffled din. The radiators slowly came to life as the boiler-heated water began circulating through their veins. From radiator to radiator, room to room, I could hear each one cry out, “Clang, bing, bang, hiss!” as if in protest at being roused from a deep slumber.  

I wasn’t concerned about the sound. I knew I hadn’t bled the radiators in the fall, and radiators generally make some noise while they are heating up. And I knew it wouldn’t be long before a gentle heat would be emanating from each one. 

The first time I heard the word bleed relative to radiators was right after we moved into this house. As we were giving a few neighbors a tour, one of them asked if I had a radiator key. Seeing that I was clueless, he explained that radiators should be bled every fall to release trapped air from the system. (Admittedly, old gangster movie images came to mind.) He described how bleeding the radiators prevents some of the banging sounds and makes the radiators more efficient. A few days after that tour, I found a small package containing two radiator keys tucked behind the screen door. I still use them to this day. 

Radiators are typically found in older homes, and though the technology was developed in the mid-1800s, they are very efficient at heating up a room — not to mention at warming gloves, hats, bath towels and unmentionables. Plus, they don’t dry out the house in winter the way forced hot air can.

The series of coiled pipes that make up a radiator are called fins, which are made of cast iron or other conductive material. The heart of a radiator heating system, the boiler, heats up water, which circulates through the pipes. Hot water enters the radiator fins on one end and exits on the other. The water inside the coils cools off as heat is transferred from the fins to the air, and the water then recycles back to the boiler and is reheated. 

Franz San Galli is widely credited for inventing the heating radiator in the mid 1850s. Those early radiators circulated hot steam through the system. A decade later, based on updated designs by two Americans, Joseph Nason and Robert Briggs, hot-water radiators became the standard of the day. 

Most of my radiators need work. They are covered in chipped paint, and their fins are choked with detritus from the past century. Don’t get me wrong — we vacuum and try to scrape out the dirt that has petrified between each fin. I recently bought a radiator brush to help extract the ornery debris, which sometimes contains precious items of past owners, such as coins, rings, hair pins and paper clips. I even found an old thank-you card from 1943 tucked behind the back leg of one of the radiators. 

None of the many projects in our house are as daunting as refinishing a radiator, but it’s not just about making them look nicer. Removing built-up grime and layers of old paint can make them more efficient and effective. There are companies that will do this for you, but they are expensive. That leaves me chipping away the paint with my trusty paint scrapers. Eventually most of it comes off, at which point I sand, wash down and repaint the fins. (There is definitely lead paint on these things, so all standard precautions must be taken!) 

We recently had our boiler serviced by a guy from our new local oil provider. While he was cleaning out the old beast, I stood behind him and watched as he scraped out layers of debris from the fire box, where the fuel is burned. There was quite a lot of it. He swore more than once as his shop vac filled up and had to be emptied multiple times, perhaps setting a new record. He hissed out of the side of his mouth something about his predecessor being a “#!@&8!” for leaving him such a big mess to contend with.

So now I feel confident that we are set for the rest of the season. The radiators all seem to be doing their job effectively, though. You can still hear the familiar “clang, bing, bang, hiss!”  All that noise is now me, monotonously tapping on the fins, slowly removing the old paint chip by chip, with expletives now falling from my own lips while I hiss that I am yet again embroiled in another dirty, never-ending house project.

The Hyattsville Preservation Association (preservehyattsville.org) seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city. 

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