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Don't Get Steamed! A Steam Heating Primer

Have you ever wondered why your radiators are so big for your small vintage home? Believe it or not, the answer has something to do with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. This winter marks the 100th anniversary of the pandemic, which infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide, killing anywhere from 20 to 50 million. In an effort to prevent another outbreak of the airborne influenza, health officials strongly recommended that windows remain cracked year-round to allow for fresh air.

Now back to your radiator. To accommodate this health recommendation (read: demand), engineering manuals from the 1920s specified that radiators and boilers be large enough to heat a room on "the coldest day of the year, with the wind blowing, and the windows open." There you have it: they were oversized ON PURPOSE. Thankfully, steam heat is very energy efficient, but still you may want to install individual thermostats on each of your radiators to regulate the heat room by room.

As for their placement in front of windows? Another old-timey trick. Heat rises (thanks, physics!), so by placing the radiator under a (drafty) window, the rising heat creates a thermal barrier to keep the sinking cold air from moving. Another consideration is that radiators placed under windows leave the rest of the wall space open for furniture. Radiate on, radiators!

For those of you who love winter in Chicago, the hissing and clanging of radiators is music to your ears. But, wait! Dave Bunnell, aka The Steam Whisperer, a residential and commercial steam heating systems expert with 20+ years of experience, cautions us that, actually, “noisy radiators are a cry for help.”

If you missed Dave’s steam heat seminars last month, you can access his full presentation for details on steam heat systems, diagnostics and, most importantly, maintenance. Put the “rad” back in your radiator with a few adjustments and routine maintenance!

Download the materials from Dave's seminar here:


Thank you to Dave for giving two fabulous presentations and sharing this information!

Dave Bunnell, The Steam Whisperer | | 877.567.7070 |

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