Learn how to fix steam radiators that aren't getting hot. Find out how to call a heating contractor to diagnose a heating problem with a steam heating system and why you might need to replace your boiler.
LESLIE: Margaret in New York has a heating question. What’s going on at your money pit?
MARGARET: I have a very old home  and I think the furnace has been converted from coal to oil.
TOM: Wow, that is old. (Leslie chuckles)
MARGARET: I think so. I mean this house has a door in the wall for the mailman – I mean the milkman to put the milk in. (Tom laughs)
LESLIE: (chuckling) Which is probably leaking major energy right there.
MARGARET: Probably. But the pipes are all covered with asbestos so I don’t want to get – I mean, they were sealed before I bought it…
MARGARET: … to make sure that it was OK. But the thing is, the basement is like 75 degrees, the main floor is 67 degrees and the bedroom area is 65 degrees.
TOM: Now, first of all, is this is a hot water system or a hot air system?
MARGARET: Yes, it has the old iron, whatever …
MARGARET: … heavy radiators.
MARGARET: We’ve changed the nozzles at the end of the radiators because somebody said maybe there – we’ve had the system cleaned.
TOM: Do you know if it’s a steam system or a hot water system?
TOM: The steam boilers are smaller. Steam radiators are smaller and get hotter …
TOM: … and they have a little vent on the top of them.
MARGARET: Well this – it has a vent on the end of it.
MARGARET: You know, like where the – curl, curl, curl and then it …
TOM: Does it clankety-clank-clank when it runs?
TOM: Yeah, it’s a steam system . Are all the radiators getting hot?
MARGARET: No, they clank. They sort of get hot but it doesn’t get hot enough to be warm and…
TOM: Well, it’s not working right then.
MARGARET: … and we just don’t know how to get …
TOM: You know, you – something is not right. The steam is not getting up into all the radiators and …
TOM: … you need to get that checked out by a heating pro .
MARGARET: How do we get it taken care of? That’s the thing.
TOM: Well, you’re going to have to call a heating contractor  for this. This is definitely not something you can do yourself. It might be that some of the pipes have sagged and so they’re actually causing a blockage of some of the condensation. Some of the water in the lines could be stopping the steam from getting up into different parts of the house.
MARGARET: Mm, OK.
TOM: And if that’s the case, what’s going to end up happening is you’re going to keep turning the thermostat up and up and up and the steam’s never going to get up there like you want it to and the house will be cold and the boiler will run and your utility bills go sky high .
TOM: So this would be very worthwhile getting a very good, skilled heating contractor in there to diagnose why those steam radiators on the upper floors are not getting hot. They should be getting so hot that you can’t put your hand on them.
LESLIE: Is it possible, Tom, that there’s something – that it’s a simple problem with the thermostat not properly reading the temperature? Maybe something got out of adjustment and that’s simple to fix and then it’s just not reading the temperature correctly?
TOM: You bought a lottery ticket today, didn’t you? (Margaret chuckles)
TOM: Feeling lucky. (Tom laughs) You know, sure. Anything’s possible. But in an old house like this with these symptoms, I suspect that for some reason the steam’s not getting up because part of the line is blocked. Alright? But it doesn’t have to be expensive to fix, Margaret. It just needs to have somebody that knows what they’re doing check out the path of the steam all the way up to those radiators and figure out why it’s not getting there.
TOM: Alright, it’s a good system though. I mean, you know, steam’s a good system …
TOM: … and I wouldn’t do anything to change it. You’ve just got to figure out why it’s not doing that.
Now, as to that really old boiler – well, you know, it might be time to think about a new one; although that is going to have no effect on whether or not the steam’s getting up there.
LESLIE: On this problem.
TOM: But at that age, converted like it is, you may want to think about replacing it. You’ll get far more efficiency out of a new boiler  and you’ll also find out that it will be about a third of the size of the one you have right now.
MARGARET: Right. But in order for them to check the pipes are they going to have to get in to where the asbestos is? Because I don’t want to shake up any problem.
TOM: Hopefully not.
MARGARET: Oh, OK.
TOM: Hopefully not. They’ve got to do some diagnostics first and if it turns out that it has to be opened up then it has to be done by a professional.
TOM: Alright, Margaret?
MARGARET: Yeah, because I’m just worried about that asbestos getting …
TOM: Well, it is a concern. That’s why we always tell people that rather than seal it you’re better off to remove it …
TOM: … and then have those pipes reinsulated because of this very situation. If you ever have to do a repair it has to be removed at that point anyway.
TOM: Alright? But let’s cross that bridge when we come to it, OK Margaret?
TOM: I think that – hopefully this could be a simple fix.
MARGARET: OK. So I need a heating contractor.
MARGARET: OK. Thank you very much.
TOM: Thanks so much for calling us at 888-MONEY-PIT.