Refinishing home radiators

I’ve learned a lot about refinishing old home radiators this year and thought I’d share some of my hard-won knowledge. Our project involved refinishing original 1899 radiators with ornate details and some replacement radiators added or swapped over the life of the home. In all, we refinished all eight hot water radiators on the first floor this year using a variety of techniques depending on their weight, style, and location.

Disconnecting the system

We hired a professional heating company with a reputation for radiator work to drain the radiator system and loosen all fittings for the radiators we’d be moving. In Detroit, we recommend Soley Heating. We also were refinishing the floors, so moving them was a prerequisite. Your preferences may vary depending on whether you can get away with not moving them.

After speaking with Soley, I learned that the important thing is to minimize how often you empty and refill the system, not the amount of time it is empty. It takes a long time for the oxygen to work itself out of the water in the system, and that’s what causes rust, not being empty. So, stack up your draining-requiring fixes and try to do them all at once!

You can cover the ends of the pipes while the radiators are out if you want, but that would be mostly to keep a dog toy from going down one, not to block air flow. They’ll be fine.

Moving radiators

For small distances, use “moving straps” (also called “forearm forklifts” or “lifting straps”) slung under the ribs. This allows up to 2 people per strap to assist in the move. It’s imperative you use your forearms NOT hands to lift – you will crush your hands. And of course, lift with your legs, never your back. This is the thing that will punish you dearly for not heeding that old advice.

It’s also VERY important to ensure the strap is completely snug in the space between ribs. Multiple times a radiator “jumped” when the strap slid further into the crevice.

Moving radiators

The pipes should flex slightly to let you swing out one end, then the other. (Remember to do this in reverse when putting it back.)

Rent a pallet jack for moving radiators around a floor. Put down 2x4s if they don’t want to sit nicely. Be very patient (it can take 20-point turns to maneuver) and measure your doorways before doing this. You will need to use the moving straps to get them on and off the jack. Verify it’s not damaging your floors before taking it clear across the room.

Alternatively, furniture moving pads (with hard backs) on every foot will work if you put down carpet. I was surprised – not even the heaviest radiator shattered them. On a hard floor it will move, but it’s likely you’ll scratch the floor. That much weight will make any debris into a floor-gouger. We used these to save time before we refinished the floors, but not after. Another trick we used: putting the radiator onto an upside-down carpet and sliding it over our hardwood floors.

Putting anything under a radiator is a two-person job. Much like weight-lifting requires a spotter, don’t reach down while a radiator is off-kilter, even a little.

Lastly, if you are moving between floors and/or out of the building, hire a piano moving company. If you know a “regular” moving company, ask them for a recommendation. They have both knowledge and equipment you lack, not just muscle.

Refinishing radiators

For our four original, ornate radiators we chose to sandblast and powdercoat them. This really makes their style pop because it removes all the layers of paint and gives it a single, smooth finish layer that brings out patterns. I couldn’t believe how great ours looked after doing this.

Radiator detail

In metro Detroit, Michigan Sandblasting does great radiator work. The price varies by size. For obtaining a custom powder color and doing 2 small and 2 very large radiators, our total cost was just under $2000.

Powdercoated radiators

We had the piano movers handle the drop-off and pick-up process entirely. We put duct tape over the valves to prevent sandblast media from entering the pipes. On return, the piano movers covered the radiators in plastic wrap to prevent chipping in transit. For ours, they removed the bleeder valves and neglected to return them, so keep an eye out for that. It’s not a big deal, they’re not expensive, but it will stymie refilling the system if your technician doesn’t have more on hand.

Wrapped radiator for transit

For our four non-ornate radiators, we chose to use a flat black high-temperature Rust-Oleum paint (brush-on, not spray – it takes more paint that you’d guess). I’ve done some reading (here and elsewhere) that indicates these are the most important things to consider:

  • If not sandblasting, use a wire brush to remove flaking paint and rust.
  • Use a primer (Rust-Oleum is both primer & finish in our case).
  • Use only oil-based primer and paints to prevent rust.
  • High-temperature paint is preferable, but not required (it’s extremely limited in colors: black, white, silver).
  • Avoid painting valves, knobs, and stems (anything that theoretically moves).
  • Avoid metallic finishes that will hurt heat transfer.

The care you spend on this step will define how long it lasts. If you have the budget, powdercoating is the longest-term fix.

Black paint radiators

Final thoughts

This is a good opportunity for fixing things like faulty shut-off valves and other minor ails. You can also look at adding additional shut-offs on the pipes themselves (if you can get to them in, say, the basement) to allow you to isolate radiators without draining the entire system. Make sure you set aside money for some unexpected repair work when you take apart a hundred-year old system. And definitely don’t try to refill the system yourself!

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