OK, Umbra,

I live in a building in Brooklyn where, in typical Brooklyn style, we do not control our own heat. That is, there is no thermostat in our apartment. Thus, our only options for regulating the temperature in the winter are turning off the radiators or opening the windows. Obviously the latter is an absurd waste of energy; I don’t want my poor radiator trying to heat all of the outer boroughs of New York City. Trouble with the former option is that turning my radiator on and off causes it to leak, resulting in a steady wintertime river that is gradually warping the hardwood floors and no doubt causing some distress to my downstairs neighbors. I’ve called my landlord about this no less than three times, and no fewer than three different plumbers have told me that I cannot turn the radiator on and off — I must simply pick one setting and leave it that way. My solution has been to leave it off and use a space heater to maintain a manageable climate in my bedroom (aka, my office). Hence, two questions: First, what is the environmental impact of a space heater vs. a radiator, and second, are these plumbers for real?

Kathryn Schulz
Grist Managing Editor
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I feel your pain. Last time I lived in NYC, my minute bedroom had the central heat pipe running up the corner. I could hang wet jeans on my bookshelf and take them down, dry, three hours later. As a consequence, I left my window open year-round.

A ticket to steamy nights?

Naturally I was drawn to your plight (not to mention that you are my editor and therefore get high priority no matter how irrelevant your question may be to millions of readers). In looking around for an answer, I came across a website for building superintendents. They had a pretty great Q&A section that covered topics ranging from sewage to caulk. However, the bottom line was frequently, “We can’t answer because we don’t know the specifics of your system. Call a plumber.” And … that’s kind of what I’m going to say. It’s quite difficult to compare one radiator in one New York City apartment building with an unknown brand of space heater, which will use the same wattage where ‘ere it plugs in. But I can pass on a few things I learned.

Space heaters are a fairly inefficient way to convert electricity to heat. They can also run up the electric bill, and I’m not sure they’re a good choice for the apartment-building lifestyle. However, if you owned a big home and controlled your own central heating, a space heater could be a good choice. If you spent your entire day, or most of it, in one room of the house (say, your satellite Grist office), you could turn off the central heat and use a space heater. And, of course, space heaters are a great option for rooms where there is no other heat source whatsoever — certainly better than frostbite.

Space heaters run on electricity generated by burning something or splitting atoms or capturing hydropower or tapping into the energy of wind or sun (optimal but unlikely). Radiators run on water heated by burning oil or gas. Because your radiator burns fuel on site, odds are it is more efficient than your space heater. (Again, we’re guessing here, since we don’t know the specifics.) With electric space heaters, about two-thirds of the heating energy from the original fuel is lost during transit to your room.

Now, what happens to the oil or gas burned on behalf of your radiator? The energy is used to heat water and either maintain it at very high temperatures or turn it into steam. In the latter case, the steam runs through the pipes, through the on/off valve, and into the radiator. Eventually it cools, condenses, and runs back into the system as water. Hot-water systems work basically the same way except that the water is always water, not steam. Many buildings control their heat with a heat timer, a device which senses the outdoor temperature and runs heat through the building accordingly. It’s also possible for individual radiators in the building to have a gizmo on the intake valve that acts as a thermostat, turning the valve off when a certain temperature is reached.

It sounds like your building is on a heat timer, and you are in an unlucky room. Somewhere in the building is a woman who leaves her valve on and is barely warm enough. Without knowing your specifics, I’ll hazard a guess that the steam (or water) “wasted” as heat flies out your window is less wasteful than an inherently inefficient electric space heater. The steam will be created whether or not your radiator is on. Opening your window occasionally will misuse a small portion of the heat, but it will not overheat the rest of the building or cause the boiler to work harder. That’s about the best I can tell you. For the details you’ll have to go back to your super.

And as to the plumbers — can three of them be wrong? I can’t answer because I don’t know the specifics of your system. You’ll have to call a plumber.

Steamily,
Umbra