What to do when one of your radiators breaks

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When one of your home radiators breaks, particularly in the winter season, it can be difficult. In Atlanta,...

When one of your home radiators breaks, particularly in the winter season, it can be difficult. In Atlanta, we tend to focus on the summer seasons and neglect maintenance on the winter gear. But if you're prepared ahead of time, you can turn a potential wintertime emergency into a simple repair or replacement project.

The first determination to make with a broken unit is whether it can be repaired or needs to be replaced. You also need to decide whether an Atlanta licensed plumbing professional is required.

First, determine what is causing the unit to malfunction. Touch the unit carefully to make sure all areas are hot. If the unit is cool at the top, there may be trapped air and the radiator may require "bleeding."

Cold water holds more air than hot, so the air will rise to the top. You "bleed" the radiator by opening the air vent to allow the air to escape. This is a project you can do yourself by looking for the air vent near the top of your radiator.

Turn the thermostat down and have a bucket ready to catch water when you open the vent (with a screwdriver or a vent key). When water starts flowing after the air stops sputtering, the unit has been properly bled.

Prior to performing maintenance on the single unit, you'll want to check other units in your home to determine whether the problem is systemic or at a single radiator.

If all your units are cool, you may need to have a professional plumber clean out your system to remove sludge in areas you'd be unable to reach without proper equipment. If only one unit is cool, you may want to check the inlet valve for that unit. Completely close and then completely reopen the valve to make sure it is all the way open.

If units on an upper floor are cool while those on a lower floor seem to be functioning properly, your system's pump may be to blame, causing upper floor units to not receive adequate hot water. If the opposite is true (cold lower floor units and hot upper floor), you'll need to check the cistern.

Leaky units are difficult for the do-it-yourselfer. Fixing a leak depends on the location and severity of the leak. To find the leak, you'll need an inspection mirror to help see around corners and in small spaces. If you find a small leak the size of a pinhole, you might be able to fix it yourself. Anything larger will likely require a professional.

Fixing bent fins is another relatively easy fix. Bent fins can impede airflow, so you'll want to use a radiator comb to straighten the fin without putting too much pressure on the metal.

You'll want to turn off the unit and allow it to cool to a safe handling temperature prior to using the comb to straighten the bent fins.

How to maintain a functioning system

If in your testing you determine the unit is functioning properly and professional or do-it-yourself repairs are not needed, you'll want to maintain your system.

It's best to have a professional check your system annually for proper functioning, efficiency and safety. However, there are several ways you can help maintain the system properly yourself between maintenance checks:

  • Check inlet valves: Valves are one of the easier fixes in radiators and something you should keep an eye on for necessary repairs and maintenance. You'll want to check that the valves are all the way open or all the way shut to maintain proper pressure in the system.
  • Check for leaky valves: If you think your valve may be leaking after adjusting the valves to complete open/complete shut, it may actually be a leaky cap nut. Replace the cap nut first (an easy, inexpensive fix) prior to replacing the valve.
  • Check for blocked vents: Corrosion or even paint can block radiator vents and need to be cleaned away to maintain proper functioning of your radiator heating system. This is of particular importance in Atlanta, due to the hard water in the area. Hard water deposits can build up in the system and block the vents and valves. If you can't clean away the debris, simply replace the vent.
  • Check the Slope--The unit should have a slope toward the steam inlet pipe. If there's no slope leading up to that pipe, you'll want to place a shim underneath the unit's edge to create that slope. This slope, or lack thereof, is also one of the first things you should check if you have radiator noise or knocking.

In addition to maintaining your system yourself and even making minor repairs to your system, you should continue to have regularly scheduled maintenance visits with a professional contractor. Regular maintenance can prevent expensive and unnecessary emergency repairs when your radiator heating is needed most.

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