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Cleaning

How to clean your radiator to keep a warm home this winter

Dust bunnies beware

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The importance of having a well-functioning heating unit in your home is crucial during the winter months, especially during arctic blasts that hit the Northeast regularly in January and February. If you lose heat in your home, you're going to be cold.

For those of us with radiator units in our homes or apartments—you know the ones, those classic cast iron or aluminum steam heaters that hiss and clang to signal that the heat is on—it’s essential that you make sure your heating unit is optimized for winter.

Cleaning and maintaining your radiator on a regular basis is one way to ensure it remains as efficient as possible without skyrocketing your heating bills.

Gareth Gill, a brand manager for home heating specialist Hudson Reed USA, says, “Keeping your radiator clean and dust-free can improve its efficiency, as a build-up of dust in between convector fins can stop heat from escaping, which forces your radiators to work harder to warm your room.”

Gill also suggests a few best practices that will ensure that your heater is keeping you as warm as can be. “A desk, a couch or even your curtains—anything in front of a radiator can reduce its efficiency, as your heat will accumulate there and won’t distribute evenly throughout your room.”

So, make sure there are no obstructions around your unit, but also, make sure there aren’t any on top of it, either.

“While it might seem like a quick trick to drying laundry,” says Gill, “clothes reduce the amount of heat coming out from your radiators, meaning your boiler has to work harder and your bills will shoot up.” (I only wish my fresh-out-of-college self knew this, because that girl never used a real clothes dryer.)

For maximum warmth this winter, here’s how to clean a radiator.

What you’ll need

A person wipes a radiator clean with a duster.
Credit: Getty Images / Ralf Geithe

It's imperative to optimize your radiator for winter — and that includes making sure it's clean.

How to clean your radiator:

A person wipes a radiator with a cloth.
Credit: Getty Images / urbazon

Maximize your warmth by eliminating dust bunnies.

Step 1: Turn the radiator off to ensure that it’s not hot while you’re working on it. Turning it off will also prevent the warm air from the convection current from pulling dust in while you clean.

Step 2: Start by vacuuming in and around the unit, paying close attention to the area between the fins, as well as the floor beneath it.

Step 3: Push your radiator brush into the space between each fin, loosening and removing any additional dust. (In a pinch, a yardstick with a small dust rag affixed to the end with masking tape will also work.) Be sure to run the brush down the front and back of the fins, especially if your radiator abuts a wall where unseen dust can accumulate. When you’ve finished using your brush, it’s always a good idea to shake off the dust outdoors and/or wash it with warm soapy water so it’s clean and ready to use next time.

Step 4: Using a damp, non-abrasive sponge or rag, wipe down the surface of the radiator, as well as the wall behind it to remove any dust or debris that remains, and use a clean cloth to dry it to prevent rust.

If all else fails, bleed your radiator

A person "bleeds" a radiator.
Credit: Getty Images / AndreyPopov

Eliminate air pockets by bleeding your radiator.

If you’ve cleaned your radiator and you’re still noticing heat loss or cold spots on your unit, the last thing you can try is bleeding your radiator.

When you bleed a radiator, it simply means removing any air that might be trapped in it. These air pockets don’t allow the water inside to travel freely and make your boiler (and thus, your wallet) work harder in cold weather.

Gill says, “If your radiators contain trapped air, this reduces their efficiency considerably. A cold spot higher up on the radiator is a tell-tale sign you’ve got this issue. Simply bleed your radiator to alleviate this issue, and you’ll have your radiators primed for optimal performance in the colder months.”

To bleed a radiator, first determine if it has noticeably cool spots. You shouldn’t have to bleed a radiator that’s warm all over. Turn off your heat to allow the unit to cool off, and locate the bleed valve. Then, using a bleed key (in some cases a flathead screwdriver may also work), turn the valve counter-clockwise to release the air. You’ll hear a hiss. When the hissing stops, turn the key clockwise to tighten the valve.

Performing an annual deep clean, as we’ve described, along with regular dusting and the occasional bleed, should keep your radiator unit cranking out heat and keeping your home toasty warm all winter long.

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