What Every Home Owner Should Know About Heat

The Handy Maniac thinks that this column has done wonders for our relationship, because now I listen attentively to him at dinner. I set the table, light the candles, pour him another glass of wine, and ask, with interest: “Why do you cuss so much when you plumb? And…what exactly are circuit breakers and where are they?”

Tonight I have made a crockpot of stew and am wearing wool socks and slippers, a sweater and giant sweatshirt, and have a scarf wrapped around my neck. All of which puts me in mind of our next topic: Turning on the heat.  

I spent most of my adult life in NYC apartments, where I knew it was winter when the radiators started hissing and clanging and I had to open the windows because it was so damn hot. Then HM and I bought a home, and things changed when I got our first heating bill. (I am in charge of finances. For better or worse.) Fuel (oil, in our case) is expensive. So I became a thermostat miser who wears a lot of layers and has a throw blanket on every couch and chair. This makes HM happy, as he’s basically an old New England codger born in a Texan’s body who, given his druthers, would wait until Thanksgiving to turn on the heat.

Still, he believes that one should always test the heat on an early cold snap in the fall, to make sure it is ready when you really need it. Plus, this way you can crack the windows when the heating system kicks out those first warm boiler and dusty radiator smells.

I pull out my laptop, ready to convey his wisdom. I kick things off with my first question: To turn on the heat in your house–is it always a boiler? Or is there another way of making heat?

His sigh is deep and heavy because of the many levels of ignorance revealed by my single question. It is one of those, “How can I be married to this person?” sighs. Like the one I emit when he wears socks with Tevas.

Before he can even begin to address my question, he has some things to relay about keeping a house warm for the winter that have nothing to do with heat.

Beware the leaky house

“Say we get the boiler turned on and everything’s okay. What good is it if you have a drafty house? Do you know how much money you are wasting?”

Here are HM’s worst culprits of Leaky House Syndrome:

1) Remove your ACs. “ME NO LIKEY AIR CONDITIONERS LEFT IN THE WINDOWS FOR THE WINTER.” Window units allow cold air to pour into your home, even if you have a cover. “It’s gonna cost you money.” He believes there are two reasons people don’t take out their window units: LAZINESS and SPACE. “So that should be part of your AC purchase plan,” he says. “Don’t buy the biggest AC possible if you can’t store it somewhere—or lift it out of the window. You have to be able to install and remove it every year.”

2) Be sure you can close all of your windows completely. A true closed window is where both sashes are shut and the latch is locked. “CLOSE IS NOT CLOSED.” (He is very proud of himself for that one.) He demonstrates this by going to our window and unlocking it. Suddenly the trucks whizzing by and the jackhammers digging up the streets of Gowanus sound quite loud. Then he locks it again. Much more quiet. And all he has done has latched the lock. I give him my “I’m impressed” look.

“You want a thermodynamics lesson on how the bigger the difference between the inside and outside temperatures, the more the dense cold air will drive itself through any small crack into the warmer air inside?” I think I just got one. But HM likes to hammer home a point: “A window cracked a quarter of an inch in the winter lets in as much air as a window cracked six inches in the summer. It’s just one of those science things.”

3) Pay attention to your outside doors. October is a very good month to get weather stripping and door sweeps around front and back doors. “Those quarter-inch gaps around a door are pouring cold air in all winter long…”

I interrupt him here, reminding him that we just got the thermodynamics lesson. But he wants to summarize the lesson of draft prevention:

“All this cold air will mix with warm air in your house and mess with your thermostat, triggering it to come on. We want to work on getting that thermostat to not come on as often.”

Time to test the heat?

I am excited to test the heat. I stand, ready to head to the basement to see him light the boiler, which I know from our outrageous bills uses oil. But I suddenly realize that this may not be relevant to all readers. We are back to my original question: Are there different kinds of heating systems?

HM rubs his hands together like he’s warming them over a fire. At first I think he’s cold, too. But then I realize he’s just excited about getting to explain the three types of heating systems.

HM’s 3 analogies for heating systems

1) The “Tea Kettle,” a.k.a. Steam Boiler and Radiators

HM lifts our teakettle from the stovetop and explains to me that in a teakettle, water goes in and steam comes out. This is how it works with a steam heating system—which is what we have. You heat your house with the steam that comes out continuously from the boiler. The water has to be replaced constantly so the boiler can keep making steam. Our boiler uses oil to heat the water, has an auto-refill, and is half water and half air. The water at the bottom gets rusty (just like in our tea kettle), which will clog the steam fittings. “Everyone with a steam boiler should drain the rusty water out of their boiler every month of the heating season at least, ideally every two weeks.”

All of you readers with steam boilers: Are you as shocked as I was by this two-week rule? How had I never noticed HM cleaning out the boiler? I stop typing on my laptop. “When do you do that?” I ask. He looks confused. “I can do it right now if you want to watch.” “No, I mean, I've never seen you sneak off to the basement to do that.” He breaks into laughter. (HM doesn’t LOL a lot.) “You can put that in,” he says, regarding his mirth, as he gestures to my fingers to start typing.

Evidence of rusty water in the boiler.

Evidence of rusty water in the boiler.

HM drains many buckets of rusty water.

HM drains many buckets of rusty water.

2) The “Pressure Cooker,” a.k.a. Forced Hot Water with Radiators or Baseboard Heaters

Unfortunately, we don’t have a pressure cooker for HM to demonstrate this analogy, but I assure him I can use my imagination. “This is a closed hot water system, with no steam. Hot water circulates from the boiler through the radiators and returns cool. Like the pressure cooker, the lid is on. THERE IS NO RELEASE.”  (I know how it feels.)

The key with these systems is to bleed the radiators using a radiator key to make sure there’s no trapped air, or the hot water won’t go through.

I smile at HM and harken back to the early days of our relationship, when we used to be awakened by the BANGING of the radiator in my studio apartment. His eyes grow misty too, but for a different reason: “Banging is from cavitation and that is mostly in a steam system. An improperly sitting radiator will hold condensation water, and when the hot steam comes on at the beginning of a cycle, it hits that cold water and explodes – that’s the banging.” He asks if I know how to fix it.

“Bleed it?” I offer. But I am test smart, so I know this is wrong, since he just covered bleeding. “You don’t want the water to collect, so you need to put shims under the far legs of the radiator, to pitch it slightly towards the valve. Just 1/16 or 1/8 of an inch.” HM likes to use two pennies or quarters for his shims.

Use a shim to pitch your radiator towards the valve.

Use a shim to pitch your radiator towards the valve.

3) A “Space Heater,” a.k.a. Forced Hot Air    

HM wants me to make it clear that he is using “space heater” as an analogy, and not talking about plug-in space heaters. He means that forced hot air systems work by heating cool air and circulating it through your house. I suggest this analogy could use some work. A blow dryer? Or wait, one of those old-school hair dryers that you sit under? He shrugs. Whatever. Analogies are my turf.  

As HM heads to the basement to light the boiler, he points out that circulating systems are vacuuming the air, so people with these systems should change their filters regularly, like with air conditioners. “I believe in buying cheap filters and changing them monthly, but at least every two months.”
And now…the grand finale of tonight’s lesson. Actually, there was no lighting of the boiler. We have an electronic ignition. Just a flip of the emergency shut-off switch that he had turned off last spring.

If you're lucky, turning the boiler on is as simple as flipping a switch.

If you're lucky, turning the boiler on is as simple as flipping a switch.


  • Remove AC window units.
  • Check windows and doors for leaks and make sure they can be shut and locked tight.
  • Change your filters if you have a forced air heating system.
  • Do a test run on your heating system during a cold night in October (including a maintenance call on any boilers, especially changing oil filters).
  • Drain your boiler twice a month during the heating season, until the water runs clear.