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British summers can be a truly wonderful time, but, let’s be honest, for most of the year, heating is a fairly major consideration regardless of where you live. That being so, it’s good to combine function (warmth) with a touch of style, which is why traditional radiators have remained popular, especially for period homes. Here is a quick guide to buying one.
Decide on the size of radiator you need
When talking about radiators, there are two aspects to size. The first is the actual physical size of the radiator. You can measure your available space with a standard tape measure to determine how big a radiator you can fit in it, while appreciating that this is a limit rather than a target and that, depending on your situation, a smaller one may be fine. The second point is rather more complicated and it involves determining the capacity of the radiator in Watts or British Thermal Units. Frankly there is an easy way to do this and a rather more challenging way to do this. The easy way is to call the plumber you plan to use for the installation and ask him or her to tell you how much you need. The somewhat more challenging way is to work out the volume of the room (width*length*height) in cubic metres and, for a bathroom, multiply this by 90 (different rooms use different values). If your bathroom faces north at 15 and if it has double glazing take off 10. If your house was built fewer than 20 years ago, deduct another 30. The result of these calculations is the value you need in Watts, multiply this by 3.412 to get British Thermal Units. You can confidently buy a radiator with a higher capacity than you need, but you may find yourself regretting buying one with a lower capacity.
NB: In case you were wondering, there are online BTU calculators on the net, but you may want to double-check the results of their calculations.
Look at the valve
Depending on your purchase your radiator may come with or without a valve. Without can actually be good since it allows you to choose a valve which both looks appropriate for your bathroom and also performs well. Thermostatic valves cost a little more than their standard counterparts, but they help to finesse the timing system by ensuring that even when the heating is set to be on, it will only use as much energy as necessary.
Choose your material
It may come as a surprise to learn that radiators can actually be made out of a wide variety of materials, so let’s run through some of them quickly, starting with the ones you’re least likely to want to use, at least for the time being.
In theory, glass is a great material for radiators and using a glass radiator can really help to make a small bathroom look more spacious. The problem is that right now glass radiators are extremely expensive (starting at about five times the cost of an aluminium radiator) and though they are very efficient to run, the differential in the upfront cost means that you will be waiting a long time to recoup the difference and, depending on when the radiator is replaced (and your heating needs), you may never do so.
Stone and in particular marble is becoming a popular niche material for bathroom radiators. It’s a natural material with good heat-retention properties. There are, however, two reasons why the use of stone is likely to remain a niche market for the foreseeable future. One is, again, price and the other is weight.
Genuine Victorian cast iron radiators are now desirable collector’s items to the point where there is now a parallel market for modern, cast iron reproductions which work in the same way. If you’re thinking about buying either of these, then you need to be realistic about what to expect. Iron, cast or otherwise, heats up slowly and retains heat well. This means that you probably want to set your heating going at least 90 minutes before you intend to use the bathroom (e.g. morning “rush hour”) and that, in principle, you can turn it off a bit earlier as well. Like many traditional practices, however, this idea may be somewhat less than practical when combined with modern lifestyles, particularly when there are children in the home (or indeed some older people), who may want to use the bathroom at odd times (to avoid accidents) or people on variable shifts. You can get around this, at least to a certain extent, by running the heating “off peak” so to speak, but this can get expensive, particularly when you consider the length of time it takes for cast iron to heat up. Cast iron radiators are also very heavy.
It’s also worth pointing out that while, in principle, we love the idea of recycling/upcycling and generally salvaging period pieces, when it comes to genuine Victorian radiators, it’s challenging, to put it mildly, to judge their real-world capacity and due to their age it’s very easy for them to develop tiny leaks which can be difficult and time-consuming to spot, let alone repair and if you do have problems with them, generally speaking, you’re on your own. If you buy a cast iron reproduction, you will probably avoid these issues, but you’re still left with the length of time it takes them to heat up. Basically, we’d say that these days, if you really want the full Victorian route, we’d go down the bath of a good reproduction, but frankly, for ourselves, we’d rather have a traditional look and a more modern material.
Stainless steel is far more cost-effective than any of the materials we’ve mentioned so far and is literally so flexible it can be formed into just about any shape. Because of this, it has become quite a popular material for creating contemporary radiators in imaginative styles. Since this article is about traditional radiators, we’ll move swiftly on except to say that radiators are meant to last over the long term, so we’d suggest you stop and think a little before spending your money on a particularly creative design as you may find you get tired of it long before the radiator is due to be replaced.
Aluminium has long since taken over from cast iron as the material of choice for radiators and can be used successfully for both contemporary and traditional styles. It’s much lighter than cast iron, a whole lot easier to install and has outstanding heat output. Aluminium also heats up much more quickly than cast iron, although the flip side of this is, of course, that it cools down more quickly as well. This, however, is probably likely to be a minor issue in most homes given that these days radiators will almost invariably be worked on timers and probably use thermostatic valves as well. One of the major advantages to having a traditional-look radiator made out of aluminium as opposed to a cast iron one, even a reproduction, is that it’s much easier to put it on for short blasts during “off-peak” times to keep the bathroom from becoming cold and hence to ensure that if anyone does want to use it at an unusual hour, they will be comfortable when doing so.
What are my options for future changes?
Traditional-style bathroom radiators will generally fit into more modern looks quite comfortably, if you decide to update the style of your bathroom. If you really want to change out the look of your radiator without actually buying a new one, then you can use car paint to change their colour. The reason we recommend using car paint is that it’s designed to stand up to the abuse of being on the roads and therefore should be more than capable of dealing with the changes in temperature and humidity which are a fact of life in any bathroom. There’s nothing to stop you using standard emulsion, but realistically it’s unlikely to be long before it starts cracking and peeling.
Do I need a radiator at all or will a heated towel rail be enough?
Heated towel rails can be useful additions to any bathroom and can make a whole lot of difference to the comfort of bathroom users. There’s nothing quite like coming out of a hot bath or shower and snuggling into a warm towel. At the same time, a heated towel rail, by itself, is unlikely to be anything like sufficient to heat anything but the smallest of bathrooms and even then you would probably need to leave the towel rail uncovered to allow the heat to circulate, which rather defeats the point of having a heated towel rail in the first place. If you’re short on space, you could look at traditional radiators with integrated towel rails or simply position a towel rail above the radiator (leaving enough space for the radiator to function) as a compromise solution.