Although steam heat radiators have been in use longer than most heating technologies, some of their longstanding use owing to their durability and relatively simple conception, they are not the most efficient means of centrally heating a home or a building. There are many places between the boiler and the individual radiators in each room that can contribute to inefficient operation, from the system of pipes to the radiators to the boiler itself. In terms of cost, the isolated components of the system are usually lower priced than other heating methods, but replacement of the entire system can get very expensive. Thus, depending on the age and the condition of steam heat system, a cost/efficiency analysis can often fail at both ends.
Efficiency of Steam Heat
For a steam heat radiator system in good working order with the proper insulation in place, efficiency can often be quite good. Without the aid of pumps, water turns to steam in a central boiler. The steam then directs itself through the system of pipes into the isolated radiators found in each room. The steam then heats the air in the room. The steam condenses as it cools and returns to the boiler. Problems arise when the pipes are not properly insulated and leak heat, so to speak. Insulated pipes, on the other hand, do not let the steam escape so it can reach each room.
Steam heat radiators take longer than other types of central heat to provide a room environment with heat. This reduces efficiency in that more electricity or natural gas is expended in the time it takes for the steam to reach the heat zones. Other efficiency problems spring up when the components become clogged or damaged. Air vents can clog, steam traps will stick and the whole system can be put out of balance. Proper maintenance, then, is required to ensure the system is as efficient as possible.
Cost of Steam Heat
Given than many homes and buildings built during the 1950s and before used central steam heaters, the systems are still in place, especially in structures that have not undergone too much renovation. Pipes age and need new insulation or outright replacement. Boilers eventually break down, as do the radiators. Individual components are relatively affordable as the technology is quite uncomplicated. The entire replacement of a system, however, is not worth it, especially considering there are numerous other heating technologies that are more efficient. In time, steam heat can warp the wood underneath the radiators, so there is more at stake than the heating system itself.
If a steam heat radiator system is in place in your home and is in good shape, it is worth it to replace individual parts provided you are satisfied with its ability to heat rooms. You can almost always tell when something is wrong by the sound that is heard within the pipes or the radiators, a pinging, banging or creaking. Oftentimes a problem is as simple to fix as a single valve or trap.
You can increase the efficiency of your steam heat radiator system by installing radiator covers over each unit which helps to spread the heat evenly through the room. Placing a heat reflector consisting of foam board the size of the radiator covered with aluminum foil directly behind the radiator helps keep hot air from leaking out through the walls. There are more efficient means of heating a home, but if the system is in place, proper maintenance and energy saving tricks can help it do its job.