Home Life: What a scorcher!

Old-school radiators don't just look good, they're better for your health, says Robert Nurden
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When I was a boy (admittedly, some time ago) I used to huddle with my friends over the huge, steaming radiator at the back of our classroom. Bliss was the moment when for some reason or another we managed to escape bitter winter playtimes in the school yard and could crouch beside the scalding pipes instead.

The Sixties put an end to all of that as flat, featureless radiators took their place. But now the old cast-iron sort, with their pipes showing for all to see, are back in vogue and as more than just a source of heat - they've become sculptures, a focus for your living room. Solid cast- iron or hip and silver-thin, the radiator as a feature is back.

Salvage yards are doing a roaring trade in reconditioned four-, six-, and low, chunky nine-column radiators. The market for designer radiators is said to be worth pounds 50m a year. Designers and home owners descend on reclamation yards to buy up old radiators which have been stripped out of schools, hospitals, and municipal buildings. The real prizes are the decorative "French"-style models, but no reconditioned radiator comes cheap. Prices range from pounds 80 to pounds 515 after treatment.

Companies like MHS and Bisque are selling repros of the old designs but for all their sophisticated apeing of the original look, they don't quite have the same feel and they're no more efficient. And if your tastes are more modern, there are up-dated designs that take the radiator to new heights, literally. They hang vertically on walls like television aerials or barbecue grilles.

Not only do radiators look great, they're good for you. The modern gas or electric radiator that we've learnt to turn a blind eye to is unhealthy. The science is complicated, but simply modern radiatiors transmit heat almost exclusively by convection: they warm the air but not the objects (and people) in the room. This leads to a humid, airless environment and allows the build-up of dust mites that can exacerbate respiratory problems. The old radiator is healthier because it produces infra-red heat which passes through the air to settle on objects - and people - in the room, and there is no build-up of dangerous particles.

So what is the next step? First work out how many radiators you need - a plumber can help with this. Many salvage yards will restore your radiator for you but you can make considerable savings by doing it yourself. The first thing to do is to pressure test it for cracks, usually through the mains water supply. To do this you will need to find connectors that allow you to join it up to modern plumbing fittings. If you do find a leak it's probably not worth repairing it - it could spring a second one before long. Choose another radiator. But I'm told that if you tip a small packet of mustard powder into the cold water header tank, this will find its way to the offending hole and clog it up. Now that really is Heath Robinson.

The sludge inside the radiator is likely to be rust and limescale and the most effective way of removing these is by passing hydrochloric acid through the pipes - take great care. Old paint on the outside can be removed by caustic dipping, or you could get a sand-blasting contractor to do it. This will return it back to cast iron. To re-paint it, use a spray-on or handpainted oxide-type metal primer - the latter will allow the heat to come through better. The best finish coat is a dark coloured matt, the worst is any gloss metallic paint. Different materials will give different effects: powder coated, clear lacquered, or burnished.

To maximise heat, ensure that furniture is located away from the front of the radiator. If the wall behind it is an external one, back it with aluminium foil. A shelf above the radiator will prevent staining of the walls. All cast-iron radiators should be firmly attached to walls using a bracket. Connections to the mains can be made at the bottom at each end, at the top on one side and bottom of the other, but not at top and bottom of the same side.

Beady-eyed DIY-ers might be lucky and find radiators just lying about. Julian James of Highgate, London, managed to secure eight in this way and then he did them up himself. "One had just been thrown out of a church, the others I found in skips," he said.

Restored radiators: Lassco (0171 336 8221), Andy Thornton (01422 377314), Walcot Reclamation (01225 444404). Repro and new: Bisque (01225 469244), MHS (01268 591010).