Radiator (heating)

Radiators and convectors are heat exchangers designed to transfer thermal energy from one medium to another for the purpose of space heating.

Denison Olmsted of New Haven, Connecticut, appears to have been the earliest person to use the term 'radiator' to mean a heating appliance in an 1834 patent for a stove with a heat exchanger which then radiated heat. In the patent he wrote that his invention was a peculiar kind of apparatus, which I call a radiator.[1] The heating radiator was invented by Franz San Galli in 1855, a Prussian-born Russian businessman living in St. Petersburg.[2][3] In the late 1800s, companies, such as the American Radiator Company, promoted cast iron radiators over previous fabricated steel designs in order to lower costs and expand the market.

Radiation vs. convection

In practice, the term radiator refers to any of a number of devices in which a fluid circulates through exposed pipes (often with fins or other means of increasing surface area), notwithstanding that such devices tend to transfer heat mainly by convection and might logically be called convectors.

The terms convection heater or convector refers to a class of devices in which the source of heat is not directly exposed. As domestic safety and the supply from water heaters keeps temperatures relatively low, radiation is inefficient in comparison to convection. Convection heaters also work differently to electric radiators in that they disperse heat differently.[4]

The international standard for energy efficient consumer products Energy Star recommends placing heat-resistant reflectors between radiators and exterior walls to help retain heat in a room,so the room is heated more efficiently.[5][6]


Hot water

A hot-water radiator consists of a sealed hollow metal container filled with hot water by gravity feed, a pressure pump, or convection. As it gives out heat, the hot water cools and sinks to the bottom of the radiator and is forced out of a pipe at the other end. Anti-hammer devices are often installed to prevent or minimize knocking in hot water radiator pipes.

Hot-water baseboard

Traditional cast iron radiators are no longer common in new construction, replaced mostly with forced hot water baseboard style radiators. They consist of copper pipes which have aluminium fins to increase their surface area. These conduction boiler systems use conduction to transfer heat from the water into the metal radiators or convectors.

The radiators are designed to heat the air in the room using convection to transfer heat from the radiators to the surrounding air. They do this by drawing cool air in at the bottom, warming the air as it passes over the radiator fins, and discharging the heated air at the top. This sets up convective loops of air movement within a room. If the register is blocked either from above or below, this air movement is prevented, and the heater will not work. Baseboard heating systems are sometimes fitted with moveable covers to allow the resident to fine-tune heating by room, much like air registers in a central air system.


Steam has the advantage of flowing through the pipes under its own pressure without the need for pumping. For this reason, it was adopted earlier, before electric motors and pumps became available. Steam is also far easier to distribute than hot water throughout large, tall buildings like skyscrapers. However, the higher temperatures at which steam systems operate make them inherently less efficient, as unwanted heat loss is inevitably greater.

Steam pipes and radiators are prone to producing banging sounds called steam hammer. The bang is created when some of the steam condenses into water in a horizontal section of the steam piping. Subsequently, steam picks up the water, forms a "slug" and hurls it at high velocity into a pipe fitting, creating a loud hammering noise and greatly stressing the pipe. This condition is usually caused by a poor condensate drainage strategy and is often caused by buildings settling and the resultant pooling of condensate in pipes and radiators that no longer tilt slightly back towards the boiler.

Fan-assisted heat exchanger

A fan-assisted radiator contains a heat exchanger fed by hot water from the heating system. A thermostatic switch energises an electric fan which blows air over the heat exchanger to circulate it in a room. Its advantages are small relative size and even distribution of heat. Disadvantages are fan noise and the need for both a source of heat and a separate electrical supply.


Also known as "radiant heat", underfloor heating uses a network of pipes, tubing or heating cables, buried in or attached beneath a floor to allow heat to rise into the room. Best results are achieved with conductive flooring materials such as tile. The large surface area of such room-sized radiators allows them to be kept just a few degrees above desired room temperature, minimizing convection. Underfloor heating is more expensive in new construction than less efficient systems. It also is generally difficult to retrofit into existing buildings.

The Roman hypocaust employed a similar principle of operation.

Skirting-board heating

Skirting-board radiators are a form of heating which involves placing radiators inside a skirting board. Hot water is piped though the system, usually taken directly from the central heating system.[7]

Electric baseboard

Similar in configuration to forced hot water baseboard—low profile units running along the base of a wall with a central heating element surrounded by radiating fins—electric baseboard heaters are inexpensive to produce and install. They offer instant heat and great reliability, but may be more or less cost-effective relative to other forms of heat depending on electricity prices.


Electrically-powered portable radiators come in two basic forms:

  • Electric elements, which either heat directly or radiate heat to a heat-conducting solid, such as quartz.
  • Liquid-filled oil heaters, which employ an electric element to warm a fluid such as oil held within metal tubing, which circulates via convection.

See also


  1. Kay, Thornton (14 March 2016). "A peculiar kind of apparatus, which I call a radiator". SalvoNEWS. Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  2. Family Sangalli / San Galli
  3. Johnny Acton; Tania Adams; Matt Packer (2006). Origin of Everyday Things. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. p. 205. ISBN 1402743025. Retrieved February 4, 2015.
  4. "Electric Radiators vs Convection Heaters".
  5. "Green Your Rental -- Reduce Heat Waste". sierraclub.org. Sep 29, 2008. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  6. "Top 10 Tips for Renters!". .energystar.gov. Energy Star. Retrieved 26 March 2014.
  7. "In depth knowledge". Retrieved 26 August 2014.
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