I grew up in Massachusetts, in a 1929 colonial with hot-water heat. The cast-iron radiators in that house took on an elemental presence in my childhood.
Their hulking warmth was as much a part of my experience of winter as New England's legendary cold. Leaping off the garage roof during the Blizzard of '78, my sisters and I landed in snowdrifts taller than we were, searing our skin with ice and snow. We sat on the radiators to recover, until the heat was too much.
After a bath, we'd wrap ourselves in the luxurious warmth of towels draped over the bathroom radiator, then hang damp towels back on the coils to dry. It's as if we'd made our own Nordic spa, tumbling around in snow then plunging into steaming heat, back and forth, alternating jubilations.
There's undeniable magnetism about radiant heat in winter, something our fire-building Paleolithic ancestors would understand. But in 2003, when my husband, Phil, and I purchased a 1947 home in University Heights, it had a "modern" forced-air heating system.
At first, we liked it and its benefit of central air in the summer. But by late fall, Phil's asthma kicked in. Despite his inhalers, a nasty cold could send him to the emergency room. At the same time, my allergies acted up and my eyes turned red. All winter.
Was I drinking too much gin? Or is that just what happens when you turn 40 — your eyes turn red and stay that way forever?
We called a duct cleaner with a camera and a risque-sounding whip that slapped around inside the ducts, liberating whatever could be vacuumed up. Our roofer resealed a seam around a vent, and we replaced the insulation underneath. We installed the thickest accordion-fold furnace filter that money could buy.
All of which helped, somewhat.
Then, near the end of an especially frigid winter, the furnace started wheezing. Diagnosis? It might cough through the season but needed to be replaced. And for several thousand dollars more, we could add a massive filtration system for allergic folks like us.
I balked. Thousands of dollars on a system I didn't like?
We thought about replacing the furnace and moving. But with two young children, we didn't exactly lead a show-ready lifestyle. And although we hadn't bought at the peak of the housing market, it was close enough that numbers weren't adding up. Plus we loved the house, for the most part, and the neighborhood was within walking distance of Phil's job, the town pool and Heinen's.
What if we ditched the furnace and converted to radiant heat?
It was a pipe dream until I talked to Gerry Gill, owner of G.W. Gill Plumbing and Heating. As Cleveland's go-to guy on steam and hot-water systems, he proposed a steam system supplied with copper mini tubes. It's a setup he discovered while repairing old systems in homes and apartment buildings throughout Cleveland.
Marketed after World War II by Iron Fireman, which once manufactured coal-fired boilers in Cleveland Heights, these small diameter mini-tube systems are amazingly efficient. The only reason they never caught on, Gill speculates, is that forced air had taken over the market, appealing to consumers who wanted central air. In his home, Gill found copper mini tubes perfect for retrofitting, as they curve through small holes in joists, unlike traditional pipes.
When we describe this project, most people go through Kübler-Ross-like stages of denial and disbelief.
The only people who never questioned our sanity were the steam heat guys. As I listed my grievances with forced air — allergies, asthma and irritated eyes — they'd nod and add their own eerily similar complaints. It was as if we were venting about the same ex, who left us red-eyed and sniffling.
Our first winter with steam was the best Phil can remember. His inhalers sat out the entire season. The whites of my eyes stayed white.
But there's more. The soft percolation of steam through pipes sounds like coffee brewing. I love the gorgeous, weighty salvaged radiators, unmoored from century-old posts in homes throughout Northeast Ohio and anchored again here. Intricate scrollwork and lettering, mostly illegible until Imperial Metal Solutions in Cleveland sandblasted off thick layers of paint, now shines through a gleaming new silver powder coat. I thought they'd get in the way, but they are beautiful. Like sculpture, Phil says.
One evening when our youngest finished making snow angels in the yard, she perched atop the massive radiator under the living room window, hat and mittens scattered over fins to dry. Her sister pulled a reading chair toward that circumference of warmth as the dog circled the floor beneath, searching for his spot.
There was no guarantee it would work out, adding a redundant heating system to our postwar house, in this inner-ring suburb of our Rust Belt city. But this is the bright, warm interior I long to return to through lake-effect snow. This is the place that feels like home.