The Non-Expert

Piping Hot

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we show a tenant how to beat the heat that’s still pouring out of the radiator.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: I live in Brooklyn and my landlord won’t turn off my radiator, even though it’s 50 degrees outside—“because it’s winter.” It’s not winter anymore, I’m burning up in my apartment, and I don’t know what to do! —Chad

Answer: Chad, I feel your pain, and it is burning my hand. No matter how mild they can be sometimes, New York winters are always a struggle. This is why, during the chilly months, so many of our residents flee to Florida, where ample heat is provided by the meth labs in their garages. Those of us left to bunker through winter in the boroughs must live at the mercy of our ill-tempered radiators—which only take orders from their cold-blooded landlords.

According to city regulations, New York landlords are required to have the heat running a full two-thirds of the year—from October through May (“winter”)—whenever the temperature outside drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, or below 40 degrees at night. When these conditions exist, the temperature inside must be kept at (at least) 68 during the day, or 55 at night. In most New York apartment buildings, there’s one master temperature control for all of the units. (It’s the dial next to the one that controls the rats.) So this should be easy to fix, right? Well, landlords can mess with the machinery as much as they want, but it’s still the squeaky neighbor who gets the grease. Which is why in my building—whose residents regularly stop me in the hall to trash-talk the Hoover administration—the temperature is stuck at a hard 82 degrees, day and night. There is an upside to this: Though I now have pleurisy, my face is blackhead-free.

But that’s not a good enough reason to sweat through a mild winter and whatever this is right now—spring? So here’s how you can cool off your apartment in the face of an insistent radiator.

Turn on the Air Conditioner

Because you live in minimum-security New York, you have only one window. You may also have noticed your radiator is directly below it. For you, this is a problem—in case of fire, it blocks your way to the fire escape. For your landlord, that’s the idea—in case you spotted him running from the building, gasoline can in hand, your testimony goes up in flames.

Yet you hold to believing your landlord is not trying to kill you. That’s why you’ve filled your solitary escape with an air-conditioner unit. Since it’s right by the radiator, wouldn’t it make sense to just turn on the A.C. and let it offset the thermostat?

Sure, but what you didn’t expect was the steam from your radiator, as it rose, quickly being cooled by the air-conditioned air above it. As the FEMA rep later explains, not only did this create a tiny, violent weather system, but your compensation check will only cover the food processor you had, not the one you always wanted.

Fiddle With the Knob

Next to your radiator there’s a palm-sized knob made out of the palms of the many residents before you who have tried to fiddle with the knob. Lest you add yours to the stack, slip on an oven mitt before you continue.

Grip the knob tightly and turn. Which direction, however, isn’t really important—so just choose one and go. The problem is, while you’re turning the knob, hot (hot!) water will begin spurting out of the joint where the pipe and knob meet. The water may spray over your forearm, it may spit at your eyes, but you will eventually get the knob turned all the way round, and collapse on the bed in victory and trace amounts of asbestos paint.

How to tell if you turned it in the right direction:

  • If you are awakened in the middle of the night by a shrill “pinging” noise from the coils of the radiator, you turned the knob the wrong way.
  • If you wake the next morning to find your power strips floating in old radiator water, you turned it the other, wrong way.

Call the Plumber

Radiators are a part of your building’s plumbing. The plumbing is your plumber’s domain. You, however, have no plumber—but you do have a wrench and lots of old towels. As surprising as this may seem, you can actually unhook your radiator from the pipes to which it’s attached. One caveat, however: There will be hot steam shooting out of the pipe when you pull the radiator away from the pipe. To avoid scalding yourself, you’ll need to predict when the steam momentarily shuts off. Put your ear next to the pipe and listen for the pinging sound. As soon as you hear five distinct pings (one, then two faster ones, then two more fast ones), WHACK the side of the pipe—hard—with your wrench, twice. If you then hear two more pings from the pipe, that’s your plumber. He’s stuck in the basement. Take the towels with you to nurse his rat bites. It’s goodwill gestures like these that can get you out of a tip later.

An Early Spring for Those Who Wait

The plumber will unhook your radiator. He will carry it into your bathroom, drain its contents into your tub, and both of you will marvel at how much water was actually in that thing. He will also tell you that you should never fiddle with the knob on the side.

After the plumber reinstalls the radiator and he leaves, call your landlord and let him know you need to be paid back the $300 it cost, ASAP. When he comes over, drop the radiator on his head. (Good thing you watched how the plumber unhooked it.) Then grab your bags out of the hallway, the $300 off the body, and a cab to La Guardia, where you can catch a one-way to Orlando.

Florida sure is nice. It’s almost always warm outside. Better than where you used to live. Pretty humid, though.

So now you need to know: What’s the best way to remove mold from an air-conditioner window unit?


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack