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All heat that rises must converge

Apologies to Flannery O'Connor, but it's hot as hell up here in my third-floor study, because it's 10 degrees F outside. Brooklyn has gone from a Savannah winter to a Fargo interlude, and once again we remember just how much the CrazyStable hates the cold.

radiatorcat.jpgIf you live in a big, uninsulated, freestanding wood-frame house, it is really hard not to root for global warming, especially if, like us, you are not located near a coastal area. (Here in the "wooded plain" of Flatbush, we would presumably gaze out at a tent city of Coney Island refugees in Prospect Park if Mr. Gore's worst nightmares come true--a grim scenario, but not quite as bad as imminent inundation.) When we first moved in 20 years ago, we sort of camped here, with the weather pouring in through the electricians' ceiling and wall gashes and the several ancient windows that rattled in their frames, held together by duct tape. Thus began my dogged experimentation with every insulation material in the hardware store, starting with the crude but effective "cleaner's bag shrink-wrapped over the windowframe" system. I think they're called "Frost-Kings." Before we replaced our 60-odd enormous windows, the taut plastic would luff in the wind like the sails of a schooner and then snap back against the panes with a sad sucking noise.

The new windows helped; so did the process, once every few years, of scraping up enough money to plaster or gut another room and get rid of yet more holes and open channels in the walls. When we'd gut, we'd put insulation bats in between the studs, but not every room needed gutting; and there are still too many holes left here and there to pump in cavity-wall fluff. At great expense, I had guys insulate the attic (a sealed-off crawlspace under our roof peak, above our third floor); the stuff they blew in shot out all over the house like pink popcorn, even in the basement. And the house was not one whit warmer afterward. No more effective were my adventures with strips of adhesive-backed foam, cute kitty draft-catchers from catalogs, or that spray foam that expands into cracks (although my enthusiastic wielding of it earned me the name "Spittle Bug" for awhile).

Well, at least on the third floor, it is positively tropical. What do you know? High-school physics was right: Heat rises! We have de-facto "zoned heating." The first floor is at 60, the second is at 70, and the third must be pushing 80 unless I open windows. The cats come up here and sack out like Ipanema sunbathers, while the ground-floor apartment (poor Tenant!) must have its three radiators supplemented with convection space heaters and a hopeful but ineffective ceiling fan just to be tolerable. (Even down there, heat rises; if one could bob around at ceiling level, like Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins, one would be relatively toasty.)

The heating system itself is a clanking steam beast, a monstrous boiler that feeds an assortment of cranky radiators ranging in age from Original (they have cool torch designs imprinted on their cast-iron) to Institutional Fifties-Era, to Bland Baseboard Modern. When we fire it up each fall, I envision the system coming to life like an old Max Fleischer cartoon, with truckin' white gloves and tap shoes, frantically blowing its stack as we run from room to room hunting for fresh leaks. (Each year, some old ones silt over and "heal" while new ones emerge. In a valve joint, they can be fixed; in a seam, you take the radiator out and shoot it.)

Among the paradoxes of this system is that the house overheats only when it's frigid outside, and remains as chilly as a rigorous Scottish boarding school when temps linger in the balmy 50's. At springlike temperatures, the system seldom cranks on, and once a heat cycle is over, it's over. Freeze and burn. But when it's this low, the Fleischer dancing radiators are grooving incessantly, hissing and gurgling, and Ed Wynn could float up the center-hall stairs on a cloud of hot air night and day.

You know what I like? June. I really like June...when "drafty" means "breezy."

Posted on Friday, January 26, 2007 at 11:03AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments3 Comments

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Reader Comments (3)

I have some of the same problem here. One thing that helped in the living room was installing a ceiling fan, set in reverse mode to blow warm air from the ceiling down. This creates a sort of convection current that keeps more heat in the room.
January 26, 2007 at 11:41AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve
"If you live in a big, uninsulated, freestanding wood-frame house, it is really hard not to root for global warming, especially if, like us, you are not located near a coastal area"

GOD ain't that the truth??? Supposed to hit -5 later this week. Humans are not made for that.
My bedroom is always boiling hot, as well, while my hands are chapped and achy from the cold downstairs. Ahh, what we will suffer for old houses.
February 13, 2007 at 04:43PM | Unregistered CommenterCynthia
This winter, we have the opposite problems here in Europe. The average temperature is like +8 Celsius degrees (last years -8) and snow only in the mountains. I could have switched the heating off completely in October...
February 21, 2007 at 04:48PM | Unregistered CommenterChimney Liner

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