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Are Radiators Gas or Electric?

When it comes to heating your home or business, you have a lot of choices to make. The best way to start is to get acquainted with the different parts and how they work together. Many heating systems will use one or more radiators throughout the structure. 

Radiators can be gas or electric, and they can also use steam or water. Usually a furnace, electric heater, or boiler will generate heat that gets distributed to radiators in the form of hot water or steam, or some other fluid like oil. Radiators then spread that heat throughout the rooms.

This article will tell you more about how radiators work. It will then explain how they fit in as part of a system that will keep your home or office warm and comfortable. Knowing about how radiators and heating systems work will help you make decisions about repairing or replacing the equipment that keeps you warm. 

What Radiators Do 

Any heating system will have to do three things. 

First, you need a control system. This means a thermostat that will turn the heat on and direct it where it is needed. 

Then it will need to create heat. This is usually done with a furnace, a water heater, or a boiler. 

Then it will need to spread that heat throughout the building. This is where radiators come in, but sometimes warm air is fanned out instead. 

Cool Radiators 

Let’s start with the radiator and work our way back. A radiator is a device for distributing heat energy. Oddly enough, they are used in both heating and cooling. Your car has a radiator too, but your car’s radiator is set up to get rid of excess heat energy. 

When your car engine runs it generates intense heat that would break your engine down. To stop that from happening, cooling fluid is piped throughout the engine. That fluid draws away the heat from the then goes to the radiator, where the heat is released, the fluid is cooled back down, and then it is pumped back through the engine. 

If you look at the back of your refrigerator you will probably see a bunch of curved pipes. Those pipes are a type of radiator. They get rid of the heat that the fridge draws out to keep your food

cold. The back of an air conditioner will have a radiator where it disposes of the heat that it draws out of your home. And there will be a fluid flowing through them too. 

Hot Radiators 

Radiators are mostly used to warm things up, but they still work the same way: there is some hot material that is pumped through them, and the radiator gives off heat. As air passes by the radiator, it takes on some of the heat, making the fluid cooler and the air warmer. 

A typical radiator is designed to have as much surface area as possible: The pipes in the back of the fridge will bend back and forth, the radiator in your car will have a very fine grill structure, and the heating radiator will have folds. This means the radiator will give off heat faster, so it can cool your car’s engine more efficiently or warm your home up faster. 

Because your radiator is so good at warming up the air around it, there is no need for a fan to move air around it. Normal air circulation will move warm air from the radiator around the room. 

Hot Water or Steam? 

The radiator that heats your home or your workplace probably runs on hot water or steam. It your heating system runs on hot water, there will be a water heater somewhere on the premises. If your radiators use steam, there will be a boiler. In the United States, homes built before 1950 are more likely to have steam radiators, while those built later are more likely to use water. Boilers and water heaters can use any sort of energy: natural gas, coal, or electricity. 

Whether your radiators use water or steam, there will be pipes that connect your radiator to your heat source running through the walls, floors, and ceiling. These pipes are critical to your heating system. If there are leaks in your pipes, water will build up and damage your building. 

You also want to be sure that water or steam flows smoothly through these pipes. If there are any obstructions, heat won’t get to your radiators, and you may hear distracting noises from your heating system. 

The heart of your heating system is at the other end of those pipes. Whether your heating system uses hot water or steam, the water heater or boiler is the real source of the warmth. Boilers and water heaters can use any energy source, including electricity, although the most common heat source is natural gas or oil. 

Water and steam radiators can look very similar, but a steam radiator will have a valve to release steam. Water and steam radiators both have advantages and drawbacks. Neither system is perfectly quiet, but steam radiators are a bit noisier, as they hiss when they let off

steam. They can also make “banging” noises if water condenses and blocks the pipes. Water systems can make gurgling noises if air gets into the pipes. 

Steam systems do have one plus: when they vent steam they add humidity to the air in the building. Winter can be extremely dry, so the added humidity can make your home or office much more comfortable. 

Forced-Air Systems 

There are also many buildings that keep themselves warm without using radiators at all. Forced-air systems will have a furnace and an air blower. After the furnace heats the air up, the blower will push the warm air through a series of vents. They will end at grates near the floors of the rooms, where the warm air will enter your home. 

Forced air systems are simpler mechanically. There is less risk of corrosion in the air vents because there is no water or steam, and less risk of damage from water leaks or condensation. But the vents take up more space as they wind through the walls and ceilings. 

Portable Electric Radiators 

There is also a device known as an “electric radiator”. This is usually used as a portable room heater. Inside one of these electric radiators there will be an electrical heating element, similar to the coils in a toaster. Surrounding this heating element is a cavity filled with oil. 

This oil will be specially formulated so it does not catch fire easily. Instead it will transfer the heat to the outside of the heater, where it can then warm up the room. Using this oil means the heater takes a little longer to warm up, but it also means the heat lasts longer. 

These heaters will often have a similar shape to a steam radiator, with folds that maximize surface area, which is why they are sometimes called electric radiators. They are also known as electric heaters or oil heaters. 

Final Thoughts

There are a variety of methods that you can use to heat a home or any other building. Radiators can make use of a wide range of energy sources to heat your home or business. They can be powered by natural gas, oil, or electricity. And you can use steam or hot water to get heat to them.

You can even dispense with radiators entirely by using a forced-air system. And you can also use portable heaters to supplement whatever central heating system you have in place. 

Which system will work best for your building will depend on many things: how cold the environment is, the need for humidity, the layout of your building, and the availability of energy sources like natural gas or oil. What is important is that you understand how your heating system works, and that you keep your equipment running efficiently.


  • Alanna Greene

    Alanna is an avid traveler who lives in Michigan. In addition to writing for Temperature Master, he also sells crafts on Etsy and takes long walks through the forests near her home.

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