Marking passage of time with the hiss of a radiator

November 26, 2005|By ROB KASPER

There are markers in your life, occasions when you pause and note the passage of time. One of them for me is the bleeding of the radiators.

I performed this do-it-yourself chore a few days ago after I reluctantly fired up the household furnace.

Company was coming for the Thanksgiving weekend and I figured it probably wasn't polite to make guests, even if they were relatives, rely on sunshine and sweaters to keep from freezing. The furnace heats the water coursing through the household radiators. So when it sprang to life, it was also time to bleed the radiators.

The bleeding task itself is straightforward: simply loosen a metal valve on the tip of each radiator and let the trapped air escape from the radiator until the oily water squirts out into a cup. Air trapped in the upper sections of the radiator can block the circulation of hot water to these areas. If there is no water, there will be no heat. This means the furnace could be running up the gas bill, but the house would not be efficiently heated.


For reasons I don't entirely understand, the water level in the household's radiators drops during the off season, leaving air trapped inside. It is a closed system. It was full last winter.

Where, I wonder, could the water have gone? It, like the disappearance of the $20 bills I have in my wallet at the beginning of each weekend, is one of the mysteries of existence. Blame it on evaporation, I guess.

Because it is one of the stealth arts of home maintenance, bleeding the radiators holds a strong appeal for me. That, plus the fact that I am the only member of the household who possesses a radiator key.

The key is not much to look at, a simple piece of stamped metal with a square end. It is a little bigger than a quarter. It resembles the skate key some of us used as kids to fasten roller skates on our street shoes. Every hardware store has one. But I keep mine in a pewter julep cup atop my bedroom dresser. There it sits awaiting its one day of duty, which if the weather gods smile upon us, does not fall until late in November.

Another aspect of bleeding the radiators that attracts me is its lineage. I view it as a historic chore, something previous owners of my 125-year-old home could have done as they, too, grudgingly turned on the heat.

One of the pleasures of living in Maryland is regularly bumping into reminders that you are part of the stream of history. Some of them are big-time reminders, like visiting Fort McHenry. Some are small time, like sitting near an old cast-iron radiator, staring out a window of wavy glass at a darkening autumn sky and feeling you are in a long line of radiator bleeders. On one level, I knew the other evening that the hiss I heard was the sound of air fleeing the old radiator. But on another level, it sounded like fleeting time.

A Parisian, known only as Bonnemain, is credited with creating a system of circulating or pumping hot water heated from coal or gas furnaces to radiators in 1777. The English made improvements on hot water radiators and by 1840 they appeared in the United States. So say the tomes of hot water history. My house was built in the 1870s, but judging by its numerous coal fireplaces, I am betting the hot water radiators did not show up until after the turn of the century.

Still, the cast iron radiators are venerable reminders of the past. This, in part, explains my melancholy moment last week as the radiators hissed, then gurgled, announcing they were ready for another winter of duty.

In the deepening dusk I also thought of my father, who died seven Novembers ago, a few days before his 83rd birthday. Every fall, when I was a boy, he would prepare the family furnace, a gas-forced air unit, for another heating season. My brothers and I were expected to help in that undertaking, to learn the manly arts of furnace maintenance. My dad took pleasure in the simple joy of making things works, of keeping household machinery running. I have inherited that view, and as the radiators warmed, so did my memories.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.