Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
While decorating a home to be comfortable and fashionable is important, safety takes priority. With so many heating device-related incidents occurring every year, it makes sense to take extra caution when organizing a room with a radiator. Is it safe to put anything, such as a sofa, close to these appliances?
You can put a sofa in front of a radiator, but you must make sure it is at least one foot away. Keeping this distance is important, as it allows heat to circulate through the room properly and protects your furniture from any damage from the heat of the radiator.
The rest of this article will explore why it’s safe to place a sofa fairly close to radiators, how radiators affect furniture, and how to best decorate around these appliances.
Why You Can Put a Sofa in Front of a Radiator
In a room with limited space, placing a sofa in front of a radiator may be the only option. This is especially true for historic homes, as smaller floor plans may require more creative decorating. Even if you’re renovating a historic home, experts at HGTV suggest keeping original radiators, as they offer quality heating and are more true to the period setting of the home.
Luckily for historic and modern homeowners alike, radiators are a pretty safe heating option. Dr. James Gallagher, director of the burn center at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, stated in a New York Times article that he has never heard of a death caused by a radiator. Erik Gitli, a master plumber, also interviewed in the article, echoed this sentiment.
Of course, with any device that gives off heat, the natural reaction is to be concerned that it is a fire hazard. Let’s take a closer look at the two most common types of home radiators and why they’re unlikely to start fires, even if a sofa is nearby.
Common Types of Home Radiators
While there are lots of different heating equipment that can be categorized as radiators, including portable electric space heaters, the two main types used in homes are steam radiators and hot water radiators.
Hot Water Radiators
This is the most basic and common type of home radiator. The radiator heats the room by moving hot water through a metal container via pump, gravity, or convection current. Once the water cools, it sinks to the bottom of the device and drains out.
Steam radiators work almost exactly like hot water radiators, except using hot water instead of steam. The steam produces its own pressure, unlike hot water, which is why it was initially the more popular type of radiator. According to American Home Shield, it’s also especially effective in heating large, tall buildings like skyscrapers.
Since radiators typically use either hot water or steam to function, there is no actual fire involved. While there are, as with any appliance, safety risks to take into consideration, you do not have to be concerned about a fire spontaneously breaking out from a radiator.
General Best Practices
Although radiators are pretty low maintenance, there are a few things you should do to ensure they’re both safe for you and functioning to their full potential.
In addition to following the one-foot rule previously mentioned, you’ll also want to consider these precautions.
- Do not touch the radiator with bare hands once it has been turned on. The heat from the water or steam can cause burns.
- Have the radiator inspected before turning it on for the season.
- The Department of Energy suggests releasing the trapped air from hot water radiators one to two times per season.
Keeping a sofa or any other furniture a foot away from a radiator is not only for safety. Since radiators warm a room by circulating hot air through it, if a piece of furniture blocks this air, the room cannot warm up. Wooden furniture also tends to absorb heat, which defeats the purpose of running the radiator. As long as there’s sufficient distance between the furniture and the radiator, however, the room should get warm pretty quickly.
Similarly, you’ll want to make sure your radiator is clean so that warm air can flow through it. Collected dirt or dust can prevent hot air from making it from inside the radiator to the room. A simple wipe with a wet cloth every other week should be enough to clear off accumulated dirt or grime.
Effects of Radiators on Different Materials
While you don’t have to worry about a sofa causing a fire if placed too close to a radiator, keeping that one-foot space is crucial to guaranteeing the integrity of your furniture. Heat from a radiator can affect almost every type of furniture.
- Leather – Prolonged exposure to heat dries leather out, weathering it more quickly than normal. According to The Spruce, this can ultimately lead to the leather cracking and even flaking off.
- Wood – Wood is not so much affected by heat as humidity, explains the Architectural Woodwork Institute. Increased humidity can cause wood to swell, move, and warp. Since radiators create heat through hot water or steam, humidity will certainly be a factor.
- Upholstery – While home furnishings are often upholstered in flame retardant fabrics, it’s still not great for upholstery to be exposed to constant heat. It can warp the fabric and lead to fading. If only certain areas are exposed to the heat, this can make patterns look uneven.
Luckily, these negative effects can be avoided by placing furniture at least one foot away from the radiator, or even more if the item is an antique. Many design sites also suggest lining the back of the furniture with a foam board to absorb the heat.
Decorating With Radiators
If you’re unable to get your sofa a full foot away from your radiator, don’t worry. There are still a number of other ways to hide or disguise this sometimes unsightly appliance.
Paint the Radiator
The easiest option to disguise a radiator is to simply paint it. There are multiple ways you can work this into your overall room design:
- Paint it the same color as your walls. If you use the same finish, it’ll blend in at first glance.
- Choose a complementary color that goes with the wall color.
- Get artistic and paint with a pattern or ombre design.
Cover the Radiator Up
Radiator covers are another simple way to design around a radiator. They’re available in dozens of different materials, like metal and bamboo, to match the decor of any room.
Make the Radiator Work With Your Space
If you’re looking to maximize space, consider turning your radiator into another functional piece of furniture.
- Build a shelf over the radiator to hold books and other items.
- Work with professionals to create a custom mudroom bench designed around the radiator.
- Build a faux fireplace around the radiator.
Radiators don’t have to get in the way of designing a beautiful room. As long as sofas and other furniture are kept one foot away from these heating devices, there is little to no fire hazard. This distance also ensures that furniture will look its best for years to come. With a few creative design hacks, radiators can even add a fun decorative element to a room.
- HGTV: Boiler Systems and Radiators May Be Best Heating Choice
- New York Times: Steam Radiators Can Burn But are Rarely Deadly
- Wikipedia: Radiator
- American Home Shield: Which Home Radiator is Best For You?
- Department of Energy: Home Heating Systems
- The Spruce: 5 Leather Furniture Mistakes
- Architectural Woodwork Institute: The Effects of Heat on Architectural Woodwork
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