How to Dismantle a Radiator

Today is brought to you by the words “Cast Iron” as in Cast Iron Radiators are HEAVY.  Yes.  Cast iron radiators are incredibly heavy (that’s why cast iron is used to make a variety of body-building weights).  We’re flipping a house and I was “smart” enough to purchase the house in February, right after the polar vortex descended on central Pennsylvania.  I knew the house was frozen, I just didn’t know how much damage ice can cause to a piping system.

Well, after everything thawed, I learned that six of the eleven radiators in the house had burst and needed to be replaced.  We were able to find replacement radiators, I just needed to remove the broken radiators (my contractor didn’t want to do that…)

I decided I was up to the task of removing the radiators.  Last weekend, my business partner and I hauled out two of the radiators (fully intact).  When I got the radiators weighed at the metal scrapper’s yard, each radiator weighed 350lbs!

They weren’t the big radiators.

I decided I needed a better plan to dismantle the broken radiators so each section was manageable by one person.  My plan was to dismantle each radiator and load it onto the day-job’s truck for removal to the scrap metal yard.

Radiators are rather simple contraptions.  They are a series of columns or tubes held together by tension rods:

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If you look closely, you’ll notice two different types of radiators in the picture above: Column and tubes.  Here are detailed pictures of the tube and column type radiators:

Tube type radiators have more, but smaller ‘tubes’ in the radiators (photo on the left; generally 5 or 6 tubes).  The column type radiators have fewer, but larger ‘tubes’ for the hot water (photo on right; generally 3 or 4 columns).  From a demolition perspective, it doesn’t matter if they’re tube type or column type, they’re heavy!  From a physics perspective, the more surface area of the radiator, the higher the heat transfer.  This higher heat transfer lowers the return water temperature to the boiler, allowing your boiler to fire for a longer period of time, increasing the energy efficiency of the boiler.

Sorry for the science lesson, we’re here to discuss dismantling radiators.

You’ll need a few tools to dismantle a radiator (associate links):
1) Sawzall – I use the 12-Amp Milwaukee corded version.  It’s not the most heavy duty, but for the price, it will get through just about anything.  If this is your first sawzall, skip the cordless versions for a corded version.  When you’re ready to purchase your fifth sawzall for your mobile demolition unit (aka: Van), you can consider the cordless version.
2) Sledge hammer – I know there are a variety of plastic handle sledges available on the market, but I prefer good ole American Ash.
3) Wrecking Bar – You may ask why it’s a ‘wrecking bar’ rather than a “crow bar” or a “pry bar”.  Well, how often do you see a murder of crows sitting around drinking beer?  If I wanted to demolish a radiator, would I want to only ‘pry’ it apart, or wreck it?  I’d wreck it.

I will stop here for a moment to remind everyone to be safe when they are demolishing radiators.  You should use protective gear including, but not limited to: hearing protection, eye protection, protective clothing, gloves, steel toed boots, a helmet, space suit, etc.  (Do as I say, not as I do) I wore hearing protection and squeezed my eyes shut tight as my sledge hammer connected with the cast iron.

A further note of warning: When I was smashing one of the radiators with the sledge hammer, a ~4oz piece of iron flew off the radiator and ended up embedded in the oak floor.  If we use conservation of momentum (M1iV1i + M2iV2i = M1fV1f + M2fV2f) we could solve for the final velocity of the chunk of radiator: Mass of Sledge*Initial Velocity of sledge + Mass of chunk*Initial Velocity of Chunk = Mass of Sledge*Final Velocity of Sledge + Mass of Chunk*Final Velocity of Chunk ==> 4.535kg(sledge)*1m/s (initial velocity) + 0.1134kg (Chunk)*0m/s = 4.535kg(sledge)*0m/s (Final) + 0.1134kg*X(m/s) ==> 4.535 kg*m/s = 0.1134 kg * X ==> 4.535kg*(m/s)/0.1134kg = X ~~> 40m/s (or 89.5 miles per hour).  That little chunk of metal would do some damage to soft flesh.

The first step: (gear up) take your sawzall and cut each of the tension rods which hold the radiators together.  There will be three to five tie rods holding the radiators together.  This specific radiator had four rods.  I slid the blade of my sawzall between the tubes of this radiator and cut through each of the tension rods (circled in orange).  Depending on the radiator, some of the rods may be under a lot of tension.  The upper most nut/rod part shot out of this radiator, which is why the tension rod is missing in this picture.

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Step 2: Break each section.  After the tension rods are cut, only paint and rust hold the radiators together.  However, even though it’s only paint and rust, it’s 100 years of paint and rust, so these sections only come apart reluctantly.  For the second step, you want to take your sledge and hit each radiator section a few times, until you see a small crack in the paint between each section:

Hair line fracture

Once you see the small crack in the paint (do you see it? It’s there…) you can move to the next section.  I found it was easiest to use the sledge to ‘soften’ the whole radiator first, then we’ll go after it with the wrecking bar.  After a lot of smashing:

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Depending how brittle the cast iron is, you may mangle the radiators.  This is also how small pieces of the radiators fly off at incredibly high speeds.  After you’ve softened the entire radiator, you can get your wrecking bar.  Now, you have to be smart when you’re working with the radiators: you don’t want them to fall on you while you’re working.  These radiators can easily weigh 500lbs.  If one falls on your leg while you’re smashing them, your leg is toast – plan to walk again in six months.  BE CAREFUL and BE SMART.  Don’t let them tip over.  Don’t push them over.  Don’t be stupid.  If you think “this is a bad idea but…”, IT’S A BAD IDEA, DON’T DO IT.

(Again, do as I say, not as I do)

I learned.  The first radiator I worked on did tip over on.  It didn’t land on my leg, but it was still scary as this 400lb piece of iron fell over.  I actually worried about the integrity of the floor joists after the radiator fell.  After the first radiator, I braced each radiator as I worked on it.

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You’ll note the 2×4 under the one leg of the radiator.  This 2×4 holds the radiator up at an angle so I can work on half of the radiator with little worry of the whole beast falling over on me.

So, brace your radiators and grab your wrecking bar.  Place the wrecking bar between the first two sections of the radiator and start wiggling the bar.  The radiators are held together with a flange and throat assembly and “only” need to be separated:

Once the radiators are separated, you can haul them to the scrap yard for recycling.  Locally, the scrap is selling for between $0.05 and $0.06/lb.  While this may not seem like much, if a radiator weighs 500lbs, it’s worth $25 as scrap.  I pulled out six radiators plus the boiler (additional 500lbs).  That’s between $150 and $200 for all the scrap metal.

4 Thoughts.

  1. Have you ever heard of selling the radiator as an antique or piece of furniture instead of scrap? I have seen a lot of radiators for sale lately at antique malls and shops, ranging anywhere from $50-200 a piece depending on the condition and age. From what I understand, there is a desire to go back to a country home or an early America look and these fit well with other decorations and furniture.

    • I had not considered selling the radiator as an antique piece of furniture. I paid about $10/section for functional radiators, so I know the radiators are valuable. The one I showed was about 800lbs, so a little large. I plan to do a few of these flips over the next few years, so if I ever have to remove radiators again, I’ll consider an upcycled use as furniture. Thanks for the suggestion.

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