Make Your Dirty, Rusted Radiator Look New
Most people don't think about cleaning their radiators, but they can get pretty dirty and in bad shape if they are not properly maintained. The radiator is designed to have lots of surface area to help the radiator work more efficiently to get as much heat as possible to the home. But those little spaces tend to collect lots of dust and debris.
All this gunk in the radiator is awful for people with allergies or asthma. Cleaning a radiator will improve not only the look of the home but will also make the home a nicer environment to live and breathe in.
When I purchased a house with a radiator heating system, there were decades of dirt, grease, dog fur, and dust bunnies that had settled into those tiny nooks and crannies. There was also minor rust and previous paint jobs that had to be cleaned up. I had to clean it up and make it look good in order to sell the house.
A fresh coat of paint took care of little stains and rust and made the radiators and the house look so much better.
It doesn't take a lot of knowledge to clean and paint a radiator, nor does it take a lot of money. But it does take a lot of time and energy. It is the perfect DIY job for a do-it-yourselfer with little money who is willing to take the time to do a quality job.
Supplies for Cleaning and Painting Radiator
- time, and lots of it
- cardboard, newspapers, junk mail, etc. to cover up the area
- masking tape to hold the cardboard, newspapers in place
- mask to cover your nose and mouth (highly recommended)
- water (and bowl to put it in)
- brush(es) that can get into tight spaces
- high-heat spray paint
When Should You Clean or Paint the Radiator?
Before you start, you should think about the best time to schedule a radiator cleaning and painting job. Radiators get hot, really hot. The best time to do this project is when the heating is not on. Also, the spray paint has very strong fumes, and you will want to be able to open the windows and ventilate the space. If you schedule this project in the summer, you will avoid a lot of frustration.
How to Prepare a Radiator for Cleaning and Painting
The first step to cleaning and painting your radiator is to prepare the space. You want to protect the walls, the floors, and any furniture that is close to the radiator. If your radiators are as dirty as mine were, you want to prepare the space before you start cleaning it.
Basically, you want to cover up all the surfaces around the radiator. The easiest way is to find as many big pieces of cardboard as you can. Cutting up boxes helped me a great deal. Put a piece of cardboard behind the radiator, and one on the floor as close to the radiator as you can get. You may want to cut notches in the cardboard to get as much of the cardboard under the radiator as you can get. Put the cardboard on the sides too, if you have walls or furniture on the sides of the radiator. Secure with masking or painters tape.
After the big pieces of cardboard are set, use newspapers, junk mail, and magazine pages to fill up the rest of the spaces. Secure with masking or painters tape. I tried to tape the papers to each other and to the cardboard to avoid having too much tape directly on the furniture and walls.
Remember that dust and spray paint flies, so be sure to cover a large portion of the space around the radiator, instead of just the radiator itself.
This is one of the radiators that needed to be cleaned and painted.
How to Clean Radiators
The problem with cleaning radiators is that they have lots of little spaces. I first went over the radiator with a rag and cleaned the big pieces that were easy to remove. Some canned air like what you use to clean computer keyboards might have helped get a lot of the dust and fur out, but I was afraid that would trap the dust to places I could not reach to remove. I mention this because you may be able to use some canned air, depending on the layout of your radiator.
Brush Your Radiator
You want a brush that can get into all those little spaces and can do a thorough job of getting out all that gunk that tends to accumulate. For me, the easiest thing to use was a toothbrush. The radiators weren't that deep, and a standard toothbrush was able to get into the spaces quite nicely. To make the process go even faster, I got a couple of cheap battery powered toothbrushes that helped me along.
After dry brushing to get the dust and fur, I dipped the brush in some water to get the stuff that was spilled on or stuck on the radiators. It took two to four hours for me to do one radiator. The radiators had not been cleaned for a very long time, and I wanted to make sure that I didn't paint the debris onto the radiator. Even after all that time, there was still some things that wound up being painted on.
If a toothbrush is too small for your radiator, you can purchase brushes that are specifically made for radiators. The video below shows how to do a routine cleaning using this sort of brush. If you do this type of cleaning regularly, you will avoid hours of labor in the future.
How to Prep Radiators and Metal for Painting
Spray Painting Radiators
Once your radiator is clean and free of dust, dirt, fur, hair, cobwebs and anything else that managed to settle on it, and before you pick up all the newspaper, cardboard and anything else you put up to protect the area, it is time to give it a nice coat of paint to make it look good.
Be sure to use a paint that is specially for high heat, like the paint shown on the right. If you don't, the paint will eventually bubble, crack, and peel and you will have to repeat the whole cleaning process, this time with the extra bonus of trying to remove peeling paint.
This paint has very strong fumes, so be sure to ventilate the area well and consider using a mask. Since it is a spray paint, it is much easier to all of the spaces of the radiator. Simply apply a light coat of paint and let dry. I also added a second layer once the first coat had dried.
Wait for the second coat to dry. Then inspect your radiator to make sure you have thoroughly covered the entire radiator, and spot paint any parts you may have missed. Once the final coat of paint is dry, you can remove the newspapers and stuff and enjoy your beautiful radiators.
How to Spray Paint a Radiator
To keep your radiator from collecting the yucky stuff that it tends to collect, you may want to consider covering your radiator with a cover. There are several companies that make radiator covers, and while they may be pricy, they are a worthwhile investment to save you the time and energy to keep cleaning and painting your radiator too often. They are generally made of metal and come in a large variety of sizes. Many companies will also custom make a radiator cover to specifically fit your radiator.
How to Clean and Paint a Radiator
- Protect the area with cardboard, newspapers, magazine pages, junk mail, thin pieces of wood, masking tape, etc.
- Protect your lungs with a mask.
- Open windows and use a fan to ventilate the area.
- Wear your grungy clothes.
- Clean the radiator thoroughly with a (tooth) brush.
- Spray paint with high-heat spray paint.
- Let dry.
- Apply a second coat if necessary.
- Let dry.
- Remove protective coverings and enjoy.
Clean and Paint Radiators
It is easy to forget the radiator when you clean the house. After all, it's just a radiator. But it takes up prominent spaces in your home, almost like pieces of furniture, and you want to make sure that they show your home in its best light. If you keep them clean, you may find you have fewer allergy problems. If you paint them from time to time, you will find that your living environment will look much better. They do make a big difference in how your home looks.
The list on the right provides a quick recap of the steps to take to get all the stuff out and spray paint your radiator.
Have you ever cleaned and spray painted your radiators? Please be sure to let me know how it went in the comments.
Questions & Answers
Question: Which spray paint did you use to clean and paint a radiator?
Answer: I used one specifically for metal. I believe it was Rust-oleum.
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RTalloni on May 28, 2015:
Being from the south I've seen pictures of these contraptions and wondered how they were kept clean and nice looking. Sounds like this is the time of year to make definite plans to paint one's radiator and this will be useful to those who need to get the job done.
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 08, 2015:
That's true Suzanne, don't paint the radiator while the heat is on - you don't want to get burnt. I do hope those landlords get the message too!
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 06, 2015:
Thanks Mary (tillsontitan). Ah, the radiator brushes have a multi purpose! I will have to keep that in mind. They do work well to dry out gloves and hats. I also like to put a small blanket on top - the blanket is nice and warm when I am ready to go to bed. Those boards that you put on top of the radiator also helps keep some of the dust and debris out of them.
Thanks Jeannie, I was nervous about painting one too until I heard about the high heat paint. Using lower quality paint won't melt it, but it can cause it to bubble and act badly. Just be sure to paint when the heat is off and the radiators are cool.
Thank you everyone for your visits and comments.
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on February 06, 2015:
Nell Rose, it would be nice to be able to delegate the task to someone else! I hope your husband enjoyed the pride of a job well done.
Linda, ouch! We do need to be careful around radiators. There are radiator covers you can commission that help, but as my handyman told me, kids learn very quickly not to touch those!
Mary, steam heat is the best thing! When my gas furnace blows air, it feels cold, and the air is so drying. With steam heat, the house is an even temperature and it is not drying. How awful that yours were stolen! That sounds like a big repair bill right off the start.
Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on November 16, 2014:
I've always been nervous to paint a radiator. For some reason, I convinced myself the heat would make the paint melt or something. It is good to know I can do it and will keep it in mind if I end up in a house with radiators again. Good advice and voted up!
Mary Craig from New York on November 13, 2014:
We had radiators in our house when I was a child. My mother had a radiator brush that she used for two things, cleaning radiators and swatting us on the behind...of course that was more than a threat than an actual swat.
My girlfriend had those fancy radiator covers in her house. We just had covers that sat on top of the radiator, they didn't cover the whole thing. The best thing I remember about radiators was a great place for drying out your gloves or hats in the winter!
Voted this up, useful, and interesting.
Mary Hyatt from Florida on November 11, 2014:
I have never lived in a house that had a radiator. The old house I bought and had moved had several radiators, but before we could move the house, someone stole them right out of the house!!
I have painted many metal surfaces of other things, so I could relate to your Hub.
Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on November 09, 2014:
When I was a curious wee one living in NY, I dropped a radiator and my big toe was the size and color of a tomato for a few weeks. Taught me not to be so darn curious! Well, not really. Excellent tips though! :)
Nell Rose from England on October 23, 2014:
The last time I tried painting the radiators in my house I just sat back, sighed, and handed the brush to my hubbie! lol! great advice, and thanks for sharing those tips, nell
Suzanne Day from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on September 30, 2014:
I'd imagine you'd not want to paint a radiator with the heat on! Great information here, I've lived with ancient radiators that all needed new paint jobs - here's hoping some recalcitrant landlords out there get the message ;) Voted useful and up!
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on September 17, 2014:
You're welcome Nancy. Yes, the high heat paint would resist peeling and crumbling around a fireplace as well.
Nancy Owens from USA on September 17, 2014:
Thank you for sharing these tips... Would the high heat paint work well around a fireplace as well?
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on June 04, 2014:
Yes Linda, the radiators were really bad and by painting them, they had new life. They are now a beautiful feature of the house.
mylindaelliott from Louisiana on May 31, 2014:
I didn't realize you could do this and it would come out so nice looking.
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on May 29, 2014:
Hi Preston and Kate, thanks for the visit. I did three radiators. The photos with the thumbnails are mine. The good news is that I got offers within days of placing the house for sale. The bad news is that I wasn't able to take after photos before it was sold.
Thanks FlourishAnyway, cleaning and painting the radiators was a lot of time consuming work, but it was relatively easy work and very rewarding to see the finished product.
Shasta Matova (author) from USA on May 29, 2014:
Thanks for the visit Bill. I hate it when two different items are called the same thing. I'm sure you can clean and paint a car radiator, but it may look weird when you want to show it off.
WiccanSage, the radiators can get unsightly quickly. After I painted them though, they looked worthy of display and made the whole place look so much better. Thanks for the visit.
FlourishAnyway from USA on May 20, 2014:
Great job and very thorough. From the photos, it's obvious that you had your work cut out for you.
Preston and Kate from the Midwest on May 20, 2014:
Great tips! Did you re-do one yourself? Any before and after pictures??
Mackenzie Sage Wright on May 20, 2014:
Great tips-- I grew up and spent most of my young adulthood in NYC and those dang radiators were in every apartment, and so unsightly! The first one I tried painting I made a mess of it (drips, 'crumbs' of rust and debris stuck in paint, which quickly led to peeling/cracking). Painting it well definitely helps to camouflage it and keep it from being such an eyesore.