Radiator Covers: What To Know Before You Buy

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Get the lowdown on how to hide an ugly radiator with a cover that combines style and practicality.

Radiators could easily be called gentle giants. They heat a home quietly without fans. But they can be big and bulky, and their industrial look isn’t always a match with style preferences.

The solution? Hide them partially or fully with something that better fits your style. And there are a number of ways to do that, from ready-made to custom. Just make sure that the cover doesn’t prevent the radiator from doing its job. Here’s what you need to know.

How Do Radiators Work?

Radiators heat the air through radiation and convection. A boiler pushes hot water or steam through a radiator’s fins, which then disperse that heat into the room. The heat moves colder air back toward the radiator, where it’s warmed, creating a convection current.

What Is a Radiator Cover?

A cover can be as minimal as a topper, which just sits atop the radiator. Or it can be a box that you purchase or build to cover the radiator on the top and three sides. Its main purpose is to disguise an unattractive radiator.

Why Use a Radiator Cover?

Besides hiding an unsightly radiator, a cover offers several benefits:

  • Some steam heating systems make the radiator fins dangerously hot. They shouldn’t be touched, and a cover protects you from burns if you get too close.
  • It makes the radiator disappear if you choose a style that blends with your décor.
  • It makes better use of the space by creating a shelf to hold books, lamps or even some types of plants.

Does a Radiator Cover Affect Heat Output?

Anything you put over a radiator will prevent some heat from getting into a room, according to Jeff Beiriger, executive director for Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Wisconsin Association in Germantown, Wisconsin. So it’s important that if you do use a radiator cover, leave plenty of ventilation openings on the top, bottom and sides.

Types of Radiator Covers

You have two style choices: a topper that goes above the radiator, or a cabinet covering the top and three sides. Covers should have openings on the top and all sides for heat circulation. Both styles should be sturdy, especially if you plan to use the top as a shelf. Toppers are typically made of wood. Materials commonly used to make cabinets (covers) include:

  • Metal or steel: These block the least amount of heat, Bieriger says. Metal grilles or screens allow air circulation. They’re cheaper than wood but also can be dented. And be aware that if your radiator is typically too hot to touch, a metal cover also may get hot.
  • Wood: Hardwoods work well, especially if you want the cover to blend with natural wood trim in a room. They’ll transfer less heat than metal and they’re more expensive.
  • Engineered wood: MDF (medium density fiberboard) is good for a painted radiator cover. This material is sturdy like hardwoods but cheaper.
  • Combo: Wood or MDF make up the structure, with metal for the grilles.

No matter the material, Beiriger says lining the cover with a reflective foil should put more heat out into the room.

Buy or DIY?

That’s up to you. There are lots of sources for ready-made covers in a range of materials and styles (see below). Some places will custom-build radiator covers for you. But it’s likely going to be cheaper to build one yourself, especially if you’re considering hardwood.

How To Get the Right Size Radiator Cover

If you’re purchasing a ready-made cover, follow the manufacturer’s measuring instructions. Otherwise, use these guidelines to determine a minimum finished size:

  1. Measure the height of the radiator, its depth and its width, including the pipes going to it.
  2. Add four inches to the width and two inches to the depth and the height. This allows for air space between the radiator and the cover.
  3. Add the thickness of the cover material to the height and depth, and twice the thickness of the cover material to the width.

Make sure the finished size fits without hitting obstructions, like window trim above the radiator or nearby walls.

Radiator Cover Sources and Cost

Check out these sources for ready-made radiator covers:

  • Fichman Furniture: Made from MDF, they offer a wide range of designs, including MDF-and-metal combos. Prices start at $200 for a finish-yourself model and go up to $350+ for their most decorative combo model.
  • Shutter Shack: Sells ready-made wood covers and custom or ready-made steel covers. Some of their covers include built-in hidden pans that you can fill with water for added humidity. Prices range from $390 to $500 for wood; $515 to $755 for steel.
  • Wayfair: Sells covers from various manufacturers in lots of styles and materials. Prices range from $90 to $240.

Kathleen Childers
Kathleen Childers, a Minnesota-based writer, covers topics about home and life for a variety of clients.