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I have heard that painting radiators in your central heating circuit black can make your heating more efficient. The 'scientific' basis being that black, whilst absorbing light in the visible spectrum, radiates infra-red (i.e. heat) better than the usual colour white of radiators.

Is this true?

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    Welcome to Skeptics.SE. I think this question should be moved to physics.stackexchange.com as, if you read the FAQ, you'll see your question lacks a reference to a specific claim of which you are skeptical. – RedGrittyBrick Mar 12 '13 at 19:50
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    As a side note, radiators usually aren't put in places exposed to direct sunlight, so I doubt it can make any significant difference. – vartec Mar 14 '13 at 14:19
  • Probably, the extent of efficiency here would be to coat the radiators not in black paint, but in a photovoltaic 'paint' that generates wattage, which you could short-circuit into heat output. – New Alexandria Mar 21 '13 at 2:31
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    Presumably the heating system is controlled by a thermostat, so it will turn off when the room reaches the set temperature. The question really should be whether black paint makes the radiator more efficient. – Mark Feb 12 '14 at 1:17
  • @Mark Agreed. I wonder why this question is struggling for answers. – deed02392 Feb 12 '14 at 13:39
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Motto

They are white by convention,
and they heat by convection.

Analysis

I am sorry this answer is mostly theoretical, however I was unable to find any practical material in this area so far.

The question contains a significant misconception, and that is that a heating radiator transfers energy mostly by radiation. As Wikipedia articles describe, in a typical case it does not work this way:

In practice, the term "radiator" refers to any of a number of devices in which a liquid circulates through exposed pipes (often with fins or other means of increasing surface area), notwithstanding that such devices tend to transfer heat mainly by convection and might logically be called convectors

Given the radiator temperature, most of the radiation happens out of the visible spectrum, therefore visible characteristics of the radiator have almost no effect. See Black-body radiation Wikipedia article:

A black-body at room temperature appears black, as most of the energy it radiates is infra-red and cannot be perceived by the human eye.

As one can see in the Black-body spectrum for temperatures between 300 K and 1000 K, even if the radiator was 227 °C (500 K) hot, its radiation would be well beyond visible spectrum. This can be easily verified by observing radiators in the dark. If there was any emission in the visible spectrum, the radiators would glow.

Moreover, the question does not define radiator efficiency at all. While the term may seem clear and intuitive, in fact it is not. One could say in principle each radiator is 100 % effective, as there is no thermal loss possible (thermal "loss" is the desired property here). It would be possible to define radiator efficiency to be related to the output power, or by the difference between input and output water temperature. In practice it is necessary to consider efficiency of the whole heating system, including the control devices. See also quite old Painting Radiators article (dated July 19, 1935, I did not attempt to verify it the dating is genuine):

The heat that is developed by burning fuel is transferred to the rooms by means of the radiators. A radiator neither creates nor destroys heat and a large radiator, while it can put more heat into a room than a small one, must be supplied with all of the heat it puts in. In the sense that they ultimately transfer all the heat supplied into the room, all radiators are 100% efficient. The word "efficiency" is, however, used in other ways, and it is now customary to use it on all possible occasions, but it is hardly correct to say that putting metallic paint on a radiator reduces its efficiency when the effect is merely to reduce its capacity. The size of the radiators in a house can only affect the fuel required for heating by increasing or decreasing the heat wasted in transmission from boiler to radiator and that lost up the chimney. Only when the radiators are so small as to render the whole heating plant ineffective is an appreciable saving of fuel to be expected by installing larger radiators.

  • Perhaps a digression, but in my parts an electric bar heater would also be called a radiator, despite the lack of liquid. It would also appear to have a slightly higher dependence on radiant heat. – Oddthinking Feb 13 '14 at 14:23
  • @Oddthinking That seems to be a real radiator - radiation is a primary energy transfer in this case. However, in this case the radiating surface already is mostly not covered by any coating, and given the high operating temperature it would be quite difficult to apply some as DIY job. – Suma Feb 13 '14 at 14:36
  • A minor correction to your "poetic" summary - according to the cited source, about 1/3 of the heat transfer is by radiation, and 2/3 by convection. The difference in emissivity for black and white paint though is minuscule, so your conclusion is still correct. – Mark Feb 16 '14 at 13:46
  • @Mark You are correct, it is not much of summary anyway. Title changed (I would still like to keep it, even if it is not absolutely accurate). – Suma Feb 16 '14 at 18:44
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No, but...

Does painting a radiator change its heat output? Yes. Whether it increases or decreases the output depends on the colorant in the paint (specifically if its non-oxide metallic paint or not).

... the last coat of paint on a radiator is the only one that has an appreciable effect. And that a radiator coated with metallic paint will emit less heat, under otherwise identical conditions, than a similar radiator coated with non-metallic paint. –HeatingHelp.com *

See the table here, Effect of Paint on Heat Emission From Radiators

Assumption: If that table is to be believed, painting all your radiators with metallic paint will reduce system efficiency because the boiler will have to run longer to achieve the same amount of heat transferred. At the very least, "jacket loss" increases the longer it sits there, whether or not the boiler has to run longer.

The type of paint you choose can either increase or decrease the heat output of the radiator by as much as 10%-20%. The paint will have no appreciable effect on the cost of operating the boiler but can make individual rooms more comfortable. –bostonstandardplumbing.com

Note however, that none of this affects the entire system's efficiency. So, no, painting them does not make your heating more efficient, but it might make it more 'effective' where so desired, and do what we're really after here: save money.

*: The link in Suma's answer is dead, but I think this is the same thing as it mentions July 19, 1935.


So, you paint the radiator in the room that's too hot with metallic paint and the one in the room that's too cold with non-metallic paint. This will lower your usage and increase the comfort level. That's my definition of efficiency.

  • Seems like bare metal has to have more heat transfer than any kind of painted surface. Ditto for the (small) radiant output. – user29285 Feb 9 '16 at 2:52
  • @nocomprende "Acrylic and urethane based white paints have 93% blackbody radiation efficiency at room temperature." –Wiki. Iron is somewhere in between 75% and 90%. – Mazura Feb 9 '16 at 5:50

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