Saturday, December 03, 2016

the great heating experiment

Last winter, when it got too cold, I finally relented and turned on my apartment's ondol, i.e., its heated floor, which is something of a Korean residential tradition. In the old days, floor heating involved a system of heated water pipes under a floor's surface; in my current apartment, the ondol is electric. Being electric, the ondol gets expensive in the wintertime because, in some parts of Korea, electricity is expensive. Last year, my monthly cost of living skyrocketed to almost twice its summertime price—from roughly W186,000 to somewhere around W350,000, if I remember correctly. Granted, W350,000 is no cross to bear: that's barely $300, US, and most Seoul residents probably spend closer to $700-$2000 a month on rent.* Still, if I could pay less than W350K a month during the winter, I would.

Which brings me to my current experiment. As the weather gets colder, my apartment goes from greenhouse to icebox given its huge, uninsulated window. I'm away all day, and I leave my window open to aerate the place and to facilitate floor-drying in my very poorly ventilated bathroom. When I get back at night, I close my window and—lately—turn on my electric space heater. This is the same heater I had used back when I was still cooped up in that old, nasty yeogwan while teaching at Dongguk University. The heater still works great, and I haven't yet died in a fire. I also suspect that the heater uses far less power than does my apartment's ondol, so I used it through the entire month of November. In a day or so, I'll get my November admin/electric bill, and I'll be curious to see how much the bill has gone up with the constant use of my heater. Surely the bill can't be anywhere near W300,000, can it? We'll just have to pray to old Uncle Cthulhu and hope for the best.

My monthly gas bill never amounts to more than about $2 a month, so I've also decided to accelerate the apartment-heating process by wasting some gas and water. I've hit upon a highly effective method, too: I fill two large pots with water, place them on my gas range, fire the two burners up, then let the pots boil away on high for a few minutes before I switch them both to medium heat. This works amazingly well, I must say, however bad it might be for the environment to be cranking up the gas and wasting water in this manner. My place might be ice cold when I first enter it after a long day at work, but it's toasty within just a few minutes. That solves the problem of having my electric space heater at one end of my apartment while the other end goes unheated. The range-produced heat lingers thanks to the water vapor, and even after I turn the gas range off, the apartment stays warm with just the electric space heater going. If my gas bill goes up to an astonishing $3 a month, I doubt I'll stress all that much.

Meanwhile, we wait. My bill ought to arrive either this weekend or early next week. I'll be curious to see how much it's gone up since the summer and early fall. If it hasn't gone up much, then I'll know I've hit upon a winning strategy—something that, I hope, can tide me through the winter. We'll see. We'll see.

*As my boss reminds me, what I'm paying isn't rent, technically speaking: it's more like an admin fee. Since this is a company apartment (and a shabby one at that, but that's another rant), it's the company that's paying the actual rent. My monthly residence fee is a combination of the aforementioned admin fee and my electric bill. Most of the year, I don't pay much in electricity; it's the floor heating during the winter that drives costs up.


Charles said...

"The old days"? A lot of apartments still use hot water.

The old days were when you lit a fire in the agungi outside and the heat traveled through a series of flues under the floor until it reached the chimney on the other side.

Kevin Kim said...

"A lot of apartments still use hot water."

Do they? Interesting.

My notion of "old-fashioned" dates back to my experience of a water-pipe ondol in a monk's cell at Haeinsa in 2000. Seemed quaint. But now that I think about it, my apartment in Ilsan may also have used hot-water pipes. My gas bill went way up in the winter; I assume the gas was used to heat the water.

At a guess, that truly old type of ondol you're referring to is the one associated with the carbon-monoxide deaths. Pleasant memories.

The Wikipedia article on ondol associates water pipes with Frank Lloyd Wright and says:

"Instead of ondol-hydronic radiant floor heating, the modern-day houses such as high-rise apartments have a developed version of the ondol system. Many architects know the advantages and benefits of ondol, and they are using ondol in various different methods in modern houses. Since the ondol has been introduced to many countries in the world, it is beginning to be considered as one of the systems of home heating. The ondol which are used these days are not same as the original version. Almost all of the Korean use the developed version system, so it is hard to find the traditional ondol system in Korean houses."

The "developed version" is never explained. Electric?

Charles said...

I'm going to guess that the "developed" version refers to the use of water pipes, since there is a reference to the "original" version, which is what I described above. And yes, a lot of apartments do still use water-based ondol. Our apartment, for example. I would guess that electric ondol is more the exception than the rule, although that may change in the future. Seems inefficient to me, though. Wouldn't an electric system require a constant supply of energy to maintain heat? I guess if you had a flooring material that retained heat really well. I don't know enough about how electric ondol works to make any sort of judgments, though.

Traditional ondol is not associated with carbon monoxide poisoning. That didn't start becoming a thing until modern apartments and the burning of charcoal indoors before modern heating systems. It was a two-pronged problem: obviously burning charcoal indoors is a bad idea, but early modern apartments were also sealed in a way that traditional houses never were.

In a traditional ondol system (which goes back millennia), the fire is lit outside the house, and the smoke never actually enters the room. Even if it did—which it wouldn't unless something was terrible wrong, but for argument's sake—the rooms were not sealed enough to lead to CO poisoning.

Kevin Kim said...


I think you're right re: inefficiency of the electrical system. As for this:

"I'm going to guess that the 'developed' version refers to the use of water pipes"

You'll note that the article says:

"Instead of ondol-hydronic radiant floor heating, the modern-day houses such as high-rise apartments have a developed version of the ondol system."

—i.e., instead of water. So what is this "developed version," if it's not a system using water? Heated oil? Angry gremlins? It doesn't help that the Wikipedia entry was obviously written by a non-native speaker. defines hydronic this way:

"of or relating to a heating system for a building in which the medium for carrying heat throughout the structure is circulating water, especially when the circulation is aided by a pump."

This almost sounds ondol-specific, except that the definition says "throughout the structure," not merely "under the floor." Perhaps this is why the Wikipedia writer wrote "ondol-hydronic."

Curiouser and curiouser.

Charles said...

Huh, yeah, missed the "hydronic" bit there. Doesn't really make much sense, to be honest, as a lot of "modern" places still use hot water. Unless the article was written by a five-year-old, calling the hot water system "traditional" seems a little ridiculous. I can't make heads or tails of that paragraph.

(There was an interim form of ondol used very briefly that employed angry gremlins, but they were difficult to feed properly and a nightmare to deal with when they got wet, so the system was scrapped.)

Kevin Kim said...

I vote five-year-old.