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The Heat Is On

Libi Astaire

Along the way, people figured out how to keep their homes at least somewhat warm, employing simple methods that we too can use in a stubbornly drafty room or to lower the heating bill

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

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The Romans are often given the credit for discovering how to heat floors and, since heat rises, the entire room. Called a hypocaust heating system, from the Greek words meaning to “heat underneath,” in upper-class Roman homes and public baths, the stone floors were raised several feet off the ground and perched on tile pillars

T here’s one in every house, the room that stubbornly refuses to get warm. Maybe it’s because it’s under the roof, or has a northern exposure, or has a window that doesn’t quite fit its frame. Whatever the reason, to enter the room is to be greeted with a blast of cold air — a shivery reminder of the way people once lived.

Truth to tell, even our draftiest room would probably seem like heaven to our ancestors who braved the winds and snows of a typical Eastern European winter. Yet despite their lack of modern technology, they managed to survive, as did people who lived in chilly China and nippy New England. That’s because along the way, people figured out how to keep their homes at least somewhat warm, employing simple methods that we too can use in a stubbornly drafty room or to lower the heating bill.

Take the Floor

The Romans are often given the credit for discovering how to heat floors and, since heat rises, the entire room. Called a hypocaust heating system, from the Greek words meaning to “heat underneath,” in upper-class Roman homes and public baths, the stone floors were raised several feet off the ground and perched on tile pillars. Heat from a fire placed at one end of the room passed through the hollow space underneath the floor and heated the stones. Later, the fire was moved to a separate furnace chamber — where it was kept going by slaves — and the heat was directed to the various rooms via a system of flues, vents, and ducts, much like our modern central heating systems.

But despite the adage that “all roads lead to Rome,” archaeologists have also found early examples of hypocaust heating systems in Asia. And while the technology was lost in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, in northern China and Korea, variations of the kang (raised platform) heating system are still in use today.

 

A kang could cover the entire floor of a room, in which case it was called a dikang, but it more commonly covered just half or one-third of a room’s floor space. The fire came from a source such as the kitchen’s fireplace or stove, and the heat was conducted into the room via a flue or shaft built to carry off the smoke. To take full advantage of the kang’s heated surface, people would sit on the platform during the day, instead of chairs, and use low, portable tables for eating their meals, writing upon, and playing board games. At night, people would lay their bedding on the kang and have a cozy place to sleep. Of course, without fuel, a kang wouldn’t help, as eighth-century Chinese poet Meng Jiao lamented long ago: “No fuel to heat the floor to sleep, standing and crying with cold at midnight instead.”

Modern Take

If you don’t fancy tearing up your floors and installing a modern hypocaust heating system, try this low-tech solution instead: an area rug. A good quality area rug can reduce the amount of heat needed to warm a room — especially a room situated above an unheated space such as a garage or basement — and act as a barrier between a cold floor and your feet. A thick rug with a high stitch count will insulate a room best. While wool is a top insulator, cotton, acrylic, and nylon can also do the job. It’s preferable to cover most of the floor’s surface — one reason why wall-to-wall carpeting was once so popular — but if using one large rug isn’t practical, several smaller rugs can also help keep a room warm. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 569)

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