Article List

Get Cold and Stop Wasting Energy

Inspired by an article I recently read, I decided to turn off the radiator in my room.

There are three ways of heating things – convection (rising the ambient temperature of the surroundings), conduction (direct heat transfer through physical contact) and radiation (blasting the thing with electromagnetic radiation in the infrared spectrum, which is rather mundane despite sounding awesome). When you have a radiator turned on, it heats you through convection (warms the air) and radiation (showers you with photons), and also conduction if you happen to be touching it. But notice how the radiator has to be very hot for convection to work well. If I turn the knob, and the room temperature sits at around 22-23 degrees in the winter, the radiator itself is too hot to touch. I cannot rely on conduction since it’s too hot to touch, nor on radiation, as the radiator is on the opposite end of the room from where I sit, so all the work has to be done through convection, through heating the air in the room. The air that has low density, making it a pain to warm up, and that is constantly exposed to things that cool it off, like the window. Even without seeing any numbers, you can see how inefficient that is. It means a lot of energy is wasted without actually helping me get warmed.

So I said “screw it” and turned it off, seeing how I can handle lower ambient temperature. I made it a challenge to not use the radiator for a whole week. While the rest of the house sat at 22 degrees, my room ranged from 18-19 degrees. The temperature outside, at the time, ranged from -6 to +2 degrees. And just for clarification, thermostats and AC units are unpopular where I live. Bigger buildings like schools and stores do have them, but they’re a rarity in private houses. That’s why I’m talking about radiators.

Without the radiator, I couldn’t rely on convection, so I had to turn to conduction and radiation. For conduction, I simply put on more clothes. Instead of sitting at my desk with a t-shirt on, having my forearms and wrists exposed to the cold wooden surface, I wore a hoodie, shielding me from direct touch and warming the thin layer of air around my body. Generally, I kept wearing shorts due to comfort, but in colder cases (especially in the mornings), I turned to sweatpants. Ideally, I’d also wear socks and slippers, but the slippers I own are made in a way that doesn’t permit wearing socks, and even if they did, I recently got a scar on my foot that made wearing socks quite irritating. As a result, for the duration of the week, my feet were consistently the coldest, which I wasn’t happy with, but I just had to deal with it.

As for radiation, I rolled the window blinds all the way up, to let as much sun in as possible. My window is oriented south, so I get plenty of sun from around 9 o’clock to 15 o’clock. This worked exceptionally well the first few days – the sky was clear and there was so much sun that my room would actually get fairly warm in the afternoon. Some time later, though, the weather got worse, and it’s stayed like that since then, with clouds instead of solar rays, and little in the way of heat getting into the room. This was thankfully offset by the temperature getting higher, but it also meant that I didn’t have a nice 19-20 degrees in the afternoon and 17 degrees during the night, but instead a constant 18 degrees. After the sun sets, I roll the blinds down, treating it as a sort of insulation from the outside. Its effect is limited, but it’s not like it hurts, so I might as well do it.

Besides the radiator, there is another source of convection heat in the room - the computer. It’s only minor, but still, things like the processor and graphics card can generate a bit of warmth, which gets trapped under the desk surface, in the same space that my legs are, so that’s nice.

Something interesting I noticed was that my sleep schedule seemed to be affected by the temperature. In “the olden days”, the state of the sun dictated a lot of how people behaved. With the advent of artificial light, the brightness aspect of the star lost some relevance, but because of the radiator, the temperature continued to adjust to the period of the day. Whereas before, my room would keep a somewhat constant temperature and brightness – basically being an unchanging entity, unbound by the natural world – now my body would know of the upcoming night not just from the clock on the screen, but also from the temperature going down. Although it’s hard to say for certain whether that is the cause, since the period was so short and any number of other things could’ve happened (a scientific experiment, it is not), I caught myself getting tired and thinking of going to sleep as early as 19:00 and 20:00, even though normally I’d stay up until 2-3 AM. A diary of activities that I kept at the time of this experiment shows that, over the week, the hour at which I’d go to sleep shifted from nearly 4 o’clock to around 01:30.

It’s been almost a week since that week-long experiment was finished, and in this time, I’ve only turned on the radiator twice. I don’t strictly avoid it, but I also don’t use it unnecessarily. I’ve worked out a compromise, where I continue to wear the extra clothes, but if it’s so cold that I need to go further (like wearing thermal underwear beneath my clothes), I will just turn the radiator up for an hour or two. It feels like a fair compromise between comfort and energy use.

In short, I was able to replace central heating with a hoodie and remain almost as comfortable as I was before. It’s a good example of adaptation, and reduces my reliance on the power grid. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions may not be huge, but as long as it’s non-zero, it’s worth considering. Besides, my goal was reduced consumption of energy itself, to make a renewable grid more viable, so lessened GHG emissions is just a bonus. Room heating is rarely brought up as an example of eco-friendly living, but I think that’s partly about taboo, and partly about having a wrong perspective. Comfort in one’s house is something people may be unwilling to give up or question, or even know much about. Room heating wasn’t presented to me as a choice, with advantages and drawbacks; it’s just something you use if you feel cold. There are other habits that people may have (like daily showers which, unless you are physically active, are just a waste of resourced) that contribute a lot to climate damage, but that we pay little attention to. As for the wrong perspective, here’s the idea: Sure, I could spend time researching the most eco-friendly tech, which uses more energy to produce than heating, but what’s that good for if I don’t buy new tech, yet I need warmth constantly? I will worry about the bigger things when the bigger things need to be done. Until then, experimenting with small changes feels much more productive than doing nothing. Transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle requires lots of little changes like that, so the sooner I start adapting them, the easier the road will be for me.

(This post was changed a couple times, with a set of major changes accidentally getting deleted because I thought I had a copy on the laptop. I had to remember what it was about and write it from scratch a second time, which I’m still a little upset about...)

Back to the top