Learning Uruguay

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Home heating

Posted by urufish on June 24, 2007

 cold-person-with-scarf.jpg

This is a good time to do this post.  We’ve had an unusual, but not uncommon, past month.  It came in with a bang, a cold bang… Then it mellowed a bit, then it went cold, then it mellowed again.  I think today (and the past few) have been mellow.  I had to pack a mattress in the car this morning in my pyjamas – outside.  I didn’t feel cold.  Try that in Toronto in December.  hah. 

This is somewhat typical of most winters.  Even though it’s not supposed to get cold until July, you get the odd cold spells lasting a day or two starting in May.  I think it’s been down to 1 or 2 degrees a few nights.  Practically speaking, that’s as low as it ever gets in July/August.  I guess in July and August, there are more days like that.  That’s what distinguishes the winter from the late fall. 

Those of us from the north, have respect for the outside weather, but what we really take for granted, is the weather inside.  My memory starts in Toronto in the early 1950’s and goes to the mid 2000’s.  In houses or apartments, except for when the heating broke, it was never, ever cold.  My parents set the winter thermostats at 22 degrees and that’s where the entire house stayed; kitchen, bathrooms, hallways, no exceptions.  In the 50’s we had coal fired radiators.  When we moved to the suburbs, we had oil fired central heating.  When I moved out, I lived in older buildings with losa using oil fired boilers.  The last apartments I lived in had forced electric, central heating and a/c.  When I moved into houses, all were gas fired, forced air central heating/air conditioning.  Again, there was never a single place anywhere in the house, including the basement, that varied by more than one degree from the thermostat setting. 

The only time I was ever cold living in Canada was one year when I lived in a trailer, like Jim Rockford.  It was forced air, gas fired heating.  When it came on, you were warm within 60 seconds.  When it went off, you were cold within 2 minutes.  It was a constant cycle of cold and hot.  The reason I bring this up is because some kinds of heating in Uruguay are like that.  I notice that effect, (not as dramatic though) with split, forced air heating.  It also depends on where you are in the room.  If you are sitting in the path of the heater, you get warm, (and windblown) when it’s on.  When it goes off, a few minutes before it comes back on, you cool off.  The bad news, in a bigger room with a high ceiling, if you’re not in the path and near an exposed wall, you may never warm up.  This is the case in our bedroom.  If you sit near 2 exposed walls, with the split past you, like my wife, she needs an electric heater to heat her feet under the desk.  Strange isn’t it?  We’ve got rads in that room, a split in that room and she still needs an electric spot heater.  Let’s go to rads next.

This house had a radiator system when we moved in.  It had cast iron radiators, about 80 years old.  We had them checked out before the renovation and they were in excellent condition so we kept them.  There were parts of the house that were never heated.  For instance, the kitchen, bathroom and service area.  These were areas used by the help and in those days, possibly to this day, owners didn’t heat those areas of the house.  Well, we’re north americans and we couldn’t conceive of not heating any room in the house, used by staff or not, (we dont have staff).  So we added modern, aluminum radiators.  Once we got the bugs out of this system, it works just fine.  So why is my wife cold?

In Canada, we set the temp at 22, 24/7.  I haven’t done that here, not yet anyway.  Why?  Because when I lived in an apartment, for the past year, the heat only ran from 7pm until 11pm and that kept us warm for the next 20 hours.  Houses in Uruguay have high heat mass.  Once you heat up all the bricks and mortar, it will radiate that heat for a long time.  But I found out that doesn’t work here in the house.  Because we use radiators, not losa, pipes buried in cement.  With rads, most of the heat goes into the air.  With losa, it heats the concrete which heats the air.  With rads, you heat the air.  Concrete doesn’t escape out through holes around doors and windows.  Air does.  So we double up the heating time.  8am til 12pm and 8pm until 12am.  Iron rads take over an hour to come up to full heat (and they hold heat for 2 hours after the boiler shuts off).  My wife’s desk sits next to an iron rad, 2 exposed walls with windows.  It doesn’t warm up until 11pm.  That’s why she uses the electric heater. 

So here’s my advice to you, the newcomer or you the resident who is uncomfortable during the winter.   If the house or apartment is without northern style insulation, with Uruguayan style windows, losa is your most cost effective option.  If you’re going to buy or rent an apartment, pay the extra few bucks and buy one with losa (or subfloor electric resistance heating).  If your building is more than 10 years old, have your architect inspect your piping.  Buildings from 25-35 years ago have a practical losa lifetime of 40-50 years.  That’s if the pipes are kept filled ALL THE TIME.  I know of buildings that had their losas drained for various reasons during the offseason and those pipes will not last as long, nor are they likely as efficient as they used to be.  

Your second best option is central boiler, radiator system.  As I stated above, because it isn’t heating the struture, it’s heating the air, there will be swings in temperature because it goes on and off more frequently.  Radiators aren’t everywhere like losa, so areas of the room will be colder than others.  The idea of putting radiators under windows is a very effective moderator when used with insulated walls like back home, but here, they’re not insulated.  So it’s cold near those uninsulated walls, farther from the radiators.  If you’re going to be sitting somewhere or working somewhere, place it as far from a cold wall or window as possible.  If you place it next to a rad, that’s fine when the rad is working, not so good when it’s not.  Rads are frequently set into a wall, which measn when it’s not working, there’s less wall between the outside and the inside. 

If you have or will use rads, I have a suggestion for you.  I am putting reflective insulation between my rads and the outside walls–silver side facing inside.  When a rad is placed on an outside wall, half the heat it produces heats the outside wall and makes it a nice place for a homeless person to lean against in July/August.  If you put reflective insulation between it and the outside wall, more of the IR heat will radiate into the house and when it’s off, less heat will radiate away from the house.  If your rads are totally exposed, this may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it will please your pocket book.  In our case, all the rads on outside walls are inside wooden cabinets with screens on the room side, so it cant be seen.  I expect this will put out a lot more heat than before.  You dont need to do this for rads against an inside wall. 

The next best option is a split heater/airconditioner.  If it’s a heat pump, using reverse cooling for heating and not resistance (like a ceramic heater), it wont be as expensive to run.  Uruguay is full of chinese units of questionable quality but it appears that they break under warranty, and when they’re fixed, they dont break again. 

person-on-rad.jpg With electric heat (radiant or oil filled rad) this is the only way you’re gong to feel toasty..

If you rely on spot heaters, like plug in electrical or wall installed gas heaters (like Mike has), you’re going to be miserable in the winter.  I’m sure there are some exceptions to this rule, but I have yet to experience one.  Most of our friends use spot heating..  Not a one of them is comfortable in the winter. 

With losa in our apartment, we didn’t even notice the winter last year.  With the radiators, I do feel a little chilly some mornings when it turns cold for more than a couple of days.  Then, I’ll dress up scandinavian style, with turtle neck, shirt, sweater and vest.. 4 layers.  And then I’m fine.. 

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9 Responses to “Home heating”

  1. Brazzie said

    Irv, thanks for the treatise on heating. Very informative.

    My wife is from Wisconsin and says to this day that she was never so cold in her life as when she lived in southern Brazil. There, most people use electric spot-heaters. And as you correctly pointed out, they are horribly uncomfortable.

    We can still remember waking up and being able to sometimes see our own breath while still in bed. In order to take a shower, you had to undress in the bathroom which was often around 6 C (40 F). Enough to make a man out of you.

    As an engineer, I agree with your assessment of the heating issues and the pro and cons of the main alternatives.

    For us, I think we will stick to central losa. One more plus for apartments versus houses. Winters feel very long if you have to dress like an astronaut inside your own home.

  2. urufish said

    Ahhhh.. the shower is where the rubber meets the road in these houses. The master bathroom is large by Uruguayan standards. The tub area is quite a ways away from the main radiator in the room. The architect, knowing me, put a radiator on the wall at the far end of the tub. He figured we’d put in a shower enclosure, cutting off the shower from the rest of the room.
    That would keep the shower warm.
    Wrong assumption.
    My wife decided to put in a glass divider, to prevent water from spraying out on the floor, but leaving the 70% of the shower open to the room. There are 2 outside walls with 3 windows (you know how airtight 80 year old Uruguayan windows are). The floor is on concrete slab. The ceiling is the 2nd floor terrace. Lots of heat loss. Unless you stand right under the hot water, you’re cold… I’ve taken to showering in the basement during the winter. Although it’s not heated, the shower is totally enclosed. Turn on the hot water and within 30 seconds, it’s like a steam bath.

  3. gaberoo said

    It’s still a mystery (sort of) why houses in Uruguay haven’t been insulated (I’m not sure how available insulation is and I’m sure it wouldn’t be cheap–probably main reason why houses aren’t insulated in Uruguay to begin with–but for those who have the money, isn’t it a whole lot more comfortable?).
    Surely it’s more cost-effective to bundle up inside the house than to insulate it, yet…how darned expensive could this be?

  4. urufish said

    I’ll pass your question on to the architect Gaberoo. His opinion will have more data behind it than mine.
    All I can tell you is that I have gutted two houses since I’ve been here and I never went there.
    Let me tell you my thoughts if I had to do this house over again, with insulation.
    Roof. I’m not a residential flat roof guy, but I have built one in my building days. It was long ago but if memory serves me correctly, we did nothing particularly unusual with the flat roof. I left it up to the roofers. I believe they laid down fiberboard, not much R factor there, and then something else, also not much R. Then they laid over top of that the standard tar waterproofing. The insulation was placed inside, under the structure. The roof was too big for 2×10’s so we used trusses. Under the trusses, we stapled plastic sheets and then screw up drywall (sheetrock). We went into the hatches and blew fiberglass, to get a high R value.

    This is idential to the way we did pitched roofs. Except there, we work with 2×6 or 2×8’s… (was long ago). Flat or pitched, both are ventilated.

    Here, we’re dealing with a concrete roof. We have to strip off everything to bare concrete, then put in styrofoam to get the R value you want. You dont want the whole roof flat styrofoam, so you build parapet walls in sections on the roof and place the styrofoam up to about 2cm from the top. Then you cover the whole thing with membrane.. silver on the topside, tar on the downside. You can paint that over with waterproof, UV resistant paint or put on patio stones. That’s how you would insulate a flat roof here.
    In my case, we have 3 flat roofs, and 2 terraces that sit atop rooms. The roofs were all recently membraned, so we needed to rip out those 2 roofs, adding costs that weren’t required.
    The terraces were already screwed and we had to strip them down anyway. To raise that floor 4 to 7 cm to lay in the styrofoam would have meant raising the doors, which either means shortening their height, (for pygmies) or smashing out the top of the door and raising it up. That means rebuilding the 80 year old door frames and getting a masonry artist to rebuild the porticos and carve or mould plaster headers.

    The house is not a perfect rectangle. There are walls that jut in and out. To insulate those, would mean strapping all the walls… using drywall(sheetrock). Sheetrock is expensive in Uruguay… Trades that work with it aren’t very good with seams. I dont know what cost it would add, but it would be a lot. But that isn’t the real problem. When you renovate an old stately house, you have old stately wood windows that were built by craftman. You have to move them around to fit the new thicker wall. Or they’ll be sunk into the wall. Not terribly pleasing to the eye.

    Speaking of the windows and doors, there’s your biggest single source of heat loss. Old, stately, beautiful windows are loose fitting. Glass is not thermalpane. Most of my house is french windows.. small squares… beveled on top of that. An important reason for buying this house was the woodwork and those windows. The only thing I could do was put up insulated cortinas (rollups).

    If I had to take a wild guess, it would have added at least USD$30K to USD$40K to do the ceilings and walls. Let’s say you could reproduce those windows, another USD$15K.

    To build a house from scratch, is another story altogether. Then any architect could give you a price difference, probably no more than USD$20K=USD$30K extra for a 300m house.

  5. urufish said

    I went to our doctor’s office today. He’s in an unheated apartment building. He’s using a big, high capacity electric heater in the reception and smaller units in his office and it’s fine. On the way down in the elevator, we stopped to let someone get in. There was an apartment right in front of the elvator and there was a woman there, talking to someone in the hallway. The woman was wearing a bulky ski jacket, with a huge scarf wrapped around her neck and a big, wool toque on her head. She looked exactly like a Winnipeger (or Michiganan/Minnesotan) mid December, before they put the scarf over their nose/mouth, (by January, it’s over the nose/mouth and it’s covered in ice).

    I’m sure this woman was quite comfortable. But that’s my point. This isn’t the way an American or Canadian is used to dressing at home in the winter.

  6. […] has already been covered very competently by several expat bloggers living in Montevideo; see here, and here for example. So why do I feel the urge to write about this subject again? Because despite […]

  7. gaberoo said

    Sorry Fish for having asked about the price of sheetrock in the Southron blog when you had posted this info here(I hadn’t read this post till now).
    Aside from these building matters being inherently interesting to me, practical concerns are trying to decide whether to(and how to) reform my mother’s house to make winters more bearable or, alternatively, if she should just sell (or rent) and buy somewhere else (or build, but this prospect isn’t very practical for several reasons).
    She’s just about finished with the apartment (now comes the fun of trying to rent it!) so within a short time she should be contacting Gonzalo for assessments on how to renovate the house to make it more winter-friendly.
    That was one difficult renovation job having to work around so many original, but less than optimally-energy efficient windows and doors!

  8. urufish said

    Gonzalo was at my house yesterday doing some work and he mentioned someone contacted him about this. He’s bright and articulate. I hope he gives her good ideas.

  9. gaberoo said

    She may have; I’ll have to call her and ask. I’m sure he’ll have good ideas. The question will be how expensive they will turn out to be (big reforms tend to cost big bucks), but maybe there are smaller things that can be done inexpensively to ameliorate the situation (as with many Uruguayan homes this one’s main problems are cold walls due to lack of any type of insulation, moisture/humidity problems, and leaky windows/doors).

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