The current temperature is…

When I was a child, I lived in a house that had a thermostat. You told it what temperature you wished to have in the house, and it obeyed. It was a round thing on the wall in the 3 BR-1 BA classic 1950s house that we occupied in the post-WWII inner suburbs of Minneapolis, MN. I was a tiny pipsqueak, of single-digit age, and I was a very proud girl because the thermostat said “Honeywell” on it and that’s where my dad worked. It looked something like this, only brass colored (not white).

When I was a teenager, we had a newer house in America, and it still had a Honeywell thermostat but this one was programmable. My father was no longer in the business, but we could set the thing to a temperature–different for day and night by about ten degrees F–and it would obey. It looked like this.

When I was a young married person, I had zone heating. Which means that I had a thermostat each in several different regions of the house, and I could control (program) the temperature independently in each. It was either three or four separate regions, I do not recall the exact details. But it was good, and it was energy-efficient because you did not need to heat the parts of the house in which you did not spend time.

In 2006, I moved to England. There is no thermostat. There are radiators.

(I have lived in two different flats with the same 1-BR layout and radiators, so I guess this is not a one-off.) The radiators have valves, they are on or off. In my current living room there are four, in the bedroom 2, in the bathroom 1. In order to control the temperature of the flat, I must decide how many radiator valves to open and how long to keep them open. Manually.

Being a science-y type, I have opted to enlist the help of my cooking probe thermometer:

to try and ascertain the current temperature in the flat, and how it might perchance be changed with the opening and closing of certain radiator valves.

The inertia in the system is such that I cannot change the day to night temperature the way I did in the US, I must aim for an average. The probe currently reads 67F which I guess is a pretty good moderate setting–too warm in the night and too cold in the day compared to the thermostat temperatures of my youth. I will try in the next day or so to bring the average down to 65, as that seems a reasonable compromise to me. But I am very much aware of the fact that such changes I make are but a small drop in the large bucket of the energy reforms that need to be made in the interests of the world.

Systems that input heat only when you need it: golden. Radiators that require cooking implements to incorporate: needs some work. I’d happily take a 1980s vintage thermostat and the ability to turn down the radiators at times, so as to save night-time energy if we could determine when the shut down should happen.

11 responses to “The current temperature is…

  1. Institutional housing seems to automatically equal lack of control over the heat. The apartments I lived in when working in boarding schools all had heat problems of one kind or another and I had no control over them. There was never any control over the heat in dorm rooms in college either. Well, except at York Uni. where I could choose to switch the heat on in my room and the temperature I wanted it set at. It would stay on for 2 hours and then I had to switch it back on again. If I went out for the evening I would come back to a very cold room – until I figured out that if I timed it so I could switch the heat on just as I was going out, and set it to the highest possible setting, the room was not like an icebox when I got home.

    We had radiators in our house when I was growing up and I miss them – they were great places to leave a towel so it was warm when you got out of the shower, and to dry laundry! The system had a programmable timer, though I think the option was on or off rather than a temperature set-back. That worked OK in the UK, but wouldn’t keep the pipes from freezing over here!

  2. I hear ya! I’ve always had either zone heating or central heating/air conditioning and it was a shocker to move to Spain and find that A) I had no heating at all despite the fact that Spain is not as warm all year long as people think it is and B) that all heating is provided by radiators!

    Now that I’m at uni, heating is one of the things that drives me crazy! I’ve got a small radiator in the bathroom that just doesn’t heat and one near the bed that I can turn on and off but that barely heats at all. And to top it all off, they turn the things off at night which is when they are most needed. I can’t figure it out.

  3. It is strange how small things can transport you back. At home when I was a kid we had a thermostat like the one in your top picture. My Mother in law here in England had exactly the same thing and in a strange way it seemed like some sort of connection with home and my childhood.

    So much so that when she had the system updated I was quite upset to see it go. I really wished I had asked her if I could keep it. I sure she would have thought I was a bit odd though….

  4. Yes, radiators aren’t the most efficient or easy things to use. Reading your post, they seem completely archaic even though I grew up with them.

    Now we have a system similar to your Honeywell thermostat but the hot air blasting through the house sounds like a jet taking off. I think I prefer the gently clicking of the radiators switching on and the pipes working away!

  5. You could have night storage heating ( like we have and trust me, you’ll hug your radiators!

  6. i love this post. i do not, however, love your heating situation. sorry about that.

  7. I showed my English boyfriend your blog entry last night because I couldn’t agree more! I freaking hate the radiators, and just don’t understand them. He says they work the same as our American ones. But I completely disagree. And the whole idea of drying clothes on them simply doesn’t exist in America because we have things called tumble dryers.
    On the other hand, my skin is thanking me everyday for the radiators. Heating water is so much better for you than the stale air that comes out.
    It’s the small things, isn’t it?

  8. Forced air heating used to be quite common in the UK, certainly in houses built in the 70s and 80s. I had friends that had it in new houses when I first came here.

    I don’t know why but it just seems to be regarded as old fashioned now, and every new house seems to have a combined gas boiler to provide both heat and hot water.

    I don’t even know if you can buy forced air heating these days. I haven’t seen it anywhere in the UK for ages.

    I don’t know why the change seemed to come about – it is not something I have thought about before!

  9. Oh my, I’m in a similar situation – old apartment building, freezing upstate NY, radiators that turn on for two periods a day – and just one radiator to a room, in sub-zero (F) temps!

    You might want to look into space heaters, if you can get your hands on one where you are. They’re a bit of an energy suck, but if you can regulate your valves to set the temperature around 62-64, you can use one small heater near you in the room you’re in, rather than heating the whole joint up to 67 or, as I prefer, 70.

    Longtime reader – great entry! Wouldn’t think you’d get such a response out of radiators.

  10. Funny post. My British home has thermostats on each radiator so you can heat each room individually AND we have a digital thermostat on each floor. When we lived in Oregon – in a 1970 home admittedly – it was heated by hot air (!!) which seemed to come on at random – maybe the thermostat was kaput!

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