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Central Heating Advances – From Rome to the 21st Century

Central Heating Advances – From Rome to the 21st Century

January 25, 2010

The ancient Romans figured out how to keep their homes toasty warm long before Benjamin Franklin flew his kite and we got busy inventing ways to harness electricity for our comfort.

Roman architects designed a central heating system called a hypocaust. The word, hypocaust means “heat from below.” The raised floors were held up by short pillars and spaces beneath them and inside the walls were heated with the hot smoke and air from the fire chamber. Walls were fitted with ceramic box-shaped tiles that served as flues to channel the burned air and smoke to the outside, as well as to warm them. The more warmth needed, the closer to the hypocausts they were located.

It was a pretty expensive and labor-intensive method, so hypocausts were reserved for public baths and upper-class villas. In about 25 B.C. Sergius Orata figured out how to cut down on the overhead by putting the male and female bathing rooms close to the hypocausts and right next door to each other.

Korean traditional architecture uses an Ondol. This underfloor heating method depends on direct heat transfer from a wood fire maintained underneath a thick floor made of masonry. From the central firebox or stove area, usually accessible from the kitchen or master bedroom, a system of horizontal channels spider out underneath the structure. A chimney on the opposite side of the building from the firebox ensures a decent draft system.

One of the Korean twists is that while traditional masonry is used for the channels and to support the thick floor, they added an additional layer of something impervious to smoke and fumes, such as layers of stone slabs, clay, and oil paper. The system works well and is in use today in many of their buildings, notably in an orphanage.

When American missionaries discovered small children sleeping on pallets and babies sleeping in boxes on the floor, they went to great lengths to obtain thousands of cribs. Even after their arrival, the well-meaning folks were baffled to find the children were still sleeping on pallets and babies were still in boxes on the floor. Only after considerable questioning did they figure out that it was the best way to keep the little ones warm since the floors were warmed in the traditional manner.

Today’s furnaces and forced air ventilation systems provide the latest in safe, efficient central heating. Filters ensure that pollutants from the outside are kept at a minimum and the closed heat production part of the system either confines or eliminates any potentially toxic substances.

We’ve come a long way, but the level of comfort we enjoy today stands on the shoulders of some pretty smart cookies who lived a very long time ago.

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