Lying Groundhog and the Radiator Dilemma

19 03 2013

The ides of March have come and gone. I’m still miserably cold. As I sit on the eve before Spring Equinox I realize that the groundhog has hoodwinked us all this year. punxutawney-phil1


Everywhere I turn, hearty Michiganders are complaining about the bitter cold weather we are currently immersed in. We all have some thick skin to get through a northern Midwest winter, but even the most frozen-snot-loving, dead-of-winter-camping types get sick of this by late March. We are ready for SPRING!!! It was promised to us by a burrowing, sausage-shaped mammal, after all, and we demand it be delivered sooner than later.


One of the interesting things about hosting is seeing how other visitors react to our weather. It’s a universal conversation piece, but there are so many commonalities. Now, of course, I expected our Thai guy to struggle with it, coming from such a hot climate. But, it’s especially interesting to see how otherwise hearty, winter-bearing countries react to Michigan winter.

A recent guest gave us the opportunity to observe those differences between Michigan, USA, and Germany. He hailed from Berlin. He showed up for a six-week stint at the University of Michigan, studying with colleagues on a joint research project in developmental psychology. He was a perfect guest: charming, intelligent, observant, and considerate. We looked forward to a great visit with him staying in our home.

The first night, he didn’t sleep well. He was too hot, then too cold, he said. We adjusted the temperature and gave him an extra down blanket.

The second night, he was still not sleeping well. He was STILL getting too cold in the middle of the night. Hmm… we began to wonder if he was sleeping in the nude, and therefore much more sensitive than we were. As I prodded further to find a solution to his nighttime woes, I found another clue. He said the furnace was too loud, and the sounds of the air rushing through the ducts was waking him up.


Aha! I thought. Although we had never heard this complaint before, there seemed an obvious solution. Earplugs!

Now, I know a great deal about designing spaces, and just how impossible it is to find a setup where everyone is thermally comfortable. The right temperature depends on your body mass, gender, age, clothing, humidity, and activity level. Name me one architect who can tout a 100% satisfaction response to any building heating system, and I’ll show you a big fat liar. So, I was even more perplexed that this relatively young, fit, healthy man was complaining about being too cold. Perplexing, really.

gender temperature prefernces

The third night he was still restless. We finally realized that it was truly the TYPE of heat that was posing him such difficulties. Not only was it the sounds, but the air rushed out all at once to heat the space, then stayed off for several hours between 12am-6am while everyone was sleeping, and then kicked back on, full force, at 6am to heat up the house before people get up for the day. So, he was not used to the sounds, the dryness, the temperature fluctuations, or the fact that the heat was transmitted via convection.


He had only ever slept in places with radiant heat. Nowhere in Germany is it common to have forced air systems, and THIS was the root cause to his discomfort! Once we realized it, we were shocked at what a difference it makes. Naturally, we are aware of the differences between forced air and old radiator heat. It IS much more comfortable (but also harder to adjust quickly because of the time lag inherent in a radiating heat sink). We added an electric radiator to his room, returned the thermostat to normal settings, and tried again. There wasn’t much more we could do to make him happy. radiator


With much sadness, we said goodbye to our new friend. We never could make his stay with us truly pleasurable, despite all of our efforts. We just don’t have radiant heat, and he just couldn’t stand forced air. Sometimes, it’s the little things that we take for granted and don’t think about when considering cultural differences.


I don’t think we will change anything about the way we describe our place. We could put a warning “Caution: This house is in America and uses modern, forced air heating ducts. Not for the faint of heart.” But I’m hoping that won’t be necessary. It is good to know, however, for the next time we have a northern European coming to stay with us in winter. forced-air-furnace-ductwork



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