For the most part, I’m generally that person that is always cold. Spring is always so nice, and I love summer since I can actually hang out in nature and be comfortable. But once that first cold snap of autumn rolls through, I know I’ve got six pretty annoying months ahead of me. What this means folks, is that heaters of all kinds are my best friends in cold weather, and I’m honoring my appreciation of their existence by investigating my own personal query into whether forced air or radiator heat is the more superior form of heating. Please, geek out with me.
At my lovely old Greenpoint apartment, the heater was a large, crappy space heater thing that never really worked as well as it should have. It was competing with large windows right above it, and was placed on the opposite side of the apartment from where everybody slept. Almost immediately it became a habit of mine to come home after a long day and lay down on the floor in front of the heater to warm my feet. Without fail I would fall asleep, lulled to slumber by the comforting warmth and my cuddly purring kitties. Also without fail, I would wake up with a headache, dry and chapped lips, and some kind of low-grade red mark/burn on the part of me that was closest to the heater. I would urge myself to bed by remembering I was an “adult”, cursing dry forced-air heat along the way.
Heat transfers in three ways: radiant, convection, or conduction. Convection is a transfer of heat from one place to another through liquid or gas. Typical indoor heating is convection, taking the form of forced air heat or radiator heat. Forced air heat is basically air blown over a heating element, and refer to both central air heating and space heaters, while radiators(not to be confused with radiant heat) use heated water to transfer higher temperatures.
Central air originates with a pilot light powered by gas to create fire for heat, and space heaters utilize heated metal or ceramic coils to heat the air around it, both using fans to move the air around the room. There are also space heaters that use oil, as in the case of portable radiators, that heat the oil in the closed system to disperse heat. Whichever way the heat is created, dryness that usually occurs happens as a result of evaporating any moisture present in the air.
Radiant heat is used in the case of infrared heaters. These don’t heat the air around them, but rather produce safe levels of infrared radiation that absorbs into skin or clothing. You might see these as small desk or space heaters. If you’ve ever been to a restaurant that keeps it’s outdoor seating open as long as they can into cold weather, the big stand alone heaters that save the day are infrared heaters.
The forced air heater I was living with in Greenpoint was essentially a very large space heater, but its inner workings are still a mystery to me since I could never crack the thing open even when it wasn’t working. For a little more sciency info, the windows above the heater caused so much frustration because of conduction, the third way that heat transfers. Conduction transfers heat from surface to surface, and glass moves heat quickly, so when the heat in the air would touch the glass it would immediately transfer to the colder outside surface.
In contrast, an apartment I lived in on the Upper East Side was an old building with relentless radiator heat, choking us to the point where we constantly had the windows fully open. We had to have fans blowing the air through the railroad-style unit to give us some sort of temperature control over the situation, and were sweatier than we ever were in the summertime. I did not however, have any dry skin issues.
This is because the good old-fashioned radiator heat works by heating water in a boiler that creates steam. This steam travels up pipes and out of an iron radiator, collecting the condensed water inside it that eventually drips back down into the boiler to start the process all over again. Since steam is getting released into the room, it is automatically contributing to the latent moisture in the air. Water evaporation is a cooling process, so when there is more moisture present in the air, we evaporate less off our skin, thereby leaving us with a higher body temperature.
(By the way, if you find yourself in a way-overheated radiator apartment, don’t be afraid to call your landlord and say something. Usually overheating is a result of a lazy landlord cranking up the heat to make sure it reaches everybody in a poorly insulated building.)
So, which heating method is better? Personally, I say radiator steam heat wins. In regards to energy output radiator vs. forced-air are considered basically the same, although moist air retains heat more efficiently, so it would seem that steam heat travels to where it needs to go more effectively. For anybody in a rental situation, you probably aren’t in control of what type of heating source your home has unless you are bolstering an already existing system.
Invest in a more expensive, but more effective portable infrared heater, and if you must have a regular old conductive space heater, try and boil some water nearby to increase the humidity in the air for a less chapped experience. If you own a home and regulate your own thermostat, make sure you regularly clean air filters, have curtains covering your windows, and try and find and mitigate drafts by filling cracks in floorboards and placing fabric tubes to cover gaps below interior doors.
Also, good advice all around is to make sure you drink some more water. Get some cozy articles of clothing to wear around your house, and always have a serape or throw blanket nearby to put on if all else fails. In the summer I have a house dress I wear around all the time, and in the winter I have a set of house fuzzy socks, legwarmers, hoodie, and hand and arm warmers. I hope you learned a little bit more about the science of space heaters, because I certainly did in researching for this article. Now, go forth and enjoy whichever kind of heating you have, and if you fall asleep in front of the heater take comfort in knowing you’re not the only weirdo to ever do that.