10 Korean products I would export to the U.S. (if I had an export business.) #7 Ondol

This is the origin of Ondol..

Ondol? What’s that?

Ondol is basically a heated floor.  In the U.S. most houses have central heating.  Central heating is fine and dandy as it is, though often the air vents are ill placed to accommodate both heating and air conditioning.  As we know, hot air rises, and cold air falls.  This makes it so that air conditioning vents are best placed as high as possible, and heating vents are placed as low as possible, so as to control the climate of the room as best as possible.

A house equipped both with Ondol AND air conditioning can be designed in such a way so that this is no longer a problem.  Use ondol for heating and place the air conditioner as high as possible.  Problem solved!

How does ondol work?

Well, as you can see in the picture above, excess heat from cooking fires in the kitchen is channeled under the floor of the house, heating it up.  This not only ensures that the house is warm, it saves fuel, as heat that would have been created by the cooking fire is re-used.  Waste not, want not!

Wait a minute, cooking fires?  Nobody has that anymore!  We use modern kitchens with either gas or electric stoves.

The new version of Ondol

Fair enough, so do most Koreans these days, but Koreans still use ondol. These days the same effect is achieved by building water pipes under the floor.  By running hot water through the pipes, the floor is heated, thus warming the room.  You were going to heat the water up for your shower anyway, and water and metal retain heat a lot better than air does, so this is still a more energy efficient option than what is standard in most American houses, though it admittedly takes quite a lot of energy to warm the water in the pipes in the dead of winter.

Wait a minute, that’s not a Korean invention!  That’s called radiant heating!

I’ve heard many people in the construction industry talk about this, and actually they are somewhat right.  Radiant heating has been available in the U.S. since the 1920’s and it is slightly different from ondol.  HOWEVER, the person who first brought radiant heating to the U.S., an architect named Frank Lloyd Wright, first saw it in use in Japan.  The Japanese of course got the concept from Korea, so in a way, radiant heating is an offspring of ondol.  Therefore, it is (to some extent) a Korean invention.

Is there a disadvantage to ondol?

Yes, actually.  It’s quite difficult to control the temperature, as the pipes are either hot, or not hot.  Many Koreans who use ondol in the dead of winter sometimes will open a window to let off excess heat if it gets too hot.  That’s kind of a waste of energy if you ask me.  There needs to be some way to control the temperature of the room for this to be a viable solution for the future, but I’d argue that it is still more efficient than most U.S. heating systems at the moment.

Can ondol be improved upon?

I think so.  One of the best ways to improve it would be to change the fuel source for heating the water in the pipes.  Most American (and Korean) houses heat water by burning gas.  Perhaps if we could convert more houses to solar, water, or wind power then the excess energy wasted by ondol wouldn’t really matter, as it comes from an infinite source to begin with.  But then again, if we could convert everything to those energy sources then there wouldn’t be a need to conserve energy in the first place.

Anyway, if I had my way, I’d make my house with ondol.


26 Responses to “10 Korean products I would export to the U.S. (if I had an export business.) #7 Ondol”

  1. Great product! but I think for mexico will only be useful in “modern” (new) houses because most (old) houses have concret floors u_u … I would looove to have this at home because in winter the floor is SO COLD I have to wear double socks lol

  2. I really miss Ondol..Winter is coming in Michigan..T.T

  3. Since I came in Canada, I’ve never seen a house equipped with ondol system. So I thoght if I were a CEO of a boiler company, I would enter the western countrie’s market by capitalizing on this ondol system. I totally agree with you. 🙂

    • Yeah, that would be really cool..
      I used to be in Canada and the United States, but they didn’t understand why the floor should be hot or warm, so I had to explain what’s good about Ondol.

      In Ireland where I stay now, there’re only a fireplace and heaters as well. Those may be enough for Irish, but I’m definetely not satisfied.. That’s why I bought an elecronic matt today.

      Hope Ondol to be one of basic equipments for housing..T_T

  4. In New Zealand, many house use electric panel or film under the floor for heating. Some of house have gas fitting for under heating system same as “Ondol”. I think that US has the system for cold area already. Isn’t it?

  5. I really miss ondol 😛 Its so freaking cold here in the US.. and my dorm has the AC on hahahha fml

  6. In Spain we have the use the same system as Ondol. We call it “Gloria” o “Gloria Castellana” Same in ancient Korea, in old houses of Castilla, we have an underground tunel under the main room. We just fire some woods in the morning and after 2 or 3 hous of fire bricks are very hot, and continue releasing hot among 24 hours. The system is very smart and it’s based in the roman system Hypocaust, means literal “fire under the room”
    I´m not saying it´s not korean, but was used in other places too from ancient times.

    • Yes, I wondered about that, because I too have heard of the Romans doing something similar. However, the modern “radiant heating” is based on what was in use in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century. When you think about it, it’s not inconceivable that people from different parts of the world would think of heating their rooms with fire.

  7. I lived in Korea outside Kunsan Air Base from 1990 to 91 and a half. I came back in 1994 and stayed until 1999. I liked ondol heating but I believe you got something wrong. A couple of feet or so above the floor was cold but the floor itself was nice and toasty. It helped with my back problems. We always cracked a window, not because it was too hot in the house but for fresh air so we didn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Over time, the system develops cracks and can be quite deadly. It became somewhat safer when they made the switch from coal (yonton) to kerosene, but still dangerous.

  8. I come from Arkansas, near the Bayou Meto where the land is swampy and the trees are thick. We use wood smoke to preserve meat that we hunt, and every year we burn under brush to prevent forest fires.
    I visited Korea and thought that the design of the ondol is ingenious. No one else has anything to compare, don’t let them fool you. Not the Viking underground system- – nothing. I desperately want one here and tried making one twenty years ago, with electric power, but it is as you have said. The heat is either HOT or cold.

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