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