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November 15, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

THE IDES OF NOVEMBER....Man, when they say central heating in China, they mean central heating. Crikey.

UPDATE: Huh. The Ides of March may be on the 15th, but the Ides of November are on the 13th. You learn something new every day.

Kevin Drum 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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No offense, but Southern Californians are not the best qualified people to talk about central heat. Here in the NY area we actually use the stuff (on the bright side I've never worried about my house being consumed in a wildfire).

What they're talking about is common practice in large apartment buildings, including quite nice ones. Typically though the date is a month earlier here. So you can freeze your tootsies off in a late September or early October cold spell, and roast during a late October warm spell (the so-called Native American Summer).

Posted by: alex on November 15, 2007 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

The Ides of November was on the 13th. A way to remember which month has the Ides on the 15th is:

March, July, October, May
Have Nones the 7th, Ides the 15th, day.

Posted by: Bill K on November 15, 2007 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

I met a Ukranian woman once (I'm not sure which town) who replied to a comment about central heating with, Well, we have central heating". They sure did. They had one large furnace in the center of town that the township would start up in the dead of winter. Her home during those months hovered in the 40's, and she saw nothing unusual about that.

Of course, she married an Egyptian and moved there. The central heating was better.

Posted by: MeLoseBrain? on November 15, 2007 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

Nosiree. Give me the good ole U S of A, where we can't afford to heat out houses!

Posted by: goethean on November 15, 2007 at 11:51 AM | PERMALINK

Alex: In Beijing, central heating is an actual citywide network controlled by the government. That's central.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on November 15, 2007 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

US Naval Submarine Base New London (CT) works that way-- or did when I was in the Navy. It has a central steam plant, and on The Day (which TPTB were moderately flexible about) on went the heat. Not unusual to see the barracks windows all wide open on a mild day, because the heat would be blasting away. In the long run, from what I understand, it was more efficient that way.

Posted by: steverino on November 15, 2007 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum: In Beijing, central heating is an actual citywide network controlled by the government. That's central.

In NYC steam for heating is often distributed from one plant to several large buildings via underground pipes.

Ok, we're not up to Beijing standards, but we're still proudly the home of American Communism! (and Wall Street, but it's a diverse city).

Posted by: alex on November 15, 2007 at 12:04 PM | PERMALINK

In many older commercial office buildings across America there is a "two-pipe system" that must be "changed over" twice a year (spring and fall). While the building managers are responsible enough to make the switch before the weather gets too cold, they sometimes have a problem when an "Indian Summer" occurs and folks need the air conditioning one last time. By then it is too late.

Most new buildings using a water system have "four-pipe systems" which allows both cold and hot water to circulate year round.

Posted by: lamonte on November 15, 2007 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

It's been awhile since I've been taken aback (however slightly) by the Chinese Governments domination over the people. Awe inspiring. Somewhere, in a deep, dark, and dank dungeon, Rudy Giuliani is taking notes.

Posted by: Eason on November 15, 2007 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

I remember reading in Babes of Beijing (autobiographical account of an American actress living in China in the 90's) that the Communist government did not authorize boilers for heating homes south of the Yangtze river, and I remember how stunned I was to learn that, basically, no-one out of the millions who lived south of the Yangtze could install a boiler. Oddly enough, the other dictates of the Communists didn't bother me as much. The fact that they told everyone where to live, what to do and who to marry just made me think of all the people I know personally who really would benefit from some non-negotiable advice as to where to live, what to do and who to marry (hey, it's not that easy to work this stuff out on your own), but the fact that entire cities didn't have the option of installing heat stuck home.

also, BTW, those giant 1920's NY steam pipes periodically explode. One did just this past year, cratering a street and shutting down Grand Central.

Posted by: Diana on November 15, 2007 at 12:44 PM | PERMALINK

Alex is right about New York apartments. I actually used to dread the day the radiators would switch on - steam heat is some of the dryest, most miserable heat ever. I'd wake up with what felt like statues up my nose.

Posted by: Tracer Hand on November 15, 2007 at 12:53 PM | PERMALINK

In the old Soviet Union they used to have central heating utilizing waste heat from nuclear reactors. I remember an article where an American pro-nuke kook wrote about luxuriating in his nuclear heated bath.

Posted by: fafner1 on November 15, 2007 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

My apartment building, here in the state of New Jersey, is the same. There is no thermostat. It has also been ridiculously hot and dry the past few days at night. I woke up today with what felt like a mini-hangover, super dehydrated and the like. I have to open more windows at night.

The difference is, they turned on the heat October 15th. At least it's free/included in rent.

Posted by: Joshua on November 15, 2007 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

In Rumania they do the same thing, with the hot water, too, only they keep the plant 5 miles out of town despite the inefficiency so that the townspeople couldn't easily storm it with pitchforks and torches when it was turned off for collective punishment.

Posted by: Boronx on November 15, 2007 at 1:36 PM | PERMALINK

My NYC apartment is like that. No thermostat, just radiators connected to the central boiler. Lately it's been annoying, because I close off the radiators during the day when I'm at work (no sense heating an empty apartment), but if I get home after 7PM, the next steam cycle isn't until after midnight, so I'm freezing in my bedroom. Hopefully, that will change once winter really hits.

The heat requirements in NYC are: Oct.1-May 31, between 6a-10p, if the outside temp is less than 55, the inside temp must be at least 68; and between 10p-6a, if the outside temp is under 40, the inside temp must be at least 55.

Usually, you see the boilers firing up across the city the first really cold night in October--especially in big buildings, they try to put it off as long as possible because of the cost, and of the pain/cost factor of then shutting it down if there's a warming trend.

It would be interesting to see if there's a CO2 pollution burst in NYC that's trackable to the first minus-40 night when all the boilers are turned on. I'll bet there is.

And municipal steam runs all kinds of stuff in NYC, from pretty much all the hospitals to the Empire State Building. It's distributed to 1,800 buildings.

Posted by: anon on November 15, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

In Soviet China, the Furnace heats YOU!

Errr, that doesn't work...

Posted by: Dan on November 15, 2007 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

Ooooeeee, you guys are bringing back memories of Chicago apartments with steam heat. We were always either freezing or boiling, and y'all are right--it is the driest, most uncomfy heat evah. When I was first out on my own and couldn't afford/didn't want to deal with a humidifier, I'd put pans and jars of water on top of all the radiators. So attractive, and so frightening when they slide off in the middle of the night. Once when I complained that my apartment was 45 degrees on a night when it was 10 outside, my landlord told me to put on another sweater and dared me to call a tenants' rights org. God, that man was an asshole in so many ways.

Ahem. But the Chinese have it worse. Er, sorry for having a little free-association pity party on Memory Lane.

Posted by: shortstop on November 15, 2007 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

I used to live in Ekaterinburg (in Siberia) and they also had central heating, that was absurdly hot- it would be January, 6 feet of snow outside, and -30 F, but inside it was so hot that we'd be going around in underwear and had all the windows wide open- and it was still like a furnace. Very bizarre. But also, they would wait to turn the heat on and turn it off in mid-March- and it was often freezing after then. Then the windows were closed and the four sweaters came out:)

Posted by: K on November 15, 2007 at 3:47 PM | PERMALINK

Baed on my few months in the Soviet Union, there's a real downside to this type of heating: you create a nice warm conduit for cockroaches to live. Lots of them. And they come into the kitchen at night, as I found out when I nipped into the kitchen to get myself a snack and wondering what the crunching sounds were.

I decided against the snack once I found out.

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on November 15, 2007 at 4:30 PM | PERMALINK

Someone referred to the North/South dividing line in China that at least used to be a big deal. In the 1980s, I lived just south of the Yangtze River, in Nanjing. The River was the dividing line for defining which places got winter heat and which didn't. While it wasn't bitter cold or anything, we did get snow a couple times and often strayed below freezing at night.

When I lived in Nanjing again in the late 90s, the building I lived in had heat, but perhaps it was special.

I imagine the effects of this are less massive than perceived these days -- outside of the cities, heating is not centrally controlled [you heat your own house in the countryside]. And a very large portion of the urban population is no longer in state housing. I have a hard time believing that those left in urban state housing aren't by & large using space heaters & the like.
Finally, for the millions of poor urbanites [migrant laborors from the countryside], it isn't like they would have heat under a central or free market system.....


Posted by: xyz on November 15, 2007 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

War stories, eh?

Military School in Virginia...Radiators would burn us out of the rooms, even when there was (quite literally) four feet of snow on the ground (back when it still snowed in the winter). Super hot and dry. Breathing normally was like a cardiovascular exercise as t your lungs do their best to reject the furnace blast you just sucked down your wind-pipe.

Don't worry China! In about 10 to 15 years we shall liberate thee!!!! If Rudy is elected, expect liberation in less than four.

Posted by: Eason on November 15, 2007 at 5:02 PM | PERMALINK

Alex is right, in New York City the main electric utility also distributes steam to large areas of the city. Last July there was a large steam pipe explosion in midtown New York that was initially thought to be another 9/11-style terrorist attack.

I believe that this steam is pumped year-round. Individual buildings have their own policies regarding what the heating season is.

Posted by: JS on November 15, 2007 at 5:11 PM | PERMALINK

According to this Wikipedia article, New York has the largest central steam distribution system in the world:

The New York Steam Company began providing service in lower Manhattan in 1882. Today, Consolidated Edison operates the largest commercial steam system in the world, now known as Con Edison Steam Operations, providing steam service to nearly 2,000 customers and serving more than 100,000 commercial and residential establishments in Manhattan from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan to 96th Street uptown. Roughly 30 billion pounds (14 million tonnes) of steam flow through the system every year.
Posted by: JS on November 15, 2007 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

I am constantly calling to complain that the heat is too high in my building.

When I have to have the windows open in a February blizzard so I can wear something besides shorts, something is wrong.

And I don't even pay heat.

Posted by: MNPundit on November 15, 2007 at 5:32 PM | PERMALINK

At Virgnia Tech, the entire campus was heated from the central power plant, at least it was twelve years ago. So, the same thing as above, open windows on a milder November or December day. But no real switchover problems, because no dorm building had air conditioning until about '94. So for a prolonged spell, they would shut it down. (A sudden drop in temperature would be a problem, because it would take a full day or two to come back on line)

And fafner, during my navy days onboard subs, I also used 'waste heat' from the nuclear power plant to keep warm. You understand, right, that 'waste heat' is not synomous with 'waste water.' All steam power, in fact all engines, have waste heat. Its fundemental law of thermodynamics.

Posted by: Kenny on November 15, 2007 at 6:28 PM | PERMALINK

Wow. So much confusion and misinformation.

Steam heat is NOT the cause of any of the problems described in these comments. Poorly designed systems are the problem. Steam systems can be designed to create steady even controllable heat. Heat from radiators is NOT "dry" heat. Central air systems or radiators systems produce exactly the same air conditions.

Central plant steam heat is used effectively and comfortably all over the world. Almost all large college campuses in the northern US have central heating plants that deliver steam to all buildings for heat. Several large cities, such as previously mentioned New York, have large central plants that deliver steam accross the city on a huge scale. They are generally called District Heating Systems.

In the best of these, the steam is created at the boiler plant and sent through turbines to create electricity before being sent out to heat buildings. This is one of the most efficient uses of fossil fuel possible with plant efficiencies (energy used/energy in the fuel) approaching 70% while standard central utility plants are around 35%.

Just because the Commies did something badly doesn't mean that it can't or shouldn't be done well. There is nothing inherent to a district heating system that says you have to freeze your inhabitants before turning it on or that it is forbidden to install proper building controls.

How do I know? It is my job to maintain the district heating system steam piping at Iowa State University.

Posted by: BoringDad on November 15, 2007 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

Cue the Pointer Sisters:

'hisssss...I've got steam heat!'

A pan of water on the radiator and presto: humidity.

'Wrong track is a euphemism. We are a people in clinical depression. Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to, they do not see a restoration anytime soon.' - Frank Rich, "The Coup at Home"

Posted by: MsNThrope on November 16, 2007 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

I'd like to offer the pretty ladies of China my services as a personal warmth device.

Posted by: Eric on November 16, 2007 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, but I have to offer a better Ides mnemonic:

March July October May
The Ides fall on the fifteenth day
The Nones the seventh, for those besides
Take two days less for Nones and Ides

Posted by: Deborah on November 16, 2007 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Some very intresting ideas and comments. I came across this page whilst looking for cheaper energy prices http://cheaperenergy.wordpress.com My bills haven risen by 35% this year and am now facing yet another increase by these greedy energy companies. (Thankfully I only rent so don't have to worry about a mortgage as well.) Has anyone tried this green and cheap renewable energy? If so, be intrested to know how it worked for you.

Posted by: geof fbaker on October 23, 2008 at 9:43 PM | PERMALINK



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