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Korean ondol (온돌)


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Today’s Korean heating system, ondol, uses a system of pipes that transport hot water underneath each room in a house. Most Korean families prefer this kind of heating system because the warmth generated upwards from below the floor not only heats every room during cold winters, but also symbolizes the coziness and camaraderie within the family. A Korean home lacking ondol means the warmth is missing in that family.

When Western forms of heating, such as air conditioners blowing hot air, became more widely used in Korea, many families missed the ondol system that has been an integral part of the Korean home since the Three Kingdoms period. As a result, developers in Korea during the 1990’s began to discard Western forms of heating, and started to incorporate ondol in new housing developments. Even the most modern Korean hotels offer guests the option of selecting a traditional ondol room with no beds. You and your spouse, or significant other, gets to sleep on the warm floor.

However in the past, Korean homes used a different form of ondol. This prior system, which was first used in Koguryo during the Three Kingdoms period due to the cold climate, had a network of underground flues that transported heat from the kitchen to each room. These flues were covered by thin, flat stones. The stones were then covered with yellow earth, and the floor was leveled. To top it off, layers of paper sheets were pasted on the floor.

This process was efficient since the heat and smoke generated during cooking would be transported automatically to each room in the house. Usually the kitchen would be built at a lower level, and the heated rooms would be in an elevated position to allow the flues to run underneath.

Many people may think that the heat will be quickly lost within a couple hours after cooking. In fact the floors will retain their warmth, ranging from more than 30 days to three months depending on the design of the flue structure, with just one heating.

If someone decides to teach English in Korea, most likely they will be placed in an apartment with modern ondol (the one with hot water pipes) rather than Western air conditioners blowing hot air.

For anyone accustomed to eating dinner while seated on the floor, sleeping on the floor, or engaging in some intimate activity on the floor, ondol is the logical choice.


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There was one danger with the old ondol system. If the flues under the floors were damaged, and the floor had cracks, carbon monoxide will enter the room if the heat was fueled by yontan (charcoal briquettes). This has happened before.

So it was very important for the old ondol to be well-designed to ensure safety and comfort.

Nowadays, most Korean homes use hot water ondol, which is a lot safer.

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  • 1 month later...

Once I stayed in an apartment in Seoul for a while. I found there was a thermostat on the wall and I didn't find any heater. Later I was told that it was used to control the temperature of the hot water running in the ondol.

But in Jilin where many ethnic Koreans live, the ondol tradition seems to have lost. Once I was treated to a Korean village in winter time, we just sat on the bed (with the brick stove underneath) and ate on the bed.

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  • 3 months later...

The Korea Times published an excellent, detailed article today on how the ondol system works. The picture in the article with the old woman cooking over a stove features the old ondol system where heat and smoke from the kitchen is passed through other rooms via underground flues.

The modern ondol with the wooded floors look very chic. One thing that is good about ondol is that you have to live in a house without carpets. (This may or may not be desirable based on your preferences). Personally I prefer to live in a home with wooded floors.


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