How the Japanese heat their homes in the winter

Did you know that in the winter, the inside temperate of the average Japanese home is probably colder than most homes in Russia? This is because houses in Japan have no central heating! Only individual rooms are heated by kerosene stoves, and not even all the time. They are normally lit only when the room is occupied. And even in bedrooms at night though occupied, they are turned off just before bed. It's considered dangerous to leave them on at night when sleeping.

Click on any photo to see an enlargement.

This is the most common type of heater in Japan. It sits on the floor, weighs only a few pounds, and can be moved around easily. Its fuel is kerosene. In the event of an earthquake or somebody hitting it by accident, there is a mechanism that pulls down the wick to turn it off quickly in order to prevent a fire. The top gets hot and cannot be touched without burning one's hand. Sometimes people set kettles on top to boil water or to add humidity to the air in the dry winter.

Kerosene stove open view Here we see the heating element removed and the wick visible. When these types of heaters are still new, they are lit by pushing a lever which presses an electric heating coil against the wick. The coil becomes red hot when the lever is pressed. It is powered by two batteries in the back of the heater. However, in the case of an older heater, often the electric heating coil is either burned out, or the batteries are dead. In this case, rather than immediately replace the batteries, most people use a match to light the wick. In order to do this, the heating element must be raised up slightly by hand to get the match close to the wick. The problem of using a match is that unless the heating element is set back properly over the wick the way it should be, the kerosene will not burn hot enough and will produce a smelly black smoke that fills the room! Once this happened just after the kitchen celling was freshly painted white and was not discovered until several hours later. Can you guess what color the celling became? Gray!

Back of kerosene heater The back of the kerosene heater. You can see the two dry cell batteries in the holder that are used to light the electric coil that ignites the wick. In a couple years it will stop working and a match will have to be used instead.
Heater showing kerosene container In these two photos you can see the tank that holds the kerosene fuel for the heater. The tank needs to be filled every other day if used regularly. The left photo shows the tank on its side on top of a different type of heater than the one above, but it is the same kind used.

Kerosene tanksFilling tanks Many homes use orange plastic containers to store the kerosene as shown in these photos. Some people use much larger drums and have the kerosene man come when empty, but it is cheaper to use the smaller containers and take them to the local gas station to fill them. I'm using a battery powered pump to fill the heater tank, but many people also use a siphon pump. The battery pump is designed to turn itself off when the tank is full, but sometimes the mechanism fails to work. There are accidents both with the battery pump and the siphon pump. The tank overflows and kerosene spills on the floor. Even without any spillage, I usually wind up with some kerosene on my hands when removing the pump from the tank.

Electric kerosene heater This is a different type of kerosene heater which has an internal fan to blow the heat out. It also uses kerosene and can be moved around from room to room, but it is also needs electric AC power from a wall outlet in order to run! They are a bit heavier than then the kerosene only kind. It's much more convenient to use these types of heaters because you just push the power button to turn them on. They won't turn on immediately. It takes 2 or 3 minutes for a heating coil to warm the kerosene sufficiently to ignite. The newer models with better technology start a bit quicker. They also have a thermostat device that regulates the amount of heat. You can adjust the temperature to higher or lower.

In the event of a power outage, these types of heaters are totally useless! A few weeks ago from the date of this post (Feb. 1, 2006) 10s of thousands of homes in my area suffered a day long power outage due to heavy snow shorting out an insulator of a high voltage power line. We were glad that we had several non-AC power dependant kerosene heaters to use to warm our house that can use a match to ignite. The electric AC power kerosene type of heat is high tech and will eventually break down. It cannot be started with a match. The top does not get hot and is therefore safer to use with little children in the room. If jarred or bumped, a safety mechanism will automatically turn the heater off. Another mechanism will turn the heater off after 3 hours. This is to prevent CO poisoning while sleeping at night. This is yet another reason why these heaters are never left on all the time.

Dented top of electric kerosene heater Top view of the electric kerosene heater. Can you see that it is dented? The metal top of these types of stoves is thin. Because the top does not get hot like the match lit kind of heater, young people often are tempted to use them as chairs! Sitting on it only once will dent it permanently! Even worse than using it as a chair is to use it as a footstool. The resulting dent is yet more noticeable.

KotatsuKotatsu The low table in these photos is called a kotatsu. It has an electric heating element under the table that is powered by a AC wall outlet. This is another way the Japanese keep warm in their homes in the winter. Even though the room temperature may be cold, it feels quite warm and cozy to sit in front of the kotatsu with one's legs under the table with the blanket covering them and keeping in the heat! Though electricity is expensive in Japan, the kotatsu doesn't need much power to keep the small space under it warm. Moreover, it has a thermostat which turns the heater off when the temperature gets too high, and so using them is quite economical.

To be continued!

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