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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Staying Warm in Korea

Winter in Korea demands serious attention, and this holds true even for individuals accustomed to Canadian winters. The cost of heating an apartment, regardless of its size, can soar significantly. Additionally, navigating the intricacies of the Korean floor heating system, known as “ondol,” can pose a challenge. This guide aims to assist you in navigating the complexities of staying warm during this season while also managing your heating expenses effectively.

Mastering the Ondol

Image Rights: Chad Meyer, Moonjung Kim

Beyond language barriers, mastering the intricacies of Korea extends to an unexpected frontier—the heating system. Upon my arrival, my director’s nonchalant introduction to my apartment’s heating setup amounted to a simple declaration: “that’s the heater.” What seemed like a straightforward encounter evolved into a years-long journey to decipher the nuances of this integral aspect of Korean living. Unraveling the system’s complexities demanded time, patience, and a persistent quest to comprehend its inner workings.

Getting it started

Initiating the ondol system involves managing both your heating and hot water needs. During the summer, the unit is primarily set to “hot water only.” Before activating the floor heating, it’s crucial to ensure that the necessary valves are open. Typically, a master valve beneath your boiler, always in the “on” position, controls the entire system, with additional valves for individual rooms. These room-specific valves are commonly situated beneath sinks, though their placement may vary in your apartment. Identifying the correct room for each valve can be a puzzle, sometimes solved through labels, but often requiring a bit of trial and error. I recommend starting systematically, perhaps from left to right, and heating one room at a time, a process especially manageable for single-room apartments.

Understanding the control Panel

Navigating the ondol system also entails deciphering the control panel, a task that often requires some exploration. The diagram typically resembles the illustration below, representing a prevalent style, but it’s worth noting that various designs exist. Here are translations to assist you in understanding the functions of the buttons and knobs, offering insights into a few of the more commonly encountered control panels.

Above:This is more of a modern style. Below: an older style

Another Style

Heating your Apartment without Breaking the Bank

Several winters back, I lucked out with a spacious three-bedroom apartment, the kind usually reserved for hogwan teachers. The initial thrill of upgrading from a snug one-room space, however, came crashing down when I received my first heating bill—a whopping 300,000 won. While I could blame a temporary house guest for cranking up the heat, the reality was that I had unwittingly turned every room into a cozy haven, running up both the boiler and my gas bill around the clock.

To avert such unwelcome surprises, a few strategic measures can be taken. Firstly, consider limiting the duration of your floor heating. Running it for a few hours at a time and then switching it off can keep you warm without continuously inflating your gas bill. Personally, I opt for an hour or two in the morning and a similar stint in the evening, a practice that has noticeably curtailed costs.

For those blessed with larger apartments, the same principle applies, but with a twist. Heat only the rooms you inhabit. If you’re lounging in the living room, close off the others and focus the warmth where you need it most. This not only enhances comfort but also significantly reduces heating expenses. Additionally, in more expansive living spaces, keeping doors closed serves as an energy-efficient move, trapping warmth and demanding less power to maintain room temperature. If bills persistently loom large, consider implementing some of the tips outlined below.

Insulating your Concrete Home

YThe subsequent challenge is retaining the hard-won warmth within your living space. In my experience, numerous apartments suffer from lackluster insulation, a sentiment echoed by the myriad insulating products available for purchase these days. The question then becomes: how do you fortify your abode against the intrusion of cold air and, conversely, safeguard the precious warmth within? A simple yet effective strategy is to embark on a Daiso expedition, where you can amass a strategic arsenal of supplies to fortify your living space.

Window Insulation

Start with the Door!

In Korea, the prevalent use of metal doors, ensconced in an environment of concrete and tile, poses a formidable challenge to insulation. The unforgiving cold readily infiltrates these materials, transforming them into conduits for heat loss in your apartment. Fortunately, combating this issue doesn’t require a Herculean effort. A simple trip to the local store will yield weather stripping and bubble-wrap insulation, readily available and highly effective solutions. Shielding your door with a layer of bubble wrap and sealing any potential drafts with weather stripping can work wonders in fortifying against the chill. Additionally, if you have a secondary door, keeping it firmly closed serves as an extra layer of defense against the encroaching cold.

Weather stipping

Cover your Windows!

The bubble-wrap trick is a game-changer, and all you need is a spray bottle of water to make it work. Begin by measuring the sheet against the window and cutting it to a perfect fit. A spritz of water on the window, and then adhere the bubble wrap for an instant insulating effect. When paired with weather stripping, you’ve got a winning combination.

Both insulation and weather stripping won’t break the bank, making Daiso a prime destination for a cost-effective winterization spree. Rolls of insulation come in at around 3,000 won, while weather stripping is a mere 1,500 won. The installation process is refreshingly uncomplicated. Armed with these supplies, ensure your windows and the outer door are well-covered, and you’ll start feeling the warmth seep in, transforming your living space in no time.

Keeping it Cozy

For those aiming to save a bit on heating expenses or desiring an extra toasty ambiance, there are alternative options worth exploring. Space heaters, readily available in most stores, serve as a practical substitute for floor heating, especially in smaller spaces. The price and output of these heaters vary, offering flexibility based on your needs.

For the environmentally conscious, a clay pot heater presents an intriguing option. While materials may require a bit more effort to locate, places like Guam in Samsandong or other art and DIY shops in the city might have what you need. Just exercise caution with those candles!

A noticeable side effect of winter heating is the excessively dry indoor air. This issue has spurred the proliferation of humidifiers in the market, available at various price points and with different output capacities. Investing in one is highly recommended, as it not only helps alleviate dry and itchy skin but also contributes to a more comfortable living environment. If your skin needs an extra boost, moisturizers are readily available everywhere to provide the relief you seek.

Heading Out

With your home cozily fortified, the temptation to sprawl on the warm ondol floor until spring might be strong. However, the reality of venturing outside necessitates some strategic gearing up. While snow may be a rarity in Ulsan, the cold weather prevails. Adding to the challenge, many offices and schools adopt a sparse approach to heating, prompting locals to don their parkas around the clock during the winter months. So, in preparation for the chill beyond your well-insulated haven, layering up and keeping that winter coat handy becomes a practical and fashionable necessity.

Layer Up

Start by picking up some 내복 or long underwear.  These are not your old canadian-style powder blue waffle ones either. Go to places like Uniqlo and get some decent ones for cheap. Tops and bottoms are usually around 15, 000 won or more depending on quality and are thin enough to wear under most clothes. Using this as your base layer will make quite a difference. Next add your insulating layer which could be fleece or an ugly wool sweater. Finish the look off with a decent winter jacket. Buy a warm toque (beanie/winter hat) and some gloves to keep you toasty warm. Budget minded people can find these items for a few thousand won at Daiso or art box.

Also ditch the cotton during this time of the year. During my outdoor search and rescue training in Canada we called cotton “the death fabric” and for good reason. It keeps the moisture (i.e. your sweat) next to your body which will keep you cold. For more information about this check out our guide to your first winter here.

Also, check out some of the newer sock stores around or go to Costco and stock up on those thick wool socks. These will keep your feet warm and dry. As the article that we wrote talked about, do not layer your socks.

Getting Steamy

If you absolutely can’t get warm, try spending some time in a JimJilBang or Korean sauna. These are great places that are usually open 24 hours a day. They offer a variety of saunas for you to heat yourself up in. They are great places just to relax on a cold day too. If you are looking for the best spot, head to Spa Land in Busan at the Shinsegae Department Store. This is probably the largest and best that the area has to offer. If you are not up for that, each area in Ulsan should have their own small sauna or jimjilbang. Just look for the symbol that resembles a steaming baked potato.

Filling Up

The final thing is to fill your belly with lots of hot food and drink. Strangely many Koreans still love an iced americano no matter what time of the year.  That being said, there are no shortages of coffee shops to warm up in. Also hot stews like Kimchi Jungol and others are also just what you need on a cold night in Korea.

Final Thoughts

Korea’s winter chill may be formidable, but fear not – there are always ingenious solutions to keep you warm and thriving. Equip yourself with hand warmers from Daiso, preferably the reusable variety. These nifty gadgets, containing a heat-activating liquid, turn hot and firm (keep those thoughts in check, please) with a simple click of the button. If they cool down, a dip in hot water rejuvenates them for further use.

Don’t overlook convenience stores, where heated items are a lifesaver. Those cabinets with cans inside aren’t just for hot drinks; in a pinch, they double as excellent hand warmers. The bonus? You can sip on them too!

With time, you’ll acclimate to the nuances of Korean winters. Here’s hoping these tips enhance your winter experience, making it not just bearable but enjoyable. Stay warm out there!