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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

Staying Warm in Korea

Winter in Korea is no laughing matter, even for those of us from Canada. Heating an apartment no matter the size can get extremely expensive. Not to mention, the Korean floor heating system or “ondol” can also be a bit confusing. Hopefully this guide can help you stay warm this year and keep your bills in check.

Mastering the Ondol

Image Rights: Chad Meyer, Moonjung Kim

One of the hardest things to master in Korea beyond the language is the heating system. When I first arrived I had no more of an explanation than “that’s the heater” as my director showed me my apartment. It took years to fully master the ins and outs of the system.

Getting it started

The ondol system is both your heater and your hot water. Thus, the unit is mainly switched “hot water only” in the summer months. Before turning on your floor heating, you must make sure that the valves are open. Usually, there will be a master valve under your boiler (should always be on) and separate valves for each room. Typically these are located under your sink but could also be found in other parts of your apartment.  The biggest issue with these valves is figuring out which room they belong to. Sometimes they are labelled and other times you have to figure it out by trial and error. My recommendation is to start left to right right and heat one room at a time. For one-room apartments, this is not such a big deal.

Understanding the control Panel

Another thing that you often have to figure out is the control panel. The diagram shows basically the picture below. This is a popular style but there are many different kinds out there. These are a few of the more common kinds of control panels. I have added the translations to help you understand what each of the buttons and knobs do.

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

Another Style

Heating your Apartment without Breaking the Bank

Years ago I got a nasty surprise one winter. I had hit the jackpot as far as apartments go for hogwan teachers. I had a 3 bedroom family-sized apartment all to myself. Going from a one-room to this massive apartment was awesome up until I got my first heating bill. It was 300,000 won! This was partially due to a house-guest who had cranked the heat up for a week or so but still. I was heating every room in the place almost all day and night.

To avoid this kind of nasty surprise, there are a few things that you can do. First is to limit how long you run your floor heating. If you run the floor heating for a few hours at a time and then shut it off, you can keep warm but not be constantly running your boiler and running up your gas bill. I usually turn the floor heat on for only an hour or two in the morning and then shut it off. Then I do the same in the evening. This has saved a ton.

If you have a larger apartment, try doing the same as above but only heating the rooms that you are in. So if you are in the livingroom then shut all the others off and just heat that area. This will also cut down your heating bill a lot. Also for larger apartments, keep the doors closed as well. This will trap the heat in and require less energy to heat the room. If you are finding that your bills are still too high, you can try using some of the tips below.

Insulating your Concrete Home

Your next biggest battle is keeping all that precious heat inside your apartment. Many of the places that I have lived where really poorly insulated. Judging by the amount of insulating products for sale these days, it seems that many other apartments are as well. So how do you keep the cold air out and the warm air in? Go to Daiso and stock up on supplies.

Window Insulation

Start with the Door!

Most doors in Korea are made out of metal. They are surrounded by metal, concrete and tile. All of which absorb the cold and become a source for heat loss in your apartment. You can buy weather stripping and bubble-wrap insulation pretty much everywhere. You can easily cover your door with a sheet of the bubble wrap and keep the draught out with the weather stripping. If you have a secondary door, keep that closed as well.

Weather stipping

Cover your Windows!

The bubble-wrap stuff is great. You just need a spray bottle of water to get it to stick. Start by measuring the sheet against the window and cut it to fit. Spray the window down and the stick it on. Combine this with the weather stipping and you should be good to go.

The insulation and weather stripping are really cheap and I recommend going to Daiso and picking up as much as you can. Rolls of the insulation are around 3,000 won and the weather stripping is around 1,500 won. Installation is straightforward. So, just make sure that your windows and the outside door is covered and you should feel the difference in no time.

Keeping it Cozy

If you are trying to save a bit of money or just want to make your place really warm then there are a few other options that you can look at. Space heaters are an alternative to the floor heating and work great for smaller spaces. These can be picked up in most stores and vary in price and output.

The eco-friendly version would be to make a clay pot heater but materials maybe harder to find. I would start by checking out Guam in Samsandong or other art or DIY shops in the city. Just be careful with those candles!

You are also going to notice that the air in your place is going to get SUPER dry. This is also why you will see so many humidifiers for sale these days and for good reason. Again, they vary in price and output. I would highly recommend picking one up as they really help keep the dry itchy skin down to a minimum. Also, pick up some moisturizer if you need further help. Again, that stuff can be found everywhere.

Heading Out

Now that you got your house covered, you might just want to lay on the floor with the ondol on until spring. However, you probably have to go out at some point. Thus, you need to gear up. While snow is rare in Ulsan, it does get cold. Not to mention that most offices and schools seem to be sparsely heated which explains why people wear their parkas 24/7 in the winter.

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 can get pretty cold but there are always solutions here to help you survive. Fill your pockets with handwarmers from Daiso as well. I prefer the reusable kind. They have a liquid inside and get hot and hard (minds out of the gutter please) when you click the little button. If you pop them in hot water they should melt again and are ready for use. Also, check the convenience stores for hot items. Those little cabinets with the cans in them are for hot drinks. In a pinch, they make great hand warmers as well. The best part is that you can drink them too!

After living here for a while, you’ll get used to the winters here. I hope that these tips will help you enjoy/survive the winters here a little better.

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