On average, we Spaniards spend about 750 euros a year on heating. That is the first conclusion of the Organization of Consumers and Users in its report on a subject that, as the cold invades the country, is becoming the great concern of Spanish homes. The OCU has calculated how much each type of heating costs, on average, with a view to finding the cheapest and most efficient. But the truth is that, if we really want to be warm in winter, there is a lot of fabric to cut.
The best heating (to date). To find the best heating system, the OCU has estimated the annual cost of heating a 90 m2 home in a cold region. Their conclusions are quite clear (and, in many ways, not surprising): the two big winners are biomass heating and aerothermal energy.
With a lot of difference, too. While the heat pump cost €455 and the pellet stoves €545; the natural gas boiler (€683), the diesel boiler (€816), the electric accumulators (€1046) and the electric radiators (€1255) seem much more expensive today.
If we go to other systems (those typical of places that do not have integrated heating) the results are worse: the butane stove (€0.453/hour), the paraffin stove (€0.902/hour), the halogen stove (€0.276 / hour) or the oil radiator (€0.575 / hour) give, according to the OCU, systematically worse results.
beyond heating. What happens is that, as with the heat, this is not the only thing that we have to take into account. We are endothermic beings; that is to say, we have to maintain ourselves at a specific temperature (around 37 °C) and if we do not do so, the body begins to deploy a highly complex physiological machinery to ensure that our organs and tissues are not affected. The question is… can we use this machinery to our advantage?
How does thermoregulation work? In general, all these temperature regulation systems are related to the hypothalamus. That is the structure that is responsible for checking that the body is cooling (or heating) and regulating the processes that intervene to maintain homeostasis. Its main objective, however, is to ensure the good condition of the central organs.
Therefore, when the hypothalamus detects a drop in basal temperature, the blood vessels that supply the skin become smaller and the blood flow is redirected towards the trunk. This drop in temperature is not entirely related to the perception of cold: this sensation is mediated by many things and is not always linked to the body’s internal temperature. The clearest example is women who tend to feel colder because, although they tend to have more subcutaneous fat than men, that same layer makes irrigation of the skin difficult. That is, they feel colder, yes; but that does not affect its interior temperature, which is well protected.
(Classic) strategies that are not recommended. Eating especially caloric dishes has been a traditional way of warming up and this is reflected in recipe books around the world. In the long term, especially in children, eating to stay warm is not a good strategy (which can affect growth and brain development) Also, women (who, statistically speaking, have less muscle mass than men) o Older people (with reduced metabolic rates) also have more trouble converting calories into heat.
Nor does it make much sense to drink alcohol, despite the fact that it is popularly considered something that helps to “warm up”. Earlier I explained that our perception of cold and the cold that we really have inside do not always go hand in hand. Alcohol is a vasodilator and this effect goes directly against the physiological heat maintenance system: by sending extra blood to the skin, it cools it and increases the risk of hypothermia.
Tricks to stay warm. With this in mind, there are a handful of rules and tricks that can help us better control the cold.
- Layers, many layers: Dressing in many thin layers helps us generate a layer of warm air that acts as a transition layer and ‘isolates’ us from the cold. Piloerection (the ‘goosebumps’) is a natural mechanism that attempts to do something similar. Of course, you have to avoid the wind: dress in many layers and finish them off with insulation that prevents the “Tuareg effect” (and we lose even more heat).
- cover our heads: Contrary to popular belief, the most accurate estimates, the place where we lose the most heat is not the head. That is, at a thermal level, protecting your head is not as important as it might seem. However, head temperature seems to play a role in whether or not we shiver. And shivering is an especially powerful mechanism for warming up (so much so that, since babies can’t do it, they need brown fat – the same kind used by hibernating animals – to maintain their temperature).
- Do stuff: Exercise, physical activity. All processes related to this type of activity end up generating heat. It is true, as Katherine Latham explains, that it is not convenient to go too far because we can activate the physiological mechanisms to avoid excessive heat and the final balance can become positive. However, moving around a bit is never a bad idea.
Image | Jorge Ramirez