Staying warm in Sweden

Finally snow is on the ground outside. Not much, but enough to feel like winter is really here, and not just the cold, dark dreariness that is late autumn in Sweden.

We are toasty warm, as usual. The art of heating homes and buildings is far more advanced here than Australia, for obvious reasons. Our flat is heated by a system called fjärrvärme, which basically means “travelling warmth.” Water is heated at the power station and is then piped all over town to houses and flats, where it circulates through heating elements located in every room, usually beneath the windows. It finds its way back to the power station eventually, where it is reheated and recirculated. The power for heating is largely provided by waste products, including woodchips and sawdust.

The abundance of forest in Sweden means that wood was the mainstay of heating for millennia. In the last hundred years, however, electricity and oil took over as the main fuels. Coal has never been as big here as it was in the UK, However, the cost of electricity and the environmental anxieties surrounding oil, have meant that there has been a comeback for wood heating, mainly in the form of wood burning boilers in houses. The boiler is usually located in the basement of the house, and is fed with wood pellets, which are formed from compressed timber waste – woodchips and sawdust. It requires a bit more work than some other heating methods, but the process has been so streamlined that it is fairly clean and relatively timed efficient. The boiler heats the water which is circulated through the house.

Perhaps the most energy efficient, and cleanest, form of heating available in Sweden is powered by geothermal energy. It is called bergvärme, which can be directly translated as “mountain warmth.” Water is pumped deep underground, to where the ground temperature is fairly constant. It is then brought back to the surface, to the boiler in the basement, and then is used to heat water which circulates through the house’s heating elements. Although expensive to install, bergvärme is cheaper to run, and it is growing in popularity in Sweden.

However, the most unusual heating system that I have read about uses human body heat to provide warmth. It was noticed by someone that there was an excess of heat in the Stockholm subway system, as a result of the thousands of people who use the underground on a daily basis. Rather than pump this heat to the outside world, why not use it to heat office blocks? Although not yet functional, this is planned for a building soon to be erected in the city. Read the article. Fascinating…!

But by far the most cosy is the open fire, closely followed by the “tiled stove,” the lovely heaters still seen in many old houses, especially the manor houses in the country. Despite the work involved in feeding wood into the fire and cleaning away ash the next day, winter existence would be poorer without these. But the big houses needed an army of domestic staff to keep them going in the old days, something that is ideologically frowned upon in modern Sweden. So the stoves and fires of yesteryear are now complemented by modern heating systems, and are fired up for the cosiness factor only these days.

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