The Miracle Cure for All that Ails China

[UPDATE 1/8: The Red Plus Yellow blog has just posted a wonderfully useful item on how to winterize your Chinese apartment without replacing the windows. If you’re cold, you should read it. Great stuff.]

This morning I woke up shivering in my bed, too cold to go back to sleep, and logged onto my laptop to check the temperature: -1°C (30°F). By Shanghai standards, that’s cold. Back home in Minnesota, where temperatures were -17°C (0°F) when I went to bed last night, that’s positively balmy. But the funny thing is: I’m never cold when I’m indoors in Minnesota, but Shanghai, man, I associate it with wearing wool socks and stocking caps to bed. So what’s the deal?

First, and most obviously, most buildings in Minnesota have central heating, and central heating is far more effective at warming a space than the wall heaters and space heaters used in Shanghai. Second, while Minnesota’s buildings are insulated, and thus capable of retaining heat, Shanghai’s buildings are mostly uninsulated concrete boxes which – I swear – conduct cold like copper conducts electrons. But the third reason – and this is where the Miracle Cure comes into play – Shanghai’s buildings aren’t weather-proofed. That is to say, unlike in many if not most buildings in Minnesota, windows and doors in Shanghai have leaks that allow cold air to flow into heated (or unheated spaces). Take, for example, these windows in the sun room of my apartment (fyi: I’ve weather-proofed the door to the sun-room). They are similar to windows all over Shanghai: single-paned and – if you put your hand next to them – you can feel a cold breeze:

Before I weather-proofed (a few pieces of rubber sealant will do the trick) the door to the sun room (and, by extension, those windows), I had to run my heater two degrees warmer just to achieve the same rather cool effect in my bedroom.Now, with the thermostat turned down, I have reduced my carbon footprint in China (90% of China’s heating needs comes from coal – either directly, or through power plants) and – not insignificantly, reduced the load on China’s already stretched-thin electrical grid (according to today’s papers, China has begun rationing electricity in the face of a heating-related power surge).

A second photo – this one of the oft-commented upon  (by me) apartment building across the lane from mine. You’ll want to click it for an enlargement, and then take a close look for two things: first, how many/few of the windows are double-paned storm windows capable of keeping out the cold; and second, how many of the apartments have brand-new, city-sponsored air-conditioning boxes to cover up their unsightly air-conditioning units (and three, the apartment with steaks hanging from the clothesline)?

In answer to the first question: maybe 20%. In answer to the second question: 100%! Now, I’m well aware that the Shanghai government is keen to improve the city’s image in advance of Expo 2010, and I suppose a city-wide program to cover up unsightly a/c units is one way to do that. But imagine for a moment if the city were to turn around and announce that it was going to spend an amount equal to one a/c cover on weatherproofing for each Shanghai apartment that has … wait for it! … an a/c unit devoted to home heating. True, that wouldn’t be enough money to install storm windows in all of Shanghai’s high-rises. But I guarantee you this: it would be more than enough money to seal every leaky window and door in every high-rise in Shanghai.

And what would that accomplish?

  1. Tens of thousands of jobs! Installers, weather-stripping manufacturers, noodle shops where both parties like to lunch!
  2. Guaranteed reduction in Shanghai’s winter power consumption and an end to those embarrassing “power rationing” stories in the state media.
  3. Massive reduction in Shanghai’s winter carbon footprint. Forget all of this talk about carbon intensity and whether or not China is making a contribution to the climate crisis. A modest investment in weather-stripping would instantly transform Shanghai into China’s – and the world’s – urban carbon reduction champion.
  4. I would feel warmer.

In other words, we have here a reasonable and modest start on solving several of China’s most pressing issues: jobs, power, pollution, and face. That wasn’t so hard, was it?


  1. Bravo Adam. I make this comparison every single time I step into the apartment. I hate the feeling of being perpetually cold and wish that Shanghai had the foresight to consider double-proofing as a long-term cost saver.

  2. As a fellow Minnesotan based here in Shanghai, I had to smile with this post and agree with it. Feels much colder here at times. We have a 1 – 1.5 inch gap under our outside door. Major problem. So is the water that somehow can permeate those concrete walls.

    The lack of weather proofing kills the great energy benefits that are actually designed into many housing units – individual thermostats for rooms so energy use is more focused and less heating/cooling for large open areas. We keep family areas cooler and bedrooms warmer in the winter. The opposite in the summer. Logical and easy to execute on.

    If the weather proofing could only improve, they could clearly be on the leading edge of energy efficiency.

  3. Absolutely, weatherproofing would be a cost effective way to save energy. Not only in the winter, but also in the summer to reduce AC.

    On the other hand, outside Shanghai I think in many towns and villages South of the Yangze weatherproofing would be difficult. That is because, for reasons that even the Chinese don’t understand -I have asked many times- they keep the windows and doors wide open in the winter, and they live inside their houses with their all their clothes+woolen underwear on, like when they are outdoors. This is really annoying when you are cycling or trekking in those areas and you enter a house/restaurant to warm up, only to find out that it is colder inside than outside…

    Those houses usually have just one little coal burner where they burn a few bricks a day to cook and also to sit around and warm up their feet. If all those millions of homes were instructed to weatherproof (and shut!) their windows, then they would perhaps try to actually keep their indoors environment warm, which would require to use much more coal than they do now, even with a good weatherproofing system… so the plan can backfire! 🙂

    Anyway, most village houses I have seen are almost impossible to weatherproof, so I guess we should stick to first and second tier cities for your plan.

  4. Thick, heavy drapes are needed, in the winter to keep in the warmth from the over-worked heat pump and in the summer to keep out the heat and so spare the over-worked heat pump.

    Now if we all, Chinese and foreign residents alike, could just agree on the universal need for window screens…

  5. I’m not an expert but, is simply replacing old air con units with new ones so that each floor has 3 or 4 the most effective way of doing it – wouldn’t it be better to have larger units on the roof providing all apartments with air con?

  6. The maxim is 各人自掃門前雪 .

    Central air for all through a single unit on the roof, well, yes, it is more efficient to have central air via a roof top system but who is going to pay? Not the household owners who will balk at any increased expense or pay for someone else’s heating and cooling use. As it is now each pays for his own aircon installation (sized more or less for BTU’s and the unit owner’s own sense of what is needed) and use, that’s why the outside of Shanghai apartments are built with landings especially for the air con unit.

    Said by one who owns an apartment in a Shanghai high-rise,


  7. I was amused to see that you check the temperature via your laptop.

    Move North in the winter. All urban residences are required to have central heating, provided on a communal or municipal basis, installed. Most modern houses also have insulated exterior walls and double or triple glazing.

    I can only expect a similar regulation will come in the South regarding temperature regulation (both heating and cooling), with an annual fee (opt-in), though legacy buildings will escape this.

    If the prevalence of solar water heaters in new apartment blocks is anything to go by I wouldn’t underestimate the Chinese consumer’s appetite for being frugal.

  8. And I just thought I was a wuss. It’s good to hear someone else be infuriated by the lack of insulated buildings in Shanghai. I just wore longjohns all through the winter and slept with a hot water bottle, oh and about 5 blankets.

  9. Excellent post! I agree that in the long-term, your suggestions would make a real difference. If you’re shivering and want a faster, more affordable solution, I suggest either coming over to my place for tea, or:

    Window insulation kits from B&Q, or affixing bubble wrap directly to the window panes. I like this solution because it creates an air barrier like storm windows would, but still allows light into your home. Heavy curtains make home feel like a cave, all dark, constant electrical use required for artificial lighting — ew.

    Bubble wrap is available in some post offices, staples, couriers, moving supply shops.

    3M makes window sealing (shrink-plastic kind) available at B&Q.

  10. Basically, there is historical reason that government decided to only install central heating system in the buildings at the northern sides of Huanghe River regions and Changjiang River regions. It happened at the time when still with the fully planned economy and hierachical management. There were limited resources at that time and the government decided to set the priority for the northern parts.

    I do see progress now. When real estate builder are constructing the apartments, they would consult the owners first whether they would like to install their central heating at home. The best scenario is that everyone agrees. But you know there are so many chaos and different ideas in each family to prevent it smooth.

    But I have to say, Jiangsu and Shanghai are damned cold in the winter, and distributive air conditioners are definitly not environmental.

  11. Hi Adam,

    Great article! Please could you email me the article on winterizing your apartment. I tried to go via the link but it says only administrators can access it.

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