Indoor/Home Temperatures in Arctic or Very Cold Climates
December 12, 2012 8:28 AM   Subscribe

At what temperature do people set their thermostats if they live in Arctic climates, such as Barrow, Alaska? My mother wants to know.

My mother has been fascinated by Barrow, Alaska, for a long time, and even subscribed to their print newspaper for many years. She likes to learn more about the differences in day-to-day living compared to her home in mid-Missouri, USA. (She read it so regularly that she could keep up with the local high school basketball teams.)

She has this question about the temperature at which people set their thermostats in areas where the average summer high/lows are 46°/35° F and the average winter high/lows are -7°/-20° F. She specifically asks about Barrow, but she would be interested in any residential community in or near the Arctic Circle or with similar year-round temperatures. (I know that Barrow is not the coldest inhabited or residential place on Earth.)

Obviously, there will be a range of answers for residents, as there would be in my area, too. And people in both areas may not be able to afford to heat/cool their homes to an optimum temperature.
However, generally people in mid-Missouri heat their homes to the mid-upper 60°s F in the winter and air-condition to the mid 70°s in the summer (where our average high/lows are 88°/66° F in the summer and 37°/18° F in the winter). For a couple of months in spring and summer, we can turn off our climate control, open windows, and enjoy the weather. This is not the same for commercial buildings, which are climate-controlled year-round, generally to 68°-72° F (in my experience).

How is this different in residential areas above the Arctic Circle? What would be the temperatures at which the typical family would set their thermostats? And, if it is significantly lower than the average home in mid-Missouri, how does that affect residents? Do people have to worry about household goods stored at lower temperatures, or do different things to insulate their homes to make the heating more efficient? Are temperatures different in commercial buildings?

When my heater runs in the coldest part of winter, it runs constantly, and it's very expensive for me to heat my home (natural gas). The heat tends to go out at the worst and coldest times, of course. People in my area do die of cold and heat exposure every year. Still, I always think that it must be far more difficult and expensive in colder parts of the world, and there are many colder parts of the world! How can a heater keep up if it's running every day of the year?

Any other information on this topic is welcome, such as the differences in actual heating units or the general sensitivity to cold for residents, etc. If you'd prefer to respond in Celsius, please do!

(Please assume this question was written with the best of intentions, because I know there are bad ways to ask what it is like to live in a different part of the world. Be gentle if I'm making assumptions that are incorrect!) Thank you!
posted by aabbbiee to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My brother lived in Siberia for awhile. Heating in the towns he worked and lived in was provided by a central steam plant in which steam or possibly hot water was piped to various commercial and apartment buildings (single family homes were not common). The radiators often had little or no control over output; when the plant was generating steam the radiators were hot. So places could get uncomfortably warm. As no one paid for their heat, at least not directly, the common solution was to open a window, even in the dead of winter.
posted by 6550 at 8:55 AM on December 12, 2012

Ana White and her family are building a two-family house in interior Alaska for her mother and mother-in-law to share (she calls it The Momplex). The construction process is exhaustively detailed in her blog, and they are just now insulating it against the Alaskan winter. It's a much more intense process than I am familiar with, and is pretty interesting.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:56 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was just in Barrow once in the winter and can't really give an average or trend on this although I remember the barracks type building I was staying in was heated way to high, like in the 70s. It was too hot after coming in from the cold and so dry.

Everything is more expensive up there where a pizza is almost $30, fuel is no exception.

It is also hard for me to estimate temperatures of thermostats since although I have stayed at a few different places in the Arctic, most didn't have a regular thermostat. In Fort Yukon, where there is plenty of timber, wood stoves are common. Other places had diesel/ heating oil drip stoves with a mechanical thermostat.

I can relate to different cold sensitivities: I am from the East Coast US and my first winter trip to the arctic was Kotzebue, AK in the spring. I think it was March. I got off of the plane and it was so cold I couldn't stand it. I don't even remember what the actual temperature was but nobody answered at the house where I was going to stay and I thought I was going to freeze to death walking around town to kill time. The crazy thing is that since the days are starting to get a bit longer at that time of year, it was like a warm spring day for them. Kids were riding ATVs around town with no hat or gloves! I guess this isn't much different than people in New Orleans or other southern cities to bundle up and complain if it is below 60 degrees.
posted by JayNolan at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2012

I have lived in the Canadian arctic above the circle. In the summer, most people just don't have their thermostats set at anything, as most people only have a furnace as opposed to some sort of heater/air conditioning unit. There are occasionally hot days, but not enough to justify the expense of an air conditioner. In the winter, you set your thermostat at whatever you want the temperature to be inside. Like 20c or 22c. The furnace might have to work harder or longer to keep the house warm, but the thermostat is meant to control the heat. I can say that one time my oil furnace gave out in the dead of winter. It was at least -20c outside. It didn't take long (less than an hour) for the inside of the house to get unbearably cold and we were worried about pipes freezing.
posted by Brodiggitty at 9:00 AM on December 12, 2012

My in-laws lived in Barrow with friends for three months because my father in law was obsessed with living in the northernmost town in the US, and they could afford a three month vacation from their regular lives.

According to what they remember, it was cold in the houses all the time. They wore their coats all the time, while their friends wore heavy layered clothing. They couldn't remember a specific temperature, but they did say that you get used to it rather quickly, and suddenly walking outside wasn't so bad after a while, either--but the darkness for almost 23 hours a day was absolutely horrible.

But, that being said, I have friends in the upper Midwest who keep their houses so cold that I have to wear my coat inside, too, and often I think it's warmer outside.
posted by TinWhistle at 9:01 AM on December 12, 2012

I keep mine at 67-68 -- cooler at night. The ground floor of my house does get cold sometimes, so I supplement with one of those oil-filled electric space heaters. I also set the timer on the thermostat to crank the heat at about 6 am, but that's just because it's hard for me to get out of bed if its too cold.

I always tell people if they ever get a chance to come to Alaska in the winter, they should take it -- especially the Interior, or the North Slope. The little villages along the Chukchi and Beaufort seas -- Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainwright, Barrow, Kaktovik and Nuiqsut -- are so remote and isolated, they're almost like tiny little outposts on Mars. But they're full of life!
posted by Alaska Jack at 9:13 AM on December 12, 2012 [10 favorites]

My dad used to live up in the NWT near the Arctic Circle. His house was kept at the same temperature as our Toronto-area house (so around 20-22C year round). His fuel costs were high in winter but he also got a housing supplement to partially offset the increased costs of living in the North (I thought Alaskans got a similar government cheque). He did not have AC in summer but also did not feel he needed it (in the winter it was a dry cold, in summer it was a dry heat - opposite to the humid summers and wet winters we had in the south). The wind chill in winter was vicious however and he had an amazing winter parka. As mentioned by others, how a tempature "feels" is also due to acclimatisation; as a Canadian, I find houses in the UK to be almost unbearably cold and damp but the residents are fine.

What always stuck out for my dad though, was how in the winter - during the coldest and darkest periods - he would have to leave his truck running all the time for fear of it not starting again (even with a block heater) because he could not walk to work. He did not have the problem of the heat going out at the worst and coldest times; I have also never experienced that in Ontario, maybe that is more of a regional problem? He also found there was also a fair amount of wildlife near and in the city in search of food.

The increased fuel costs have hit Alert pretty hard through. A friend that was stationed there did not feel it was overly cold in the buildings but I think people in the Military tend to not expect the same level of comfort as civilians.
posted by saucysault at 9:17 AM on December 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here in Fairbanks, which is about 200 miles south of the arctic circle, we set our thermostat to about 68F. A little colder, actually, to try to save on heating oil. In the summer we open the windows---there's no AC, nor is it needed.

The building I work at at the university is constantly too hot in the winter.

I wish I got a supplement for our fuel costs. It's a real problem in Fairbanks, because we get bad weather inversions that trap PM 2.5 particulate and give really horrible air quality ("Fairbanks: less polluted than Guanzhou!") primarily caused by folks burning crap poorly in woodstoves to save money over fuel oil.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:41 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Folks keep saying "there's no AC in summer, it's not needed. We open windows instead." OP mentions that summer highs in Barrow, AK, are in the low 40's fahrenheit.

The low 40's are considered cold enough to turn the heat on in most of the lower 48 -- for example in New York City, landlords are required to provide heat if the temperature is below 50F.

Are people adjusted to the cold such that 45F feels like a warm summer day, or do folks run the heater year round? Or does it actually get a lot warmer than that?
posted by Sara C. at 10:52 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

My sister lives in Bethel AK (her winter home -- her summer place is out in Kenai), and she keeps her place set at about 60F, slightly cooler at night (iirc, they have a boiler in the mudroom for water heat, which is less drying than forced air). She also has a woodstove that they use to warm the main living areas when they're home. She grew up in MI, and went to grad school in upstate NY.

Realise that, as winter lows get colder and winter gets longer, heating systems & home insulation get better -- I live in lower MI, set my thermostat for 65F, and even when it's 10F outside my furnace runs less than half the time. Furnaces are expected to run every day (usually more than once) but don't run all the time. I expect that my furnace has a bigger burner than yours, and a bigger fan, so it can heat more air faster and move it around the house.
posted by jlkr at 12:28 PM on December 12, 2012

I don't live quite that far north but I do live in a very cold climate (in the winter, at least). This morning it was -37C (that's -34F). Hope that gives enough credibility to answer your question, anyways!

While our summers are quite warm (70s and 80s F / 20s and 30s C), our winter averages are around -20C (-4F) and dip as low as -42C (-43.5F) for at least a couple of weeks most winters.

My thermostat at home is set for 22C (71.5F) while we're there, and 16C (61F) when we're at work or sleeping. It's been working a lot harder these last couple of weeks but it doesn't run non-stop (it's off more than on, time-wise), but the expense isn't nearly as high as it is the further north you get. Lucky for me, 'cause I like to be warm.

At my work (an industrial shop), we have a glycol boiler and circulating pipes throughout the floors, including in my office. This is a pretty common heating solution in large spaces, but not really in residences. I also have a furnace/air conditioner in my office that's set for 70F and kicks in whenever the temperature drops, which happens every time a customer opens the door.

As for acclimation-- I'm originally from the West Coast and prefer hot climates (oh, 80 degrees, I miss you! Only 7 months 'til I see you again!). After my first winter here, though, I came to see -15C (5F) as "brisk" in the fall and downright balmy if we are lucky enough to see it in January. When it begins to heat up in springtime, 10C (50F) means short sleeve shirts and to hell with a coat. And as saucysalt says above, the winters are dry, so it doesn't get in your bones the way a wet cold does.

So yeah, if I can do it-- I'd say lots of people can pretty much get used to anything, weather-wise.
posted by mireille at 2:30 PM on December 12, 2012

I spend a total of about two months a year in Barrow, spread out over the year. People set their thermostats exactly the way people anywhere else do. They (mostly, increasingly) have modern modular and very well insulated houses (and it is Iñupiaq tradition to have an open air vent in the roof, those houses get crowded and stuffy). Of course electricity is very expensive there. Most heat systems are electric or propane based. Some people have those newfangled heated tile floors, which are awesome for arctic homes. Plus someone is always cooking, so that heats the place up too (propane stoves, usually).

Your mother should go to Barrow. Everyone should go to Barrow. It is one of the most interesting places you can go on a commercial flight, certainly in the US, and the Iñupiaq people are incredidibly open and welcoming to strangers. Best to go in mid to late June for Nalukataq (the series of day-long meat distribution festivals by successful whaling crews, with lots of dancing and music and social activity and of course 24 hours of daylight, nice temps between about 30 low and about 65 high, mosquitoes are not bad on the coast (but unbelievable a few miles inland).

Of course I go every February when it's 60 below ambient. Fun times.
posted by spitbull at 2:31 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I will say that in general Iñupiaq people (Inuits in general) are comfortable at somewhat lower temperatures than southerners. They are physiologically evolved for the cold (short limbs, very efficient metabolisms, extra body fat), so they are happy to have the home be at 60-65 degrees in general. Even when it's well below zero a lot of Iñupiaq folks I know will go out for brief periods (like a smoke) in sneakers and a light jacket. But 30 or 40 below will kill you fast if you aren't dressed right.
posted by spitbull at 2:35 PM on December 12, 2012

Summer highs in Barrow are not at all in the low 40s, by the way. The last few summers it's hit 70 a few times when I've been there. This past summer, inland from the coast on a caribou hunt, it was consistently in the 50s and 60s in mid-July (with commensurate mosquitoes from hell).

Everyone there agrees summers have gotten steadily warmer and that the last few have been remarkably warm overall, which is very worrisome and confirmed by the science.
posted by spitbull at 2:41 PM on December 12, 2012

Response by poster: I used average highs/lows for both Missouri and Barrow from Wikipedia. Missouri summers are far hotter than the averages suggest. The record summer high for Barrow was in the upper 70s. I decided to use averages instead of the records just because it seemed more accurate.

Thank you for the responses, everyone. I have shared this thread with Mom!
posted by aabbbiee at 9:34 AM on December 13, 2012

I am the mom! Thanks to all for all this info.

I am also interested in the heating of public buildings, especially schools. Where I teach, each classroom usually has its own finickly thermostat and overall, each room can be vastly different temperatures. I notice in the photos that the kids play basketball with t-shirt under the team jerseys, but they are kids and they are on the move.

I just do wonder what is comfortable for people who live in such a frigid place.
posted by maerekaet at 4:27 PM on December 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

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