The draught stops here
As a son of the American snowbelt, I have always been mystified by South Africans’ ideas about “fresh air.” I put these words in quotes because what a South African calls, “fresh air,” an American calls a “draught.” I see doors left wide open for minutes or even hours on frosty mornings. Friends sleep with their bedroom windows cracked open through the winter. When I first moved into my Johannesburg house, I was dumbfounded to discover that every room had a ventilation brick with holes to let in the breeze. My house was intentionally draughty.
I suspect that living in a house filled with fresh, bracing, 10 degree air is marvelously healthy for a family, as long as they are dressed warmly enough to prevent hypothermia. But this doesn’t seem to be how it works, because at the same time that people are letting all of this cold air into their homes, they are trying to keep warm with some sort of heating.
My nieces, who live in a home filled with north-facing windows and even underfloor heating in some rooms, say that they like my warm house. But the only advantage my home has over theirs is that I try to keep it sealed up like a submarine. I plastered over the ventilation bricks long ago. Windows are basically locked shut for the duration of the winter. Curtains are opened as soon as the sun strikes a window, but closed at sunset. Anyone who leaves a door open for more than five seconds knows they will hear me bellowing, “I can feel a cold draught!” from a room away. And I really do feel it. A door left open for just 30 seconds can drop the temperature of a house by several degrees.
I will acknowledge that at some point on a highvelt winter’s day, the outside air may be warmer than the inside. But this window of opportunity for open windows is shorter than you might think. Standing in the sun or driving in a car gives a deceptive impression of the outside temperature. This week, the temperature is predicted to reach 20° just once. On that day, the outside air may be warmer than the inside from about 1 pm to 3 pm. By 4 pm, the temperature chart falls off a cliff.
My latest victory as a draught resister was to purchase and install draught stoppers to plug the large gaps under my house’s front doors. I bought mine in America, but I have seen them sold by hawkers in Johannesburg at traffic lights. They consist of of two fabric channels, each filled with a long foam cylinder, one to block the two sides of a door. The foam can be cut to size to fit the door’s width.They have made a big difference in keeping my lounge warm through the night.
I’m not blind to the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you heat your home with anthracite in an open fireplace, you need to ventilate. (Reasons not to heat this way can be found here and here. Likewise, inexpensive rollabout gas heaters should be used with a window cracked open. For the rest of us, if you need some fresh air in the winter, slip out the door quickly and take a walk.