Just How Does Heating Work?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As the weather cools down, some students are already suffering from chilly dorm rooms, while others are growing uncomfortably warm. Just how does the heating work?

According to Ralph Thayer of Facilities Management, the older dorms have cast-iron radiators that “tend to overshoot the control set-points and overheat the spaces.” By contrast, the newer dorms have copper fin tube systems that “tend to track the set-points pretty accurately, but cool quickly.” For most of the residential buildings, these set-points apply to a number of rooms, and are determined by sensors inside and outside the building. In Mertz, Alice Paul, and David Kemp, the rooms have individual temperature control.

If your room is too cold, you may be tempted to use a space heater. Unfortunately, space heaters “are forbidden” for three reasons, says Thayer.

Firstly, they are “high wattage items that stretch the limits of the electrical systems in place,” and their use “simply increases the likelihood of blacking out a series of rooms when the breaker pops.”

Secondly, if someone installs a space heater in a room with a general sensor, the resulting increase in the temperature reading can result in a “shut down” of that heating system.

Finally, space heaters are “an expensive way to heat and decidedly not ‘green.’” As Thayer notes, “We should be making a concerted effort to reduce electrical use, not increase it.”

What about those whose rooms are already roasting? Is it OK to open a window in an attempt to cool off? “That depends,” says Thayer. “If it’s the room with the sensor the temperature will go up!” He adds that the “best bet is to turn the radiator ‘off’ if the heat gets to be too much or to block it as per the ‘do not’ directives on the web page description of dorm heat.’”

But don’t “suffer through it,” he warns–students whose rooms are too warm should report the problem to Workbox (workbox@swarthmore.edu).


  1. anyone wanna trade? i’d much rather pretend i were in the tropics than have to wear a jacket 24/7.

    “In Mertz, Alice Paul, and David Kemp, the rooms have individual temperature control.”
    Ha! That’s a joke! Maybe it would let me control the temp if I wanted to set it below 60. What if the thermostat is just plain wrong. There’s no way my room is 73 degrees when I’m freezing in a sweater and wool socks.

  2. Dear Mertz resident,

    The thermostats in those rooms usually require some kind of encouragement to actually start heating your room. A carefully balanced refrigerated soda can or a washcloth soaked in cold water on top of the thermostat should start your heater. Just remember that you’ll need to take it off once things get sort of warm or you’ll start baking.

  3. my room is freeeeeeezing freezing cold when i go to bed at night, and gets mysteriously hot (which wakes me up) at about 5 in the morning.

    whatever happened to the allegedly-planned PPR heating repairs?

  4. As someone who FROZE two years ago in a room in Whittier and whose repeated efforts to have the administration turn the heat up and/or allow us access to the thermostat were all thwarted, I’m very disappointed to read that this is still a problem. –An alum

  5. If anyone wants to ask Facilities any more questions directly the Green Advisors are hosting a study break Q and A with Facilities at 7pm tonight (Thursday) in Parrish Parlors with pizza.

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