Some friends and I are having a debate. They maintain that if a person sleeps on an unheated waterbed, heat might be drawn from their body to the point that hypothermia would occur. Is it possible for a waterbed to do this? — JS, College Park, MD
The answer depends on how cold you allow room temperature to become. Without a heater, the water temperature in the bed will be very close to room temperature. When you then lie on the bed, you will be in contact with a surface that’s at room temperature and heat will flow out of you and into the water. Your heat will warm the water and it will tend to float upward and remain at the top surface of the waterbed, forming an insulating layer that will slow your heat loss. However, heat will continue to diffuse into the water as a whole and you will continue to lose heat. As long as the water isn’t too cold, your metabolism will be able to replace the lost heat and you’ll stay warm. But if the room and waterbed are very cold, your temperature will begin to drop. I’m not sure how cold the water would have to be for this to happen, but if the room and water were almost ice cold, you’d probably have trouble.