Sunday, July 29, 2012

Independence Days update, 7-29-12

I haven’t done an Independence Days update for over a month. Since I last updated, we’ve attended two out of state weddings, keeping us away from home for 12 days. During the first trip, the high temperature in St. Louis ranged from 99F to 108F. During the second trip, highs each day were in the 90sF. I didn’t measure any rain at our house during either trip. While being away from home kept our electric bill lower (we don’t run the AC when we are not at home), the gardens suffered from not being irrigated for those 12 days. According to the US Drought Monitor, our area is now suffering from extreme drought, and it looks it. Not only are lawns dormant, but I am seeing wetland plants, shrubs, and some trees going dormant early or dying. I irrigate some part of the yard every day whenever I am awake and at home, but only the vegetable garden has gotten enough irrigation to grow reasonably well, and it barely enough. The best I can do elsewhere is keep desirable plants from dying and reduce fire risk near the house. This morning we received about 0.2 inches of rain, just enough that I will not irrigate today. Tomorrow, however, the round of irrigation begins anew and continues until we get a substantial amount of rain (at least an inch in a week or less).

The update below will include everything important since the last update in June.

Planted: I planted a fall crop of the ‘French Fingerling’ potatoes even though the weather has been so hot, just to see if they will grow. So far no potato plants have emerged, but that could still change; they seem to take about 3 weeks or so to show up and it hasn’t been quite that long since I planted them. I also planted a few pole bean seeds in front of the southernmost row of corn, some of which have grown despite the heat and insufficient rain and irrigation. On the other hand, the pumpkin seeds I planted in mid-June failed to germinate, and the replacement seeds I planted in early July germinated but died during the second wedding trip due to the heat and drought. I don’t plan to seed fall radish or greens crops unless the pattern of heat and drought breaks for several days sometime before late August. We still have collard, kale, and other greens alive in the garden that we can harvest through fall.

Harvested: peas were harvested until the end of June, as were plums. I harvested the ‘French Fingerling’ potatoes in early July. This month I’ve harvested peaches, pears, elderberries, hazelnuts, black walnuts, red and yellow onions, orange and yellow carrots, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, cabbages, and some herbs. I started harvesting some of the black-eyed peas, letting them dry further in the pod while under cover in the basement. Squirrel pressure is much less this year so we are able to harvest some of the fruit and nut crops for ourselves rather than the squirrels stealing the entire crop as in past years.

Preserved: various mint-family herbs, by drying. Tomatoes, by making and freezing a quart (so far) of tomato sauce. Potatoes, by holding in a 5 gallon bucket on the floor of the basement. Pears, by refrigeration. Onions, by holding in baskets in the basement. Cucumbers and cabbage, by fermentation into pickles and sauerkraut respectively (14 pounds worth of cabbage got made into sauerkraut!). Elderberries, by freezing for later use in making wine.

Waste not: I’ve written blog posts on minimizing the use of electricity for AC and on reusing graywater from the kitchen sink and the laundry. Mike was able to repair a puncture in one of my bicycle’s tires using the patches from the patch kit and Shoe Goo in place of the dried-up epoxy in the patch kit. I’ve continued to use the solar oven for boiling water, baking the occasional loaf of break, and recently to bake eggplant Parmesan.

Want not: Mike found and purchased a peck basket on one of his thrift store runs. We used the remaining half of a processed ham and lots of garden produce to put together most of the dinner we prepared in celebration of Mike’s mom’s 85th birthday. Our neighbors gave us a few pounds of the overripe peaches from the box they’d gotten, so I expect to be drying peaches tomorrow. We are continuing to eat the remaining kimchi to make space in the fridge for the new batches of fermented products.

Eat the food: coleslaw made from homegrown cabbage, peppers, onions, and carrots. Boiled and fried homegrown potatoes. Homemade salad dressings. Eggplant Parmesan from the homegrown eggplants, basil, and garlic (we used a jar of tomato sauce Mike’s mom didn’t prefer and therefore gave to us). Salads with various combinations of zucchinis, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Tomatoes, plums, peaches, and/or pears with breakfast. The unprocessed ham half as red cooked pork according to a recipe in Mike’s Chinese cooking book. The remaining kimchi and pickled tomatoes from last year. We took some of the homegrown fruits and veggies as well as bread and cheese along with us on the trips in order to reduce purchase of fast food meals.

Build community food systems: nothing outside of sharing some of the harvest with neighbors, family, and friends.

Skill up: I learned how to reuse graywater using items we already had on hand. I also learned how to do a load of laundry by hand; I’ll write that post eventually.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Simple Ways to Collect and Reuse Graywater

In the last month we’ve traveled to the Pennsylvania - New Jersey region twice, for two weddings two weekends apart. As a result we’ve had a good look at the Corn Belt farmland along I-70 through Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. It’s a scary sight, even from a car at 65 to 70 miles per hour. Much to most of the corn crop is too dry to give a decent yield, after weeks of above normal temperatures and below normal rainfall coupled with lack of irrigation equipment due to generally adequate rainfall during the growing season. Years like this one, with a drought across the entire Corn Belt, are few and far between. But when we get one, everyone will pay for it sooner or later, in the form of more failed farms and fewer people continuing to farm, and eventually, higher prices for everyone at the grocery store and likely at the fuel pump as well.

At Living Low Farm, the informal name I’ve adopted for our property, we’re also dealing with the effects of weeks of heat and drought. The drought started later in the St. Louis region than in much of the Corn Belt due to more than sufficient rain through the end of April (I measured 9.2 inches of rain at our property in April!). Once May began, conditions turned dry. Our May rainfall total was about 1.4 inches, the June total about 1.6 inches; so far in July I’ve measured only 0.2 inches of rain, though some locations in the metro area have gotten more from scattered thunderstorms. It was around the summer solstice that drought conditions at home first caught my attention in the form of dormant grass and groundcovers, drooping plants in the rain garden, and leaves curling or drying up on some shrubs. Not long after that I started rescue irrigation on other areas of the farm besides the vegetable garden, usually the only place that I irrigate and then only during (usually) temporary dry periods. I do most of the irrigation by hose and sprinkler. We are fortunate that St. Louis County gets its water supply from the Missouri and Meramec Rivers and can share water with St. Louis City which draws from the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, so I have access to all the water I can spray out and pay for, at least for the time being. I’ve also used all the water our rain barrels have collected, but they go dry before the next rain in a drought like this. Below I’ll discuss how I have put reused water, called graywater, to use since I first noticed the need for it. Since the methods I use are low cost and do not require any changes to your plumbing, some of you may find them of interest. Please remember that everything I write below is for informational purposes only; I cannot and will not be held responsible for anything you might try that causes water damage or other problems. I will do my best to point out pitfalls and cautions, but I am not advocating that you do anything, just sharing some thoughts on what we’ve done and how it has worked.

Graywater is water already used once for some purpose that has no or minimal bacterial contamination and hence could be captured and re-used for irrigating some kinds of plants. The water from your toilet is considered to be blackwater due to its high bacterial levels, so it cannot be reused and must be sent to a sewage plant for processing. Water from your sinks, washing machine, and tub or shower is called graywater. It has small amounts of bacteria, skin cells and secretions, soap or detergent, soil, contaminants such as grease or oils, and/or small food particles in it. You can’t drink such water, and you can’t pour it directly onto plants whose leaves, roots, fruits, or seeds will be wetted by that water because they will become contaminated. Don’t irrigate your vegetable or herb garden or your strawberry patch with graywater! However, graywater can be put to beneficial use to irrigate ornamental plantings, shrubs, or trees, including fruit and nut bearing species whose fruits or nuts are high enough that they won’t be contaminated by splashing water, as long as the plants can withstand whatever contaminants are present in the graywater.  Irrigating trees, shrubs, or woody vines planted within the past year or two with graywater puts my time and labor to haul the water from source to plant to the best use, as these are valuable plants with small root systems and thus at greatest risk in a drought. I irrigate those planted in the previous spring or fall first, then those that have spent at least a year but less than two years in place.

Two important points about using graywater come courtesy of Peter Bane’s new book The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country. The first is that graywater must not be stored longer than 12 hours between its generation and use on the landscape, since the bacterial population will grow over time until the water is absorbed into the ground. The second is that graywater can’t be poured onto soil that has enough moisture that the graywater won’t sink in very soon after it is poured on the surface, in order to avoid contaminants getting into surface water. The graywater needs to be absorbed rapidly into the soil so the soil microbes can decontaminate it. In areas which receive little rain during the growing system, it can be useful to put time and money into systems that pump out and distribute graywater from all household sources throughout a landscape. In places like St. Louis where rainfall is generally adequate and sometimes excessive during the growing season, I think it makes more sense to put together makeshift, low cost systems for the occasional capture and reuse of graywater when needed to mitigate a drought.

The easiest graywater to collect and use is water left over after washing and rinsing dishes. I use a plastic tube as a siphon and a 3 to 5 gallon bucket to collect the water. Plastic tubing can be obtained from a pet store that carries aquarium supplies, a retailer that sells pond supplies, or a home brew or wine making supplier. I use a 4.5 foot long plastic tube, long enough to reach from the bottom of our 6 inch deep kitchen sinks to the bottom of a bucket on the floor. If I had a shorter tube, I would put the bucket on a stool or chair low enough so the bottom of the bucket was below the bottom of the sink. I collect and use the rinse water separately from the wash water since I have a double bowl sink. I fill the siphon tube by submerging it in the sink, blocking both ends with my thumbs, then leaving one hand with the blocked end in the sink and moving the other hand with the blocked end into the bucket. Once the end of the tube is well into the bucket, I unblock both ends and the water flows into the bucket. I could fill the siphon tube from the faucet, block both ends, and proceed as before. If the wash water has a lot of grease or oil on it such as after washing the dishes from a highly fatty meal, I don’t use it since I am not sure if the soil microbes can handle that much grease, instead sending it down the drain as usual.

I could collect and use the water from a bathroom sink in the same way. So far I haven’t because we have water-conserving habits, thus it would take some hours to collect enough water in the sink to siphon out; meanwhile bacteria would multiply in the standing water. But if I filled the sink for washing tasks, it would be worthwhile to siphon out and use this water for irrigation as well.

I could collect a considerable amount of water from our bathtub for use in our landscape, but since the tub bottom is close to the floor, gravity is not much of a help in getting the water from tub to bucket. A cheap hand pump that doesn’t choke on hair would transfer the water from tub to bucket more effectively. I haven’t looked for one yet, but I might do so.

Washing machines use a lot of water that could be diverted to the landscape but present difficulties in accessing it as most washers pump the used water directly into the household drain system.  However, if the washer drains into a utility sink and the sink can be plugged, one could proceed as in the case of dishwater, as long as the sink is large enough to hold all the water from the machine. I would want to know both the sink capacity and the total amount of water from wash, rinse, and spin cycles and verify that the sink can hold that much water before trying this. Splashing onto the surroundings when more water forcefully enters a partially-filled sink is a potential issue. This isn’t something I would do in a finished utility or laundry room or anywhere that doesn’t have a concrete floor because of the risk of water splashing where it shouldn’t.

Our washer’s drain hose fits into a larger pipe leading to a floor drain in our unfinished basement. We have an old metal washtub we acquired at a garage sale. After some messy experimentation, I determined that I could pull the washer drain hose out of the pipe and pass the hose through a 3 inch C clamp that I clamped tightly to the side of the washtub, with the outlet of the hose directed downward into the washtub. (Note: an unclamped hose moves around as a result of the force of the water being pumped through it, spewing water in various directions. It’s a good thing our basement is unfinished and has a concrete floor.)

I was unable to find a plug to fit tightly in the washtub drain, but a description and photo of the new washtubs in the Lehman’s catalog reminded me that if I could attach the outlet end of the washtub drain hose to the top of the washtub, the water would not drain out of the hose until I moved the outlet end below the top of the water level. While the washtub drain hose was a little too short to reach to the top of the washtub, it came close enough to the top that I could improvise a hose clamp from a rubber band wound over the end of the hose and stretched over the upturned end of a curtain hook that I draped over the top edge of the washtub (I could have made a similar hook out of a large paper clip). In this way I can capture most of the water used by our front-loading, water conserving washer for reuse on thirsty plants. A wet floor a couple feet or so surrounding the washtub lets me know that not all the water makes it into the tub, something that isn’t a problem for us because of the concrete floor and lack of furnishings in that area. After the washer finishes, I dip a bucket into the collected water or unhook the washtub drain hose and direct the water into a bucket, re-hooking the hose in place once the bucket is full and until the washtub is emptied.

If we hadn’t already had a washtub, we might have considered the purchase of a plastic free-standing utility sink and collected the water in it similarly. Some general hardware stores carry these sinks. One issue might be whether or not it is sturdy enough for this application. Lehman’s carries new metal and plastic washtubs at corresponding prices, but it may be possible to find an old one at a garage or estate sale at a much cheaper price, as we did.

I also did laundry directly in the washtub, using my own power, reusing the wash and rinse water to irrigate plants. I’ll describe that in a separate post, but it could be a few weeks before I get around to writing it. This blog is supposed to be a rainy day and winter project, but it isn’t raining and it’s a long time till winter, hence it might be awhile till the next post.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Keeping Your Cool in Summer

(long post alert ... you might want to get a beverage of your choice before reading)

For the past few weeks I’ve been planning to write about ways to stay cool in the summer without using air conditioning or using it only minimally. The large-scale electrical outages stemming from last week’s derecho that tore across portions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio and most of West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC, leaving people used to living air-conditioned lives in the summer without it for periods from several hours to several days, makes the topic more timely than ever, especially since the hottest part of summer is just beginning. John Michael Greer has written an excellent post (July 4, 2012) about the danger of relying on air conditioning and other technologies that come to us as if by magic (using magic in the conventional sense of the word); I recommend strongly that you read his post as well as this one. What I want to discuss is how Mike and I keep cool with minimal use of central air conditioning (during heat waves only). I hope that by providing you with practical strategies, you will become better acclimated to the heat and more confident of your ability to make do without AC in the event that you either want to or have to do so. In this way we reclaim control over ourselves that we’ve ceded over the years to large entities such as utility corporations. Call it part of your declaration of independence from corporate control.

Mike and I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s before home air conditioner units became common. Neither of our families had any kind of air conditioning during this time. In my case, growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, this was no big deal, as high temperatures never exceeded the upper 90Fs while I was living there. I wouldn’t use any kind of AC if I lived there now. Mike, on the other hand, has never lived anywhere but the St. Louis metro area, which hits or exceeds 100F every summer at least once and sometimes, as this year, for 10 to 15 days or more. Moreover, the average high temperature in St. Louis is 89F and the average low is 69-71F from June 30 through August 12, with plenty of days in the mid to upper 90s and nighttime lows sometimes not dropping below 80F. We have a long, warm, and humid summer; because of the humidity it cools off less at night than in drier areas like the desert Southwest, making for less restful sleep on the hottest days. It’s important to note, however, that St. Louis summers did not prevent large human settlements in the days before AC. In the 1880s and 1890s the city of St. Louis had about 800,000 residents, many of them living in multi-story brick or stone dwellings because of a terrible fire in 1849 that spurred the use of brick and stone for construction. True, paved roads didn’t exist in the 1800s, but with a high density of brick and stone buildings there must have been a considerable urban heat island effect nonetheless. Furthermore, large settlements existed in the St. Louis metro area long before Europeans arrived here. Monks Mound at the Cahokia Mounds complex on the Illinois side of the metro area is the largest earthen structure in North America, according to Charles Mann in his excellent book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. The Cahokia city-state’s population was about 15,000 in the years from about 950 to 1250 A.D., comparable in size to London. Mann says that at its time it was the only city in North America north of the Rio Grande. Smaller mound complexes existed at the same time at the sites of present-day East St. Louis, St. Louis, and elsewhere in the metro area; total population in the area was likely near 20,000 people at the height of the mound builders civilization. Our location at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers encourages human settlement, despite the wide swings in seasonal temperatures typical of its mid-continental location. People living here before us adapted to the local climate; we can do it too.

When Mike bought a small brick house in Jennings (an inner suburb a few miles from our present house) in 1984, it didn’t have any AC unit at all, and he chose not to install any AC until I moved into his house in 1988. At that time he purchased and installed one small window unit for our bedroom rather than a central AC unit, with my full cooperation. When my family moved to North Carolina in 1971, our house had a central AC unit. My siblings and I had complained for years about the lack of AC in the house we grew up in, at least on the few days the nighttime low actually got higher than 70F and it felt the least bit warm when we were trying to sleep. Now our family actually had one. We were living high! But that first summer I experienced the downside of AC: once you turn it on, it demotivates you from leaving the house, and you find yourself cooped up for most of the summer. I was an active girl and loved being outside, especially in summer, the only time I was warm enough growing up in Michigan. After my parents turned on the AC unit, it felt oppressively hot anytime I ventured outside, too hot to want to bicycle or play hide-and-seek and similar games with my siblings. So I parked myself in front of the family TV for most of the summer, aware of my discontent but not knowing, as a teenager, how to resolve it. All our family homes from then on, and the apartments and condo I lived in when I left home, had central AC. Once I lived on my own I learned to wait as long as possible to turn the unit on, keep it as warm as I could stand to sleep in, and turn it off again as soon as a heat wave broke. But I had the same ambivalence about AC that I’d had in my teens: the cooled air felt better than a heat wave, to be sure, but I resented its seducing me into remaining inside during my favorite season of the year. This is why I was fine with installing a tiny window unit when I moved into Mike’s brick house in a dense inner suburb: I could sleep during the hottest nights at less cost and with less incentive to turn the thing on except when it was very hot. But the sense of being trapped in a tiny space while the AC was on was even stronger when that space was one small bedroom versus a full 900 square foot house. In 1994, we donated that AC unit, and a second window unit we’d purchased for the other bedroom, to an organization that gives them to people who need AC for health reasons and we went AC free for two years. This period of time included the fifth hottest August on record in 1995, in a brick house with inadequate attic insulation and no wall insulation in a densely populated area. I learned much about surviving without AC that has helped us keep its use, and our electric bill, minimal since then. The rest of the time in that house we had only a small AC unit in the second bedroom which we almost never used ourselves, instead living on the screened back porch during the summer.

When we moved to this house in 2002 it, like almost every other single-family house in the metro area, had a central AC unit. It was old, dating from the 1980s, and quite inefficient. Rather than going without AC, we chose instead to upgrade to a new, highly efficient (for 2002) unit that doesn’t use freon, the ozone layer destroying gas used in almost all residential AC units before then and at that time. We reasoned that we might have at least one of our parents living with us for a period of time if he/she couldn’t live alone. While we could manage well enough without AC at our ages at that time (our 40s), we didn’t think we could expect elderly parents used to AC to do the same. We might find it less of a luxury as we age as well, although the disruptions we expect to see as a result of our current predicament make it less likely that AC will be available or if so, that we can afford it when we are elderly. In the meantime, we’ve chosen to use it minimally, turning it on only when our area is under a heat advisory or a heat warning, and then only when these last for at least two days. We’ve set it no lower than 78F; this year we’ve set it to 82F, warm enough to want a fan blowing on us during afternoon and evening, figuring this is using less energy than setting the AC a few degrees cooler to offset the afternoon heat. The upshot is that we run the AC anywhere from 14 days to 30 or so days during the summer, depending on that summer’s weather. This year we didn’t turn it on at all until July 3, despite this being the warmest first six months of a year on record in St. Louis - though I admit that we would have turned it on on June 28, when the high hit 108F on the first day of the current string of 100F+ days, had we been home at the time, and it would have been on since then. We finally turned it on when we arrived back home after a short vacation. With a forecast for a high in the low 90s by July 7 and upper 80s by July 8, we’ll turn it off at that time and keep it off until the next heat advisory or heat warning. Furthermore, we regard AC as a luxury and we are prepared to go without it at any time. Sometimes we have to, as for 7 days in July 2006 when two derechos within 36 hours tore through the St. Louis area. We were in the intersection of the two storms’ tracks, losing electrical service for a day after the first storm and six days after the second. We did fine without electricity, in part because the weather cooled after the second storm to a level where we would not have run the AC even if we’d had it. I minded losing refrigeration more than losing AC, and even there we managed OK. Being accustomed to doing without AC except in the very hottest weather, and being prepared to do without it then if need be, frees up a lot of mental and emotional energy that can be better used elsewhere.

What’s the strategy to doing without AC or using it only in the hottest weather? Here are the things that have worked for us.

1. Spend as much time outside, or in an un-air conditioned interior location, as you can manage. The human body acclimates well to hot weather if it is given a chance to do so. The way to give it a chance is to be outside, in the weather. Most people will find this difficult to do because employment, school, or other circumstances force them to be in air-conditioned spaces most of the time. All the more reason to spend as little of the rest of your time in AC as you can stand. If you have an outdoor space, like a patio, deck, or porch, make it comfortable enough in hot weather to spend time there; add shade with a trellis, pergola, umbrella, awning, or roof and acquire outdoor-safe furniture that you can sit in for long periods of time. A screened porch on the north or east side of your house is excellent if you have or can add it; you can live on it all summer long, even sleep on it if needed. Follow the suggestions below to keep the interior of your house reasonably comfortable without AC. Favor outdoor recreation over indoor pursuits during the summer. Visit parks, go on picnics, take float trips, fish, garden, go to outdoor festivals, ride bicycles along the local streets and trails, take walks, and more. Do all these safely, of course, taking frequent rest breaks in the shade, wearing light colored and loose fitting clothing, and drinking plenty of water. But be sure to stay outside as much as you can manage. Stay in if it gets too hot for you outside, but pick up again with outdoor activities as soon as the heat abates. You really will feel better if you aren’t cooped up all the time, and you’ll manage much longer without AC if your body is used to whatever your current weather is.

2. Leave the AC off whenever possible when you are driving. At work, you may not have a choice about AC; in your car, you do. We open the windows whenever we are traveling on local roads at 45 mph or less. I’ve found that in sunny, hot weather, the combination of radiant heat inside the car and a hot wind entering the car from the windows reduces my alertness too much when we are driving at highway speeds, so I do roll up the windows and turn on the AC then. But at lower speeds I don’t notice any reduction in alertness, so I don’t use AC in the car at those times. You must drive safely, of course; if it takes AC to do that, then by all means use it. But it might not take AC as much of the time as you think it does. The only way to find out is to try it, carefully.

3. If you can, stay out of the rooms on the south and west sides of your home during afternoon and evening, or find a way to shade them from hot summer sun. Our house has a load-bearing wall running north-south, splitting the house into eastern and western halves. The eastern half can be two to three degrees cooler in the afternoon through sundown than the western half during a heat wave. If we didn’t have AC, we could realign room functions so our living areas were on the east side of the house in the summer rather than mostly on the west side as they are now. Another option is to add an overhang or trellis to the west face of our house (the south face already has a roof over it) or awnings to the west windows in order to better block hot afternoon and early evening sun. This is something I’ll be working on over the next year or two.

4. Abandon upper stories of your house during heat waves, or find a way to keep them cool with shading. Many houses have common areas (kitchen, living room, and so forth) on the ground floor and bedrooms on a floor or two above. Hot air is less dense air, so it rises from the ground floor to the floor(s) above. That may be fine during the winter if you like to sleep warm, but it is dysfunctional in the summer, especially during a heat wave. A major reason for air conditioning is to keep us cool enough to sleep well; a major reason for high electricity use in the summer is AC units trying to keep upper-floor bedrooms in the 70s against the force of that rising hot air. This is why it’s difficult to air-condition multi-story houses with a single central unit and get the whole house comfortable; the ground floor will be too cold if the upper floor is comfortable, or the ground floor will be comfortable and the bedrooms too hot for sleeping. Some people install separate AC units for each floor, an expensive and energy-intensive solution that will become less viable as we get farther into our current predicament. Better to abandon upper floors during the hottest weather. Camp out in the common spaces on the ground floor or a ground-floor office, and/or in the basement if you have one. Cots or air mattresses are cheaper than the extra money you’ll spend on trying to cool off upstairs bedrooms during a heat wave and comfortable enough for a few days or even weeks of use. Rig up curtains across interior doorways or basement windows to add some privacy if needed. We have cots and bedclothes to fit them that we can set up in our basement in a few minutes if we lose electricity during a spell hot enough that we’d otherwise run our AC.

Speaking of basements, a popular strategy in pre-air conditioning days in St. Louis was for families to move into their basement during the summer. They might have sleeping areas, a common living area, a bathroom, even a kitchen set up in the basement for use during the summer. I don’t think it’s a good idea to cook, bathe, or spend much awake time in your basement if you’re using it as a place to get a decent night’s sleep during a hot spell. Humans give off about 100 watts of heat continually, warming your basement whenever you’re there; breathing, bathing, and cooking release water vapor into the air, increasing humidity and thereby discomfort. But using your basement as a place to cool off for awhile during the day or as a place where you can sleep comfortably during a hot spell makes a lot of sense. If your basement is too wet to use now but you could make it dry enough for such use at a reasonable cost, this would be a good renovation to pursue.

During the 1930s heat waves, many people in the worst-affected areas slept on their lawns or in public parks such as St. Louis’ Forest Park to avoid the buildup of heat inside their houses. Attitudes have changed enough that I don’t expect public sleep-ins to regain popularity. But a screened porch or a tent pitched in the backyard might be a good way to get some shut-eye during really bad heat if you don’t have AC or it isn’t operable, as long as you feel safe enough there to relax into sleep.

5. Do less indoor cooking during hot weather. Cooking requires heat; much of that heat goes into your kitchen and the rest of your house, rather than into your food. If you’re heating water, some of that water escapes into your home as water vapor, raising the humidity level and making it feel even hotter. Some combination of eating more raw and lightly cooked foods (easy in the summer when your garden, farmers market, and grocery store are well stocked with delicious raw fruits and vegetables and cool salads are very appealing) and doing as much cooking as possible outside will keep your home more comfortable during hot weather. Outdoor BBQ pits and grills, camp and propane stoves, brick or solar ovens, rocket stoves, even a fire pit with a rack to hold a pot over it are all means to cook outside. I don’t know how popular summer kitchens were in the St. Louis area; I know many homes in the South had them before air conditioning. They seem to be making a comeback, at least at the high dollar end, if those pricey patio set-ups I see in catalogs and ads are any indication. But there is no need for those of us living low to miss out on the summer kitchen fun. Consider ways to add kitchen functions to outdoor spaces if you don’t already have them. A Weber kettle is a cheap way to grill, and you don’t need lighter fluid if you purchase or make a fire starter (a can-like structure with a handle and air holes that you pack with paper, tinder, and a little charcoal or wood to get a starter fire going; the starter fire gets dumped onto the wood or charcoal in the kettle to get them burning). Camp stoves are cheap ways to provide yourself with a gas burner or two comparable to a gas stove. You can find directions for making a rocket stove here. You can make a solar oven or buy one; my carpentry skills are poor so I bought one, and we try to use it as many sunny days as possible. You can boil water for beverages, cook rice, beans, soups, and stews, and bake muffins and even bread in a solar oven if you have a good one, pick the right day, aim it right, and re-aim it occasionally as the sun moves through the sky. Folding tables and hot pads will do for makeshift counter space; you can do most prep work, especially that involving water, in your indoor kitchen or you can purchase a camp kitchen with a small sink area or repurpose a laundry sink or a junked kitchen sink. If you have the money, you can purchase or have made an excellent outdoor kitchen with everything you’d want for easy cooking. We’d love to have something like the 50 or 60 year old enormous brick BBQ pit and oven in the yard next door to us. Maybe someday ...

If you have to cook inside, I’ve heard that microwaving transfers the most energy into the food with the least wasted energy, for whatever that’s worth. If you’re using your stove, use the least amount of heat possible for the shortest time possible, matching the burner size to the pot; cover pots tightly to let as little water as possible escape. I think it’s best to avoid using the oven during a heat wave.

6. Bathe or cool off with water, but do it carefully, and outside if possible. No question, cool water on a human body is an excellent way to cool off on a hot day. But whenever you run a shower or let water stand in a bathtub, water vapor is escaping into the air, making the air more humid. You’ll feel less comfortable in humid air and if you’re running an AC unit, it’ll require more energy to remove that added humidity. There are a lot of different ways you can reduce or eliminate this problem. Sponging off with a wet, cool washcloth and letting the water evaporate off your skin will put less water vapor into the air than running your shower while still cooling you off when the water on your skin evaporates. A variation on this theme is the weird-feeling but effective water cooling towel that you wet and drape around your neck, thereby cooling off the blood in your carotid artery which cools the rest of your body. Taking a quick, water-efficient shower will put less water vapor into the air than a longer shower. Bathing in a few inches of water will put less water vapor into the air than filling your bathtub. Running your bathroom fan or opening the window and closing the bathroom door while you shower or bathe will allow less water vapor into the rest of the house.

You might consider the possibilities of cooling off with water outside; this would keep water vapor out of your home during hot spells. Sitting or swimming in a pool or water body (hopefully not bacteria-laden) is an obvious option. Children like to cool off in public fountains designed for that use, although I know of few adult men and fewer women who would use such a fountain. But a garden hose and sprinkler or outdoor shower head such as might be used in a seaside home to wash off sand might substitute if you feel comfortable enough to use them at home (certainly your children will). You could purchase a camp shower and set it up near your home if you’d like to have more privacy. The book The Carbon-Free Home by Stephen and Rebekah Hren discusses outdoor shower stalls and includes a design for one with solar-heated water (depending on the temperature of your incoming water, you might not need or want to heat it if your objective is to cool off). This could be a fun way to spend more time outdoors during the summer.

7. Keep the air moving inside your home. Houses built before the era of air conditioning had many adaptations to facilitate the movement of air within and through the house, such as transom windows above doors to allow air to circulate throughout the house and windows that could be opened at the top as well as at the bottom to expel hot air and allow cooler air to enter the house. If you have such a house and these aren’t currently functional, you’d be wise to make them so if you can afford it, and to use them if you have them. Many houses built prior to the common use of AC have or had attic fans which pulled outside air through open windows and exhausted it into the attic where it then filtered out of the house. If you don’t have one you may be able to have one installed; if you have one but it doesn’t work and you can afford to fix it, do so; if you have a working fan but aren’t using it, start using it and you should keep more comfortable and avoid or reduce AC use. (Do make sure the attic is well insulated so the expelled heat doesn’t re-radiate back into your living quarters.) If you don’t have these and can’t add them, you can still create air movement by opening windows on every side of your house possible and using box and pedestal fans to blow air across your body. This last is what we do; we are cool enough even when the indoor temperature is in the mid 80s when we have air blowing on us. Another way we increase air movement is to run the blower on our furnace continually at night or when we are running the AC; those of you with forced air furnaces should be able to do this as well (check your thermostat to see if it has a fan-on setting). This helps minimize the temperature difference between the east and west sides of our house.

Ceiling fans have been promoted as a way to reduce air conditioner use. I’m not so sure about that. We purchased Energy Star rated ceiling fans when we had our south facing front porch glassed in a couple years back. Because our porch has fixed glass panes on the top three feet of the glass walls, hot air can rise and stagnate there. From there it could enter or radiate into the house (it’s even with the top three feet of the house walls), adding unwanted heat into our living space. Using ceiling fans would, in theory, move that hot air down to the level of the open doors and allow it to escape. Since I track energy use, I was curious to see what effect running the fans had on our electric bill. Looking at the same month of different years, it appears that running both ceiling fans used about 1 Kwh more electricity in a day’s time than if they weren’t running. In a later post I’ll discuss why running the fans might be a net gain during heating season, the reason we enclosed the porch in the first place (even then I’m not convinced). But it didn’t reduce costs in our cooling season that I could tell. Last fall we had the porch ceiling insulated; I haven’t run the ceiling fans at all this summer. Insulating the porch roof has done more to reduce heat build-up at the top of the porch than did use of the ceiling fans, based on the thermometer near the porch ceiling. My current conclusion is that adding insulation to your attic and using small box fans to move air across your body when needed will keep you cooler at less cost and less energy use than will use of ceiling fans without the added insulation. We don’t have ceiling fans in our house and don’t plan to install them at this time.

I used to recommend opening windows only at night to let in cooler air, closing them in the morning once the outside and inside temperature equalizes. This might be a good strategy if no one is home during the day. This summer we left the windows open all day and night until we turned on the AC three days ago, and I found I was more comfortable at a higher indoor temperature with the windows open all the time. I think this is because Mike and I are emitting heat and water vapor directly from our bodies and whenever we cook or run water. With the windows closed and one or both of us home during the day, generating heat and water vapor, that heat and water vapor tend to stay inside the house, making us more uncomfortable than we would be if we allowed outside air to move through the house, even if that air is hotter than the inside air. On the other hand, it's possible that one reason keeping the windows open has worked well this summer is the lower relative humidity due to the current drought, so I'll have to check this out again should the drought break. Humidity seems to trump temperature in terms of comfort level; if you can keep humidity down and keep air moving, you’ll be more comfortable at a higher temperature. Try it both ways and see what you think.

Some of you may feel uncomfortable about opening your windows because of fear or actuality of crime. When I was single, I was prone to such fears and used AC more than I would have otherwise, so I am sympathetic. I’m also sympathetic to concerns about dicey neighborhoods; most people put our neighborhood in Jennings in that category and some would put our current neighborhood in that category, though I haven’t felt unsafe in either place. When we had wood windows in Jennings, we opened them a little and drilled a hole through the upper and lower frames so we could insert a nail into the hole. It would not have been possible for someone to force the window open farther than that without breaking the window, something most burglars prefer not to do because of the noise it generates. We could do the same with our current aluminum windows, but our windows are high enough off the ground that they’d be difficult to get into without at least a step stool so I don’t worry about it. The vinyl replacement windows we later got for the Jennings house had stops that could be pulled out so the window could be opened a bit but not so far as to allow entry. There may be other ways to have slightly open but still secure windows that I don’t know about. I recommend that you find a way to keep your windows slightly open but still secure enough that you feel safe if that’s possible to do at a cost you can afford. Turning off your TV will help with the psychological aspects, but that’s another post. I sleep better with the windows open, with night air and night sounds coming in, than I do with the AC on and the house closed up (granted, I live in a less dense, reasonably quiet area without industrial or traffic fumes to cause distress; if you don’t and you use AC because of that, I understand).

8. Dress properly and drink lots of water. Proper dress in a humid summer climate means light weight, light colored, loose fitting clothing made of natural fibers. Shorts and a loose fitting T shirt should be suitable for most people outside of their place of employment. If you need to wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt, or a long skirt or dress for modesty, these should be made from the lightest color, lightest weight, loosest fabric that is appropriate. You want body heat and sweat to be able to escape into the open air. Summer is not the time for tight jeans, or any jeans for that matter; light natural fiber pants will keep you cooler. The paler the color of your clothes and the closer the color is to white or light tan, the less sunlight your clothing will absorb and re-radiate back toward your body as heat.

The best and cheapest summer drink is water for anyone doing normal human activities at a normal human pace. I don’t use sports drinks because I don’t need them to walk or ride my bicycle a few miles for transportation or to do garden work, even strenuous work like digging; plain water is sufficient for hydration. If you participate in competitive or very active sports in the summer, you know more about hydration (or at least you should) than I do, so I’m leaving that topic to the experts. You could add a little fruit juice to water for flavor, but stay away from soda or other sweet drinks in the summer because they are dehydrating (I’d dilute fruit juice with water if I drank it during the summer as straight fruit juices are sweet enough to be dehydrating). Sugar free soda is dehydrating; avoid it too. Similarly, tea, coffee, and alcoholic beverages are all dehydrating. A little of any of these is OK if you drink more water to compensate, but don’t overdo it with any of these, and especially don’t think they substitute for water. Milk didn’t seem to be dehydrating when I drank it as a child, but milkshakes certainly are. I don’t know about kefir or other fermented drinks.

9. If you haven't already done so and you can afford it, seal all air leaks into your home and add insulation to your attic if it doesn't have enough. Around here R-44 is the recommended level of attic insulation. Sealing the air leaks will keep drier, cooler air inside and hotter, humid air outside. Properly insulating your attic will keep heat absorbed by the roof and re-radiated into your attic from heating up your ceiling and re-radiating onto you. If you are re-roofing, make the new roof white to reduce absorbed and re-radiated heat even more. People with flat roofs can paint them with special white paint to reduce this form of heat gain.

10. If you cannot stay cool enough to avoid the use of AC, keep the temperature set as high as possible, use it as few days as you can stand while remaining healthy, and keep as much heat and water vapor out of your home as possible while it’s on. As I noted, we’re using AC at the moment. Highs have been between 100F and 108F for the past 9 days (it’s 105F right now), with an excessive heat warning in effect. Under these conditions we’d have to sleep in the basement to get a decent night's sleep; our basement is moister than we like so we’re not eager to sleep there, though we would if we had no electricity. Since we have the AC, we are using it. But it’s set at what many if not most people would consider too high a temperature for comfort (82F). I find I don’t want to be any colder at night than that, and as long as I have a fan blowing on me from mid afternoon through mid evening, I’m cool enough even in the west end of the house. I’m typing this from the west end at 4:45 p.m. with the furnace fan on only, and I feel fine. Setting the temperature this high keeps energy use and our electric bills lower. If your house is empty much of the day or night and you don’t already have a programmable thermostat, get one (the ones that allow you to program each day of the week separately are best), learn how to program it, and use it. Anytime the AC isn’t on or is set to a higher temperature than if you were at home, you save energy and dollars. Try easing the temperature setting up a degree at a time if you want to see if you do OK at a higher temperature setting; again you’ll save energy and dollars even if you only set it higher by a degree or two. Use all the ways I suggested above to keep as much heat and water vapor out of your house as you can. Close the shades and blinds on all windows, or as many as you can, during daylight hours to keep some sun and thus heat out of your house. If you can add shading to the south or west side of your house via roof overhangs, window awnings, trellised vines, shrubs, or trees, do that; it’ll reduce energy use and dollars spent while the AC is on. If you keep records of kilowatt hours used and dollars spent each month along with the cooling degree days for the month, you can learn how specific changes affect your energy use. No better time than now to start!