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!


  1. Thank you for taking the time to spell out what can be done to avoid "a/c addiction". As a child I lived in San Antonio, Texas with no a/c, along with several hundred thousand other people. In the early 1990's I again lived in San Antonio for five years without a/c. I did indeed adapt.

    Now I continue to live in rural South Texas but with central air. Last summer, during one of the hottest on record here and in severe drought (seems like we had over 60 days of 100+ degrees), we kept the thermostat set at 80 or 81, the reasoning

  2. (continued) we figured a 20 degree cooler difference between indoor and outdoor temps should satisfy anyone. I was comfortable as long as I had a fan for air movement on.

    I also read JMG's blog the Archdruid Report and am glad to have found your blog as a result.

    1. I bow in respect to all those in places like Texas who go without AC or minimize its use. No doubt I can learn something from you! I'm in agreement with you that a 20 degree differential between indoor and outdoor temperatures should be sufficient. Many businesses keep their premises too cold in the summer. I always take a long sleeved shirt or jacket with me if I will be spending time in, for instance, a restaurant or a conference center during air conditioning season, otherwise I get chilled.

  3. Thanks for your advice about living without or almost without air conditioning. We do air condition our second-floor bedroom at night but the rest of the house isn't air-conditioned. Like you I have never liked being shut up inside the house during the warmer months. I keep coming back to this post for tips on other ways I can make our house more comfortable during very hot weather. Looks like the heat wave is going to leave us, at least for a while.

  4. Friends of ours whose previous house had two stories had only one window AC unit in one 2nd story bedroom. They found they could keep the downstairs cool enough by leaving the bedroom door open and fashioning a "duct" out of the plastic bags their dry cleaning came home in to direct the cooled air down the stairs into their living area. They could close the bedroom door at night to keep cool air in their bedroom while they slept. I found that to be a pretty clever way to use a window unit. Since they had radiator heat and thus no duct work, it would have cost them way too much to have central AC added.

  5. Saw your comment/link on JMG's site. Great post! I empathize with not liking the house closed up. We have a small farm, and keeping the windows open keeps me feeling better in touch with everything that's going on outside with our poultry, waterfowl & livestock guardian dogs.

    Like yourself, we're using AC only when absolutely necessary, and it's really nice to see in the comments that many others think alike - hey, we're not crazy after all! :-) As we can, we're adding sun-shade screening on the windows, with plans for a second house-length covered porch in the back. We already use full-length shade-cloth curtains on the front porch where we have a south/west exposure (easy to make, and not expensive when you use the big-box store rolls of garden shade cloth).

    Our southwest hillside exposure can make summers tough (the hot winds blow straight up to our house), but we get good passive solar heating in the winter. We're semi-arid here in South-Central Texas, so have an easier time of it than you do with regards to night-time temps & humidity - we average a 20℉-degree drop or better at night. A fan in a window does wonders in the evening, as well as ceiling fans.

    Here's to acclimation, and lots of cool drinks!

    1. I hadn't thought of checking for rolls of garden shade cloth; thanks for the idea! I could use it for our south-facing front porch windows or for the west-facing windows.

  6. “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.”--- Well, it’s a way to save up on your electric bills! Come to think of it, you probably assumed that you can’t survive without your AC, but after trying to open your windows for days, you got used it. You didn’t expect that you’re gonna enjoy it, right? ;))

    Darryl Iorio

    1. Actually I already knew we could survive without the AC; we did not have a central AC at our previous house and for two years we didn't have window units either. When we didn't have an AC at all, we kept windows open at night and closed them in the morning, thinking that by doing that we were keeping cooler air in the house. But I had forgotten that the interior air might be more humid after we'd been breathing into it for awhile. Letting in less humid outside air, even when it was hotter, seemed to bring more comfort. As I pointed out, we did turn on the AC on the sixteen worst days we were home (highs over 100F, lows in the mid 70 to mid 80sF). We could have done without, but when the central air unit is right there, it's tempting to turn it on.

  7. When I was young, I lived in a tropical country, so I can say that I can also survive without using an AC. However, withstanding heat waves during extremely hot days can be a health threat. So, in order to use the AC without worrying too much about the bills, I schedule my AC usage. Also, I have modified the rooms in our house in such a way that the airflow isn’t restricted.

    Georgia Fuller