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Staying cool without air conditioning

by Karen on July 9, 2012

Our air conditioner has been out since Thursday. While I’m a big believer that air conditioning is a luxury, not a necessity (the vast majority of people on the planet don’t have access to air conditioning, and many of them live in much warmer climates than the United States), I am honest about the fact that I love air conditioning. It’s my very favorite luxury there is, and I will sacrifice many other things in my budget to be able to afford it. So I’m not a happy camper right now.

Thankfully, the timing could have been worse. This weekend was the tail-end of a 10-day stretch of 100+ degree temperatures. We suffered through an uncomfortable night Thursday, and Friday after my morning class we hit the road to visit Tony’s family and take advantage of their air conditioning, because it was 104 degrees here on Friday and Saturday. When we arrived home last night, the temperature had dropped considerably thanks to some rain, so last night wasn’t too bad thanks to some fans, open windows, and a nice breeze.

It’s sticky and humid with an 87-degree high today, so while I’d prefer to keep the sticky humidity out of my house, at least we’re not baking in unsafe 100+ degree heat while we wait for the repairman.

We don’t know what it will cost to fix yet, but as you can imagine, air conditioning repair is in high demand right now. So the repair guy won’t be here until around 4:30 this afternoon. While we don’t have long to wait (hopefully), the experience made me feel even worse for the people around the country who suffered through this heat wave with no air conditioning or no power — not only did they not have air conditioning, they didn’t even have fans. Not to mention their refrigerators and freezers weren’t working, and in this heat, there’s pretty much no saving anything that requires refrigeration. My heart goes out to anyone who went through that ordeal.

I also realized that because I’ve been privileged enough to live in air conditioned homes my whole life, I have no idea how to go about keep a house cool without it. I did a little research last night to make sure that we’re as comfortable as possible today, and I wanted to share what I learned. It’s helpful information to have if your air conditioner ever stops working during a heat wave, and might even be a good way to save some money. If you can keep your house cool without air conditioning and only crank up the unit when the temperatures go way up, it would cut your summer cooling costs considerably.

Opening the windows isn’t always the best option.

This was the biggest lesson I learned in my research. When it’s hot, my first instinct is to open the windows. But we’ve noticed on warm days early in the cooling season when we’re resisting the urge to turn on the air, it’s actually cooler in the house when the windows are closed.

If it’s warmer outside that it is in your house, it’s actually better to close the windows to keep that hot air from getting inside. The best strategy is to open the windows after the sun sets and the temperatures cool, use fans to pump as much cool air as possible into the house in the evening and night, and then close the windows in the morning when the temperatures start to go up. That way you’ll hold the cool evening air in the house as long as possible.

Close the shades.

If you’re living without air conditioning, the best way to stay cool is to keep the sun from shining through your windows. You can do this by closing the shades, closing the curtains, or installing reflective film on the windows. All of these options are actually good ways to increase the efficiency of your air conditioner as well, so it’s a good idea to keep the shades closed on really hot days and install reflective film even if your air conditioner is working.

Maximize air flow through your house.

When your air conditioner is running, most experts agree that it’s smart to close the vents in rooms you don’t use and keep the door closed so you’re only using energy to cool the rooms you use most. When you’re counting on outside air to keep the house cool, the opposite is true. Open as many windows in as many rooms as possible and leave all the doors open to allow air to flow through the house. If windows are open on opposite sides of a room, it will create a nice cross breeze and cool things down even more.

Create a cross breeze using fans.

You can simulate the effects of a cross breeze by strategically placing fans on opposite sides of a room. Air feels much cooler when it’s moving, so you’ll be more comfortable in a warm room if the air is circulating.

Wear (and sit on) breathable fabric.

It’s common sense that when it’s hot, you should wear light, breathable fabrics like cotton, and dress minimally to keep cool. Also consider the fabric you’re sitting on. I noticed last night that I was much more comfortable on our cotton slipcovered sofa than I was when I sat in the microfiber recliner. If your couch or chairs are made of synthetic fibers like microsuede or a material that doesn’t breathe well like leather, cover them with a cotton sheet. Not only will you feel cooler while sitting on them, but it will also save your sofa from excessive sweat (yuck).

Turn off lights and appliances.

The last thing you want to do in a hot house is turn on the oven or the clothes dryer. Consider hanging laundry to dry if you must wash clothes during a heat wave. Lightbulbs also generate a surprising amount of heat. Keep as many of them off as possible during the day. It might be a little dark inside with the shades drawn and the lights off, but darker = cooler.

Be safe.

In extremely hot temperatures like the ones many people in the United States faced last week, people can become seriously ill or even die from heat exhaustion. If you don’t have an air conditioner, it isn’t working, or you lose your power during a heat wave, make sure you put safety first. Also make sure you and your family are properly hydrated in warm weather, and if it’s over 90 degrees in your house, it might be time to seek emergency shelter. Keep a close eye on children and senior citizens to make sure they’re handling the heat okay, and don’t be afraid to escape to a cooler place.

During extreme weather, most cities open cooling shelters in public buildings where people can escape the heat during the warmest part of the day. Head to a shelter, visit a friend’s air conditioned house, or even just spend the day browsing the air conditioned mall or another cool public place.

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July 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm

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1 Kacie July 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm

My bathroom’s main lights are the hottest little things, so when our power was out I used two smaller, cooler lights when I took a shower. It was more dim but it was cooler and that’s all that mattered.

We’d keep the windows closed and the shades drawn until evening and then open the windows and have one box fan pointing OUT a window, with a window across the house open. Just one open, and then the cooler air would be sucked in the house and hot air pulled out.

Sorta works but sometimes not as much.

i’m glad you got outta there for the weekend!
Kacie´s last blog post ..Looking at mortgage refinance scenarios — is it worth it?

2 Jenny July 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm

A couple more tips:

Splash some cool water on yourself. I find the most effective place is the ears, just a few dabs of water behind the ear, and you feel cool quickly. This is really effective if you stand in front of a fan afterwards. You can also dampen a shirt or bandana and wear that, also most effective with a breeze, and better in lower humidity.

If you have long hair, wear it up in a high ponytail. It helps to have it off of your neck so air can circulate there. Also for men who have a fair bit of short hair growing on the back of the neck below the hairline, try getting this clipped off. My bf has this, and he says he feels way cooler after I take the clippers to it.

I like to keep a magic bag (cloth sack filled with raw rice) in the freezer. Then when I get really hot, I take it out and put it on my head or the back of my neck. This cools me down nice and quick. I also put this on my pillow when I’m trying to fall asleep. This works best for bags made of thin cotton, not flannel or fleece which are nicer when used hot.

Eat or drink something cold. A small bowl of ice cream, freezie, popsicle, or smoothie can help cool you down some or even just a glass of cold or ice water. Just don’t overdo it with the high calorie treats. Also you can just keep some frozen fruit on hand and snack on that. I love frozen blueberries and cherries for this. Grapes and strawberries are good too. You can buy bags of these already frozen (except maybe the grapes) or make your own. Just spread fruit in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze. When it’s solid, transfer to a bag or container and it should stay separate.

If you don’t want to go without lights, switch to cfl or led bulbs. They generate a lot less heat.

3 cheryl July 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Our AC went out last week. It is original to the house – 22 years old! I feared the worst. Fortunately, it was only a blown fuse!! Hope yours is a simple an inexpensive fix like ours was. I second a cool washcloth, or something cold on your neck for immediate relief!!

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