How We Survive Without Air Conditioning

Today’s Works-for-Me Wednesday lead article is about staying cool in the summertime.  The author lives in Texas, where it is a lot hotter right now than it is here in Pennsylvania–but we do get hot weather here, we’ve had several 90-degree days already this year, and we know a lot of people here who think air conditioning is absolutely essential to their survival of summer.  I grew up in Oklahoma, where every summer is oven-hot for weeks at a stretch, yet my parents never used their central AC more than a few days a year.  Air conditioning uses a lot of energy and therefore costs a lot of money, and in my opinion it’s just not that great–it feels and smells weird, and it’s often too cold!

I think there are three main techniques to living comfortably without air conditioning: Make long-term choices that set you up for success, make hot-day choices that improve comfort, and have the right attitude.  Here are some details in each category:

Long-term Choices

Of course, many of these choices involve other factors, like where you have to live for your job, what kinds of housing are available in your area, and what health conditions and innate body type you have. When you have options, though, try to choose these:

  • Live in a place with reasonable weather.  Everyone’s idea of “reasonable” is different.  The goal with this choice is to live in a place where you will feel the need to run your air conditioner and furnace, totaled together, no more than half the days of the year.  I like the climate here in Pittsburgh because really hot weather usually lasts only a few days at a time, off and on during the summer, so just when I’m feeling like I can’t take any more heat, we get a rainstorm followed by cooler, clearer days.  I also consider Oklahoma’s climate “reasonable” because the hottest days usually are not very humid, which makes the temperature more bearable, and the shorter milder winters make up for the longer hotter summers.
  • Choose a home built to function without air conditioning.  Older homes usually have higher ceilings, more and larger windows, thicker interior walls made of real plaster, covered porches, and other features designed to make the space more livable in hot weather.  Some newer homes also have these features–look for them.
  • Have a well-insulated home.  The obvious way to do this is by packing the maximum amount of insulation into your walls and attic, having good-quality windows, and making sure your windows and doors seal tightly when closed.  Another option to consider, though, is being insulated by your neighbors’ homes.  We live in a row house in the middle of the row, so only our front and back walls are exterior walls.  We realized just how much our neighbors were insulating us when our bathroom renovation enabled us to see into our attic for the first time–we do not have any attic insulation!!  (We do plan to get some, in a few years, after we get the ceiling lights rewired.)  Yet our house stays bearably cool in the summer, and our heating bills in the winter are quite reasonable, because of our sheltered walls and good windows.  Our previous home was a top-floor apartment about 100 square feet smaller than our house but with bad windows and a long west-facing wall…and our heating bills for the first winter in the house were only two-thirds as much as for our last winter in the apartment!
  • Have shade on your walls and windows in the summer.  Plant deciduous trees (the kind that lose their leaves in winter) around your home, especially on the west and south, or choose a home that already has trees.  The shade will keep you cool in the summer, but in the winter the leafless trees will allow the sun to warm you.
  • Stay slim.  I haven’t really researched the science on this, but I know that almost every time I dare make a comment about how I personally feel pretty comfortable in the heat or painfully chilled by extreme air conditioning, a heavier person will leap to tell me, “That’s because you don’t have much insulation on you!”  I will resist ranting about their manners by simply linking to this article.  It seems from my casual observations that there is some correlation between being overweight and being uncomfortable in heat, but there’s still a lot of variation between people.

Hot-day Choices

  • Dress for the weather.  Wear lightweight clothing made of natural fibers.  Expose as much skin as is comfortable for you (and people around you).  Consider covering upholstered furniture with sheets so you can sit on it without it feeling itchy against your bare skin and without worrying about getting sweat on it.
  • Stay hydrated.  My dad always says, “Water is your active ingredient!” and I got sick of hearing it as a kid, but he’s right!  Even if you are just around the house, not exercising, drink at least a full glass of water every hour or two.  Drink an extra glass before every serving of caffeine.  (Sometimes, when you feel you need caffeine to perk up, what you really need is water.)  Your urine should be very pale yellow; if it is dark, you’re not drinking enough.  Make a big batch of herbal tea and keep it in a pitcher in the refrigerator, for a sugar-free change of pace from plain water–peppermint tea is especially refreshing.  Try drinking homemade electrolyte replenisher when you feel especially wiped out.
  • Close and cover sunny windows.  There’s no point letting hot air into your house or letting sunlight heat the air near your windows, unless you are using the light from that window right now.  Close the window, and close the drapes or pull down the shade, whenever the sun is shining on that side of the house.  My parents have an indoor/outdoor thermometer, and we sometimes were able to keep the inside of the house 15 or 20 degrees cooler than the outside simply by closing and covering most of the windows by about 9:00 each morning.
  • Pull in cooler air at night.  Once the outdoor temperature is cooler than the indoor, open windows and use fans to bring in fresh air.  A whole-house fan (also called “attic fan”) is most effective; fans that fit right into the window are great, too, especially if there are two windows in the room so that hot air can escape from one while the fan pulls cool air in the other.  A freestanding fan placed near a window, facing away from it, will suck in some of the outdoor air.  (Don’t place a fan that’s not designed to be used in a window on the windowsill unless it’s a very wide sill–most fans will lose their balance after a while and may damage themselves, furnishings, or people when they fall.)
  • Set up fans that blow on you.  The breeze evaporates your sweat, making you feel cooler.  A typical fan uses less than one-tenth as much energy as a typical window air conditioner!  It’s important to understand, though, that a fan does not actually lower the temperature of the air–in fact, its motor creates a little bit of heat–so there’s no point in leaving it running when nobody is in front of it.  Get plenty of fans and extension cords so that they’re easy to set up–crawling through some tight, dusty space behind furniture to reach an outlet is such a pain when you’re hot and sweaty!
  • Get wet!  Again, evaporation will cool your skin.  Splash cold water on your face and arms.  Dampen your clothing.  Rub an ice cube on yourself.  Take an extra, cold shower.  Don’t blow-dry your hair; let it keep you cool!  Play in the bathtub.  (This was my son’s favorite summer activity when he was a baby who had just learned to sit up!)  Play in the hose or sprinkler, watering your garden or lawn with the runoff.  Bonus: When you enter a non-air-conditioned house after playing in the water, you won’t get a sudden attack of chills!
  • Hang out downstairs.  Heat rises, so upper floors tend to be warmer than lower ones.  Our house is two stories plus basement, and on hot days there is a very noticeable shift in temperature as you walk down each staircase.  Arrange to do most things downstairs, at least during the day and early evening.  We have some friends who actually move their bed into their basement every year for July and August!
  • Avoid cooking methods that heat up the house.  Plan meals such that the longest periods of cooking and any use of the oven will happen late at night or on days when cooler weather is forecast.  When a day is hotter than you expected, change your plans and fix food that requires little to no cooking, like instant hummus with plenty of raw veggies for dipping.  Consider cooking on a George Foreman grill–we’re amazed at how much less it heats up the kitchen, compared to cooking in a skillet on our gas stove!  Cook a pot of brown rice at night and then make Brown Rice Salad to eat on hot days.
  • Try a spicy, salty, hot soup.  I feel silly about this because it seems that it works because “it feels so good when you stop,” but for me the effect lasts several hours!  Sweating from the spices or the steamy food puts more moisture on your skin that will cool you as it evaporates–make sure to set up your fan in the dining room!  Salt is important in hot weather because you lose a lot of it when sweating; if you are prone to low blood pressure like I am, this can have a serious effect on your energy level and may even be dangerous for your health.
  • Don’t hold open the freezer or refrigerator.  You might think it’s making you cooler, but every bit of coolness you let out of that box has to be replaced–by a motor that gives off heat as it works, and that heat goes right back into your kitchen!  Wasting your refrigerator’s coolness just drives up your energy bills.  It also lets your food warm up a bit, which may cause it to spoil faster.  In humid weather, even a very short time with the door open causes a lot of condensation to form inside the fridge or freezer, leading to soggy labels on your food packages and yucky ice crystals on your ice cream.
  • Minimize artificial lighting.  Incandescent light bulbs give off a lot of heat.  Fluorescent ones are cooler (and more energy efficient), but still, why waste electricity when you could open the drapes an inch and sit by the window to read?  Learn from The Lightbulb Ninja how to get the most from each lumen.
  • Run appliances at night.  Whenever possible, wait until after dark to run your dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, food processor, sewing machine, or anything else with a motor.  Not only do these machines give off waste heat that will make your house warmer, but they use electricity, which in many areas costs more during “peak demand” hours, i.e. the hours when people use the most air conditioning.
  • Get your hair off your neck.  I often wear mine in a ponytail during the summer, but some days that makes my head or face hurt–and a looser ponytail makes me nervous because it always feels like it’s about to fall down.  Instead, I often wear a bandana around my head as a kerchief.  It holds my hair up just enough that it’s not touching my neck, without tension.  It also suppresses the frizzy tendencies of my hair in humid weather.  [UPDATE: In 2014, I found the Flexi Clip, an extremely comfortable but secure way to hold up my hair.]
  • On the worst days, go someplace cold!  Have dinner in a restaurant, go to a movie, hang around a shopping mall, or just go to the supermarket to get into air conditioning for a little while, at someone else’s expense!  Be careful about your timing, though, and about what you expect from yourself afterward.  As a teenager, I would sometimes walk two miles through blazing sun to get to the mall, thinking how good the cool would feel–but I was so hot when I got there, walking straight into a store 30 degrees colder than outside was a shock that made me feel like wetting my pants or throwing up!  I’d have to stand in the air lock between the two sets of exterior doors for about ten minutes before I acclimated.  Then, after an hour or two in the air conditioning, the walk home seemed unbearable.  The secret was to buy a cold drink or frozen yogurt and then immediately leave the mall, consuming my cold treat while walking.

Attitude Adjustments

  • It’s summer.  It’s supposed to be hot.  Do your best to appreciate this fleeting time of year, which seems so strange to recall just a few months later when you are wearing 17 fuzzy garments and still shivering.  Enjoy your sleeveless tops, airy sundresses, sandals, ice-cream cones, fresh fruits and vegetables, gazpacho, swimming, nude sleeping, card games on the porch, breezes, morning glories, and all the other delights of the season!
  • When you go someplace air conditioned, put on a jacket.  Train your body to feel normal being very warm.  Then you’ll feel more comfortable when you go back outdoors.  If you don’t want to carry a jacket on your way to and from the AC, wear a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and roll them down when you get there.  I work in an office, so I have no choice about being in AC all day, five days a week–and I can’t even control the temperature!  So I wear a cardigan sweater all day, and when I wear a skirt I bring leggings to wear under it.  I also drink a hot beverage every couple of hours.  This way, when I take off my layers at the end of the day, I feel chilled on my way downstairs, and when I get outside the warmth feels wonderful!
  • Give yourself a break.  Especially in the very hottest, humidest weather, don’t expect too much from yourself.  Plan some lazing-around time into your schedule.  Don’t try to do a lot of chores that involve moving heavy objects.  Make meals simple.  Allow extra time to walk places.  Remember that you are just a small person on an enormous planet tilting toward the sun, and give in to its annual cycle; don’t fight it.

Happy summer!  Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for hundreds of helpful tips.  Visit Your Green Resource for more environmentally friendly articles.  Visit Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more money-saving ideas.

20 thoughts on “How We Survive Without Air Conditioning

  1. A few nitpicky notes from your energy-auditor brother on an otherwise excellent article… For those of us living in humid climates, the main cause of summer discomfort is humidity, not temperature. Many of the tips you give above are counterproductive in humid weather because although they may cool you off immediately, they add humidity to the air, so unless you’ve got good ventilation to get the humidity out of the house and somehow replace it with drier air, you run the risk of condensation — and mold growth — when the temperature drops at night. It’s one thing to take a cool shower in the ventilated bathroom, but if you wear that wrung-out shirt in the living room you could be creating problems for later. Less obviously:

    * You’re right that fans don’t reduce the temperature of the room, but when they evaporate your sweat (or wrung-out shirt), they also increase the humidity of the room! On several energy audits I’ve seen people using fans in place of dehumidifiers where moisture is a problem (for example in a crawl space), thinking the fan will solve the moisture problem by getting rid of the water, when in fact it sends the water up into the floor joists where it can do the most damage.

    * Adding insulation to a previously uninsulated home can decrease your heating and cooling load so much that your furnace and air conditioner are oversized and no longer work efficiently. This has happened to us this year — we had insulation blown into our previously hollow walls in January, and our central AC, which last summer could barely keep the house cool, now produces wide temperature swings which are not only uncomfortable, they can cause condensation problems as the cold air from the ducts mixes with hot humid air. Ceiling fans help, but if we don’t replace the entire AC soon ($$$$), we may need to get a variable-speed blower to send air through the cooling coil faster. We didn’t budget for this because we didn’t expect the insulation to make that much of a difference. You talk about older houses designed to work without AC — they were also designed to work without insulation, so when you change that, you are significantly altering the design, and there may be unexpected consequences.

    * Here’s a great article about how air conditioners are oversized to cool buildings when they should be sized to dehumidify them: However, that said, it’s an expensive mistake to try to use a dehumidifier to do an air conditioner’s job: If you have a damp basement and need a dehumidifier, consider a heat pump water heater, which will put all that “latent heat” to use and save you a bundle on water heating if your current water heater is electric. If you must run a dehumidifier, your tip above about running appliances at night is excellent — get a plug-in timer and be sure to check it several times a year (as the analog models are notorious for keeping bad time).

    * Depending on what you have in your basement, sleeping in the basement as you suggest above may be unhealthy. Between natural gas, carbon monoxide, radon, mold, cleaning products, and other household chemicals, not to mention domestic wildlife, most unfinished basements are not wholesome places to sleep. For the same reason, check your basement out thoroughly before you decide to blow that temptingly cool air up into the house.

    Finally… since becoming an energy auditor I’ve been surprised to find that air conditioning is actually not the energy hog that you and I were raised to believe it is. The article you linked to above shows a graph of Watt-hours per hour of *continuous use* — but a properly sized AC only runs continuously on the hottest day of the year (and even then only during the hottest hours). In my experience auditing homes here in humid eastern Kansas, AC rarely contributes more than half of a household’s electric bill. That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of room for improvement, but shutting off the AC entirely in this climate is not something I can recommend because most of the houses weren’t built to withstand the humidity. In a drier climate, with older housing stock, you can get away with it, but I shudder to think what may be inside our parents’ house’s walls after 36 swampy summers.

    Thank you for an excellent and thought-provoking article!

    • Wow, thanks for all the expert details, Ben!

      The point about fans not removing humidity is a good one. We learned about that when we moved in and scrubbed our whole basement while it was empty, then ran fans trying to dry it so we could paint. We did not cause any serious problem, but it was amazing how long it took to dry! If the fans helped at all, I think it was only by evaporating the puddles (floor has many low spots) into the air; there were no more puddles, but the air and all surfaces felt quite damp for another couple days.

      I wouldn’t say I recommended sleeping in the basement, just that we know people who do it. I don’t think I would like it in an unfinished basement like ours or theirs. Another friend lived for a few years in a nice dry basement that he had fixed up really well–that was different.

  2. I don’t like running A/C unnecessarily, but our place gets a lot warmer than yours, probably (like you said, we provide insulation for you!). This has been a freak year, in that I haven’t installed our window A/C units yet, but this weekend it might get into the 90s in our rooms, so it’s time to install them soon.

  3. I spent the first half of my childhood in the Northwest, where the summers are mild and dry enough that most places didn’t have A/C. Then we moved to the Midwest, land of the air conditioning. I can’t stand how frigid it is inside most establishments during the summer, and you can make yourself sick if you have to go in and out of an air-conditioned building all day. I have to remember to bring a jacket with me everywhere so I don’t freeze. Unfortunately I’ve found from going back to Seattle that more and more places there have gotten A/C since we moved.

    I do bring a jacket to work with me in the summer; I tried just leaving one there but it’s equally as freezing on the train, so I need it there as well. It’s a pain to carry it on my 20-minute walk in the beating sun between the train station and work, but it’s better than freezing my butt off.

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  6. Just wanted to say, I will be needing this article more soon than I thought! We are moving back to the West Coast, and there’s a good chance the place we’ll be living won’t be air conditioned. Yay!

    Even though I am leaving my job because Mike got a new job and I want to go with him, during my exit interview I am very tempted to tell HR I’m leaving because our floor is too cold. This past week the A/C was on so high it was ridiculous. My coworkers and I have been complaining to facilities literally for years — they did before I even got there — so maybe they will get some attention finally if HR gets involved?? For their sakes, I certainly hope so.

    • I recommend telling HR your true reason for leaving but also mentioning in your exit interview that the chilly office was a major problem for you while working there. It can’t hurt to tell them and might even help.

      I’ll look forward to reading more about your relocation on your blog!

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