Easy Sustainability Answers

What are the best ways to stay cool in the summer without an air conditioner?

Matt Berger Jul 12, 2010

Easy Answer: Try water, shade and a little cave time.

As the mercury rises this summer, finding ways to stay cool that don’t require a power-hungry air conditioner can help you save money and the environment. You could do what New York City officials did last week and threaten to fine people that leave their door open and let the cool out. But police enforcement isn’t the only way to save energy during a heat wave.

For some Easy Answers on how to stay cool without an air conditioner, we turned to Stan Cox, a senior scientist with the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author of the book Losing Our Cool.

Cox is a guest on today’s Marketplace for a segment about summer without AC and provided us with his list of six ways to stay cool without stressing the power grid.

1. Get a breeze going
Your body is constantly generating heat, in amounts comparable to what’s put out by a 100-to-300-watt light bulb. You’re uncomfortable in hot or humid weather because your body has a harder time ridding itself of that heat. That’s when ceiling, window, or floor fans are useful. Why keep 25,000 cubic feet of living space refrigerated in order to keep two or three people cooled off? Air moving across your body is highly effective in helping you shed heat; some of the newer portable fans do an even better job than the traditional box fan. Attic or whole-house fans, when turned on in the evening after the outdoor temperature has dropped, replace hot air that has accumulated inside during the day with fresh, cooler air.

2. Unplug
Any household device that runs on energy in the form of electricity or gas also releases much of that energy as waste heat. The fewer things you have turned on, the less heat you have to deal with. There’s a reason that around the world, kitchens traditionally have been separated from the main house. Cut back on boiling and baking especially. Keep any unneeded lights turned off. Energy-efficient light bulbs and refrigerators pump out less heat than conventional ones. Take tepid or cold, not hot, showers, to relieve the house of a big load of humidity (and remove a lot of heat from your own body). And use advanced solar technology–the clothesline–to dry the laundry.

3. Go back to the cave
If you have a basement, take advantage of it. The Flintstones’ rock ranch house must have been a furnace in summer; our actual Stone Age ancestors would certainly have appreciated geothermal climate control as they took refuge in their caves. If the humidity gets uncomfortable down there, a fan or room air conditioner can take care of it at very little energy cost. If you don’t have a basement, cool a one-room refuge with a small air-conditioner that can be turned on only when needed.

4. Get wet
If it’s not feasible to hit the lake or local swimming pool, but if water supplies are sufficient and the garden is getting dry, set the sprinkler to overshoot a little and send the kids (or yourself) out to cool off in it. In drier regions where water may be scarce and air humidity is low, evaporative (“swamp”) coolers are a highly effective use of available water.

5. Make shade
Vegetation cools twice, by shading and by evaporation. For the long run, plant trees, especially on the south and west. In the shorter run, or if trees won’t work, put other types of tall plants–giant reed, sunflowers, or even corn–along the sunbaked sides of the house.

6. Workers of the world, thaw out!
In the workplace, we often have much less control over the indoor temperature than we do at home. The number-one summer complaint of people working in large offices is that it’s too cold. If, instead of blowing on their hands or taking sweaters or space heaters to work, the nation’s overchilled employees united to demand a less frigid summer work environment, there is no telling how many power plants could be closed down.

Buy Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) by Stan Cox on Amazon.com

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