It's such an assumption that people living in hot climates need air conditioning (A/C), that most people don't think twice about switching it on. Some people even leave it on all day and night when it's hot. But, contrary to expectations, it is possible to keep your house cool during the summer months without using air conditioning.
I was in the middle of editing an article the other day, when all the electricity in the house shut off. I leapt up and went outside to see what the neighbors' houses were doing . . . no electricity anywhere. Back inside, I pulled out my battery-operated camping lanterns and found that they didn't work, so I lit candles instead.
Today I heard Governor Newsom (California) say that the phenomenon was statewide. He'd set up a team to find out what caused it. Apparently, both people and businesses were using much more electricity than the state was able to supply at that time.
Gavin immediately started working with the shipping ports and biggest single-user businesses to help them install back-up generators for use during peak hours, which are 3:00–10:00 p.m. He's asking the public to conserve energy too, during those times, especially use of air conditioners.
How to Minimize Use of Air Conditioners
I had already figured out how to minimize the need for air conditioners, due to high electricity bills were. Last year, when temperatures were fluctuating between 90–105º F, I used only 119 kWh per month on average—down substantially from the year before.
The granny house I live in is 1100 square feet. It has two window air conditioners—one in the living room, the other in my back bedroom. Last summer I used the living room air conditioning twice in four months for about an hour each. I used the bedroom A/C only three times, for about 20 minutes each. This is what worked to cut the heat for me:
- Creating shade
- Painting a white roof
- Installing heavy canvas drapes
- Using my ceiling fan
- Setting up a cross-breeze at night
- Closing doors between rooms
- Spraying the windows
- Switching from cooked foods to salads
- Taking care of my body
As you can see, it's a whole mix of practices that become easy habit after awhile—like a natural part of daily living. Some of these things you've probably figured out for yourself, others not. They each work to lower the heat a bit and, taken together, to lower it a lot. I'll go over each, one by one.
1—Install Shade Trees and Awnings
The south side of a building is its hottest side. That's because the sun moves from the east, when the air is cool in the morning, to the west, heating the air more and more as the day goes on. The south side gets both noon and afternoon heat. For about four hours the house walls and roofs heat up on that side, and the sun beats through any windows to heat up whatever's inside too. Where I live, the hottest time of day is usually 3:00–4:00 p.m., after which the sun begins to set in the west and the air starts cooling down again.
Shade trees and tall bushes block the sun's rays and, since they transpire (sweat) in heat, they also have a cooling effect. If you don't have trees yet, and can only afford one or two, plant them both along the south side of the house.
While they're growing, you might want to purchase awnings or extend the roof to partially shade the windows on that side. I have one plum tree on that side, but it's not tall enough yet to shade the roof.
2—Paint the Roof
One of the first things I'd done the summer I moved in was to walk around the “sun room” to see what was causing the house to heat up so much inside. I felt heat radiating down from the ceiling and secondarily from the extensive plate glass windows on that side.
The solution was almost a fluke, but a hugely welcome one! The church I attend painted one of its roofs with white paint, asserting that it would deflect the sun's rays and cut the heat down. I was aware of it, because I chair an environmental group that helped pay for it.
Several months later, my landlady told me she was having the flat part of my roof painted to prevent leaking in the rain. That happens to be the south side. Then she started to apologize that the paint would be white, but reassured me it wouldn't show. She apparently didn't realize that a white roof would also reduce the heat. Sure enough, as soon as the roof was painted white, the ceiling stopped radiating heat. Next I tackled the windows.
3—Install Heavy Canvas Drapes
I searched on Amazon.com for heavier drapes to replace the lightweight ones that were on that window when I first moved in. The lightweight ones didn't fit the window anyway, so I looked for something that fit better, worked for my purposes, and was aesthetically pleasing. Since it's a long window, I had to replace the rod as well.
These off-white heavy canvas drapes I found do the job. They block the heat, but let a nice, golden glow of light through during the afternoon. At night, they're dark.
4—Use a Ceiling Fan
My kitchen already had a ceiling fan installed. For a long time I didn't use it for two reasons: because it didn't seem to do any good, and because I didn't believe it would make a difference. That, it turned out, was because I didn't know how to use it in combination with the other tools.
Now I find that it helps circulate and mix the cooler air in the kitchen with the warmer air in the sun room, thereby keeping both rooms a decent temperature. It also helps bring in air from the outside when I have the patio door open. If I'm sweating even the tiniest bit, it helps cool me down. And it helps keep the air smelling and feeling fresh, even with the windows closed.
5—Set Up a Nighttime Cross Breeze
Just before going to bed, I open windows on each side of the house to get a cross breeze going. This way the house can cool down at night. First thing in the morning, I shut the windows to retain as much of the nighttime coolness inside as possible.
I also use different kinds of bedclothes in summer than I do when the nights are cooler. For cool nights I use flannel sheets with a down comforter on top. For hot nights I use 100% cotton or linen sheets with no cover or just a light blanket on top. It makes a big difference in nighttime sleep-ability.
6—Close Doors Between Rooms
If you have a hot side of the house, but spend most of your day on the cool side, it's a good idea to close all the doors in between. That will stop the heat from migrating to the cool side. During the night you can open the inside doors to let the air circulate.
These are standard practices that are not particularly unique, and that are guaranteed to work. There's another practice, though, that I developed on my own, and that takes off that last edge of heat—spraying water.
7—Spray the Windows
This practice has proven to be highly effective on really hot days. Based on the fact that water takes heat to evaporate, which thereby cools the air, I started spraying the windows on the hot side of the house. I then close the heavy duty drapes over them, so the evaporation doesn't come into the room.
In other words, I'm spraying water in between the drapes and the windows, so the windows cool down, instead of heating up the room.
8—Change to a Summer Diet
The two biggest electricity hogs, by far, are heating and cooling. During the hot months, it's a good idea to minimize the use of your stove—using the stove heats up the kitchen and adjacent rooms. Cooked foods also have a heating effect on the body, as anybody who drinks hot coffee on a hot day can attest.
When I changed my diet to cold drinks and salads, it made a difference. I discovered lots of salads I hadn't eaten before or even thought of. Here's what I eat now during the summer:
- Greens—mixed greens, spinach, Caesar, coleslaw
- Canned meat salads—curried salmon, chicken, tuna
- Canned or sprouted bean salads—black-eyed peas, sprouted lentils, black beans
- Veggie salads—celery, broccoli, cauliflower, carrot salads
- Soaked and sprouted grain salads—wheat berries, quinoa, wild rice salads
- Fruit salads—melons, berries, apple, stone fruit (peaches, pears, etc), and citrus fruit salads
- There are also jello salads, for those who like a lot of sugar.
These are only some of the choices available for salads that don't require cooking. (Salads are just a mix of cold ingredients.) Not only was I surprised at how these foods helped keep my body cool, but also at how much healthier I felt—a double/triple benefit to not cooking.
One of my favorite dishes is fruit salad with a stone fruit (like nectarine) mixed with a couple of different berries, with a little coconut added, and some walnuts. I moisten it with a tiny bit of fruit juice or sometimes yogurt, and spice it with cinnamon and nutmeg (or cloves). When I eat it at night, it cools me down and is easy on my stomach. It helps me sleep.
9—Attend to Body Comfort
There are several things I do with my body to cool it down:
- Wear clothes that are loose fitting—like muumuus, African-style dashikis, thin-strap a-line dresses, or tunics with low-slung shorts or full skirts. Men can wear loose fitting shirts or dashikis with low-slung, loose linen pants. To avoid heat rash, I don't wear anything that cinches at the waist anymore, even loose pants.
- Wear clothes made of lightweight, natural fabrics—cotton, linen, hemp, nothing with polyester (i.e. plastic). Polyester sticks to the body, and smells bad when mixed with the body's natural scent.
- Get the hair off my neck—I could cut it short, but choose to wear it up. I have a couple of clips and some ponytail bands I bought at Target. Guys with long hair could wear a man-bun.
- Go barefoot—Hot air rises and cold air sinks. I've noticed that when I'm cold during the winter and put on warm socks or slippers, my whole body warms up. The same is true in reverse. When I go barefoot, the cooler air down by my feet cools me.
Humans are unfortunately known for putting personal interests above the needs of the planet. Luckily, in this case, I know that getting myself cool to lower the electricity bill also helps the planet.
Global Warming & Air Conditioning
According to Inside Climate News, the use of home air conditioners is multiplying by leaps and bounds. Window units alone are expected to more than triple worldwide by 2050. Unfortunately, that increases the problems we're having with global warming.
The first problem is that air conditioning uses so much electricity—which is still created, in most countries, using coal and other fossil fuels. The second problem is that air conditioners use hydroflourocarbons (HFCs) to cool the air, and that stuff is a climate pollutant many times stronger than carbon dioxide.
I realize that carbon dioxide, itself, is not that bad. But in a healthy atmosphere, the amount of CO2 is in balance with a number of other gases, especially oxygen, and when it gets out of balance (like it is now) there are problems (like there are now).
Excessive methane and HFCs make it that much worse. Any kind of refrigeration—whether in your car, your house, food trucks, or office buildings—pollutes the air with HFCs. So it helps the earth and our pocketbooks for us to use as little air conditioning as possible.
The steps I've outlined above work, but only when you apply them. If you've started already, then all you'll need is to add the ones you're not yet doing. If you haven't started, then do a few each year to get used to it, and add more steps the following year. Here they are again.
Complete Cool-Down Routine
Altogether, this is the routine I use when I know a day is going to be hot:
- Open all windows the night before to create a cross breeze.
- Open the patio door and turn on the kitchen fan, until ready for bed. Then close the patio door for safety.
- If needed, turn on the window A/C in bedrooms before bed, then switch to fans while sleeping.
- Every morning, close all windows and doors to keep the coolness inside during the day.
- Once the sun has migrated to the south side (about 1:00 p.m.) close the drapes on that side of the house.
- When it gets to about 82ºF in the house, start spraying between the windows and drapes, and turn the ceiling fan on high.
- Minimize cooking during the summer. Instead, make salads and cold drinks.
- Wear loose clothing, put hair up, and go barefoot.
That's it, folks. That's all that's needed. Make sure you drink plenty of clean water, so your body is hydrated, and all of this together should keep your house cool inside, even on the hottest days. It's so nice to know that you're helping to reverse global warming at the same time!
If you have other techniques not mentioned here, please let us know. Everyone's living situation is different, so you may have thought of things I haven't. Thanks for reading!
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on November 18, 2019:
Oh yes. There's the south side patio to keep cool too. Good idea to hang "sails" Frank!
Frank Colcord on November 16, 2019:
For additional shade in the summer months I hang triangular canvas “sails” from the edge of my roof to the top of the fence along the south side of the yard. It shades not only the walls and windows but also my back patio, keeping its cement slab from soaking up heat from the afternoon sun.
Sustainable Sue (author) from Altadena CA, USA on November 13, 2019:
Hi Phil—Thanks for reading. In answer to your first question, you might have a problem with mold if the air were humid. In the southwest the air is really dry, so the moisture on the curtain and window evaporate pretty quickly.
A reflective roof is actually required for all new construction and major renovations in Los Angeles now, as of 2014, and it doesn't have to be white paint. It just needs to meet the standards of cool roofs set out by the city. See here for more information.
Phil Griego on November 13, 2019:
The spraying, is there a danger of mold?,
white roof, what if you put reflective material over your roof? would that be more effective than white paint? Would your neighbors think you were crazy? Would you care?
An attack exhaust fan would also help reduce heat radiation from the attic.
Clive Williams from Jamaica on November 12, 2019:
Very Good and Practical Information
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 12, 2019:
Thank you for this. We just depend on air conditioning these days and it is good to be reminded of its ill effects.