How to Keep Your House Cool Without Using Air Conditioning
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've lived in my 1 1/2 bedroom Southern California converted garage house since 2013. The house is about 1100 square feet and is NOT built high-tech. In fact, its parent house in front was built in 1927 and this was converted not long after, then added onto, barely meeting the building codes of the day. Various tenants added window air conditioning units later.
In 2013 when I first moved in, the inside of my house would get up to 90–100ºF or more every summer. I couldn't stand it, nor could I afford the electric bills, so I started looking for ways to decrease the need for A/C.
My house has two window air conditioners—one in the living room, where I have my home office, the other in my back bedroom. This summer I used the living room air conditioning only 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:
- White roof
- Heavy canvas drapes
- Ceiling fan
- Cross-breeze at night
- Closed doors
- Spraying the windows
- Going barefoot
As you can see, it's a whole mix of practices that become easy habit after awhile—to the point that you don't notice yourself doing it anymore—it becomes part of daily living. Some of these things you've probably already figured out for yourself, others not. I'll explain them in more detail, but first let me explain how using an air conditioner contributes to global warming.
Global Warming & Air Conditioning
The use of home air conditioners is multiplying by leaps and bounds, according to Inside Climate News. 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.
Starting with shade trees, I'll share the ways in which I've been able to reduce my use of A/C. Hopefully these will help you get started with your own reduction.
Shade Trees and Awnings
There were already plenty of shade trees surrounding my house when I moved here. On the south side, though, none of the trees and bushes were higher than the roof. That meant the walls were fairly cool, but the ceiling radiated heat inside my house.
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.
This 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, which extension shows in the photo above. Then she started to “apologize” that the paint would be white, but reassured me it wouldn't show. It turned out she didn't realize that a white roof would also reduce the heat.
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.
Sure enough, as soon as the roof was painted white, the ceiling stopped radiating heat. Next I tackled the windows.
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 too. 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.
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.
At the end of this article, I'll run through my entire routine, so you can see how the ceiling fan fits in with the other practices.
Nighttime Cross Breeze
In summer I open windows on each side of the house, just before going to bed, to get a cross breeze going. If there's no breeze outside, I'll turn on my kitchen ceiling fan too. This way the house can cool down at night. First thing in the morning, I'll 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.
Closing doors between rooms used to be a high priority for me. Now I do it mainly for privacy.
However, 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'll 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 the last edge of heat—spraying water.
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 main room with a squirt bottle on hot days. But then I noticed the spray was causing the room to get humid, which made me feel sticky.
After thinking about it, I started spraying the windows on the hot side, then closing the heavy duty drapes over them, so the evaporation didn't come into the room. That worked really well.
Now I spray the windows and the back side of the drapes a couple of times a day on really hot afternoons. In other words, I'm spraying water in between the drapes and the windows, so the heat is cooled before it even enters the room.
I like going barefoot anyway, but I also like wearing cozy slippers. After a time, I realized that when I wasn't wearing the slippers, my ankles and feet kept getting cold, thereby making me cold. A lightbulb flashed in my head and now I take my shoes off during the summer when it's hot. It always helps.
Heat rises and cold sinks, after all. And haven't you noticed that when you're cold during the winter and you put on warm socks, your whole body warms up? The same is true in reverse. Take socks (and shoes) off, and you will cool down.
Complete Cool-Down Routine
Altogether, this is the routine I use when I know a day is going to be hot:
- Open windows around the house the night before to create a cross breeze.
- Open the patio door and turn on the kitchen fan, until I'm ready for bed. Then I close the patio door for safety.
- If needed, turn on the window A/C in my bedroom while I shower, then off again once I've dried off and brushed my teeth, etc. This is necessary to get rid of the afternoon heat that accumulates in that room.
- In the morning, I close all the 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.) I close the drapes on that side of the house.
- When it gets to about 82ºF in the house, I start spraying between the windows and drapes, and turn the ceiling fan on high. This I do only three or four times during the afternoon, as necessary.
- I take off my shoes 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!
Which of these reasons for adopting the practices above is most important to you?
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!