I don’t have air-conditioning in my house, my company’s offices have no A/C, and quite a number of our friends and family members and neighbors live without A/C, too, along with most people in the world. This is a fine thing in terms of the environment, and in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts hardly heroic. But these last few days of heat have made us think about extreme weather conditions and how to manage without A/C. I found a short “keeping cool” list in one of my early books, Eco Living, and have been expanding it with the help of Anna, Mar, and Tom. It’s not finished, but I thought I’d share it in the hope of getting some additional tips (you’ll be credited for ideas we include) to be included on the website and in my next book (title yet to be decided).
Keeping Cool in a Hotter World
Assess your situation over the entire course of the day. Sunlight heats your home. Air cools it. In the summer, you want to minimize the impact of sunlight and maximize airflow. The other key factor is water. Evaporating water cools the air. Also, keep in mind that in some places there is a dramatic drop in temperature at night.
But the most important factor is psychological: you need to convince yourself that heat is okay. Human beings are in fact very adaptable. Remarkably adaptable, to a degree that explains how we can come to dominate the earth. In the past, the big problem with hot climates was disease: when it was hot, bacteria multiplied and people died. But that is no longer a problem: unless we’re sick, oil, immobile, or really clueless, we will not truly suffer from heat.
The tragedy of the commons is that people crank up air-conditioning, which spits hot air into the street, so the buildings get hotter, and other people crank up their air-conditioning. It’s like ski slopes making snow and thus contributing to global warming which means there isn’t snow, so they turn on the machines….
Here are dozens of ideas, big and small, to help all of us keep our cool.
First, if you can, move to a cooler location for the summer. This is an age-old solution that ought to be easier today than ever before, given that we can work remotely. But (and this too is age-old) it’s the wealthy who take up space in cool places in the summer. In my neighborhood, people would move out of their homes in the summer just as people in the Hamptons do today. But there are plenty of other people, especially those with school-age children, who are . . .
. . . willing to visit cities and other interesting spots even when the weather’s hot, so consider a rental or home exchange.
Second, assess your surroundings, immediate and more generally. Where are the cool places? I do not only mean the nearest ice-box-temperature Starbucks (a company that must be doing well since they cool their stores to temperatures that a butcher would have been happy with in the 1950s) but a riverside parklet, a shady courtyard, or even a basement. There is a lot to be said for basements, in cold weather as well as hot. I lived in a basement flat in London and during the heat wave of 1990 I simply stayed indoors, happy and comfortable.
Third, consider your schedule. Sensible people in hot climates do not go out in the midday sun. They close the shades, turn on a fan, and nap during the hottest hours. There’s no reason that many of us we can’t adjust our working hours, too, in hot weather.
Finally, cool the place you live by following these steps:
” Find the cool spots – rooms, basements, outdoor spaces, and watering holes. Move to a cooler/darker room (the side of the house or apartment that gets the least sun).
” Block the sun with awnings, curtains, plants, or even boards. Those shiny “space” blankets are said to be the best summer curtain for a really sunny window.
” Use white or pale colors in the sun because they reflect rather than absorb heat.
” Car interiors tend to be dark and therefore become hot – even a light-colored throw can help – and the greenhouse effect is highly obvious in a closed car. Park in the shade and leave windows open whenever possible.
” Insulate. Just as you insulate in the winter to stay warm, you can insulate in the summer to keep a cool place from warming up, with foam sheets and curtains.
” Turn off sources of heat. Televisions, computers, and lights all create ambient heat. Switch to energy-efficient bulbs to stay cooler (as well as to keep the planet cooler).
” Use the microwave instead of oven, stovetop, or other heating unit.
” Turn off the dishwasher before the drying cycle.
” If you have a hot-water tank, consider turning down the setting or even turning it off and using a solar bag shower (very effective in the right location).
” Move the air. Use fans of all kinds and also see where there is air flow in your home. In the summer, a breeze can make a huge difference in comfort levels and it’s sometimes possible to get air moving by opening the right set of door and windows. Old-fashioned southern houses were constructed with this in mind. Make sure you open windows upstairs and the door to the attic or roof space, to let hot air escape from the house.
” Use the cooling power of water. In Chicago many years ago a friend of ours used to soak in a cold bath when the temperature was unbearable, and you can hang sheets in breezy spots and keep them damp. Spray bottles of water (add a few drops of lavender or peppermint oil) can be used to spray your face, hanging sheets, or to dampen a cotton scarf around your neck. It may seem counter-intuitive, but summer is a great time to dry your washing inside, because it’ll cool the air.
” Let your hair air-dry after a shower keeps you cool as long as your hair is wet (plus no heat or electricity generated from the blow-dryer). Wetting your hair (or clothes) also works. And nothing beats jumping over the garden sprinklers for watering your garden and keeping cool – but remember that gardens should, in general, be watered late in the day so the water sinks in instead of evaporating.
Sticking your feet in a bucket of cold water.
” Put some bottles of water in the freezer overnight assures you have ice cold water all day long.
” Wear loose, sheer, light-colored clothing made of cotton or linen. Look at the traditional clothing of Africa and India.
” Wear a hat.
” Stay well hydrated. Some people believe that hot beverages are cooling-go figure. It seems to work, though.
” Eat spicy foods.
” Open windows at night and close them during the day.
” Keep the curtains closed while sun is shining directly on the windows.
” Ensure that there is plenty of air movement, either by cross ventilation or electric fans. Ceiling fans are amazingly effective, and an attic fan is even better, drawing hot air out of the house and pulling cooler air in.
” Use a hand fan. A collection of exotic fans looks lovely on a wall, and you can offer them ’round at a party.
” Install awnings to block midday sun.
” Plant deciduous trees on the sunny side of your house; US research has shown that doing so can reduce air-conditioning costs by a third.
” Big bushes also work, and a beautiful approach is to grow annual vines over a sunny window. Just put up strings or a light lattice and the morning glories or hop vines provide a soft green shade.
” Nap during the heat of the day.
” Sleep outside on hot nights.
That was a long list, I know, and needs to be edited and categorized. We’ll be working on that, and welcome your ideas! Please use the Comment function on the blog or email me directly.
PS: Here’s an interesting, mail-stream-press article on the subject, in the New York Times: “In Rising Use of Air-Conditioning, Hard Choices” http://ow.ly/chivh. And a good NPR program, The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, covered the topic of “Keeping Cool: Community Impact” recently, too: http://ow.ly/chmFa.