With this whole reinventing my lifestyle thing going on, I’m experimenting with all kinds of small changes. The theory is that it’s better to try ideas before making a lifetime commitment. Keeping cool and comfortable in a hot and humid climate, while keeping the air conditioning bill reasonable, can be a challenge.
The easy solution is to turn the thermostat down to 70 degrees. In my leaky and inefficient house, that would likely cost $200 a month. In this case, easy equals expensive. The more correct course of action would be a major insulation makeover. But I’m trying to downsize, so not much logic in a major investment in a house I won’t be living in. The immediate need is for an interim solution. Lessons learned will be applied to the next project.
The design philosophy I learned back in the dark ages, studying Industrial Design at the Art Center, was to find a place where cost efficiency meets your design goals. It’s all about the Goldilocks zone.
The first step is an internet search for “Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning.” That turns up all kinds of lists, most of which are all over the place. For this study, I’m going to eliminate the ones that require structural changes to your dwelling. We’re looking for the low hanging fruit. In my case, I’m not trying to eliminate air conditioning altogether, just reducing the cost of keeping comfortable. My idea is to filter and aggregate the tips, then figure out what makes sense.
Pretty much every post has tips are about capturing cool air at night and keeping it in the house during the day. Windows with screens are a great idea here. If you can get air flowing from one side of the house to another, that’s an added bonus. Where I live, I haven’t seen a night where the temperature gets below the 70s in several weeks. Even then, it’s only in those low 70s for a few hours in the early morning. Not unusual for the temp to still be in the 80s at midnight.
One trick I found is to use light linen or muslin drapes. Put the bottom of the drapes in a bucket of water. The fabric will wick the moisture up, and even a slight breeze from an open window will provide some evaporative cooling. The trade off is that you are adding some humidity.
One big group of tricks involves a fan blowing air over ice. There’s a Mr Wizard Science Lesson to be had here. A fan makes air circulate, and the moving air increases moisture evaporation from your skin, which makes your body feel cooler. The air is actually getting warmer. If you put an electric fan in a super insulated cooler, the air inside will eventually get very hot, as hot as the electric motor. When you leave the room, turn off the fan to save electricity and prevent the added heat.
Blowing air over ice is not a great way to heat a room, much less a house. Any benefit will be very local and short lived. Your air conditioner is much more efficient than your refrigerator when it comes to cooling air. I found several methods that involve using salt water ice, which could be potentially dangerous. Not only is salt water highly corrosive, it’s a much better conductor of electricity than tap water. Take these salty ice tips with a large grain of salt.
A better way is to use ice in a plastic bag. Use it on the back of your neck, forehead or wrists for cooling your blood. An ice pack will cool you down quite quickly. There are reusable cold packs used for lunch boxes, or you can make your own. A bag of frozen peas inside a zip lock bag will work for a quick fix.
One piece of advice mentioned in just about every article on summer cooling is to close the drapes. Heavy, lightproof drapes are frequently mentioned. There are all kinds of problems here. First thing is to review how a greenhouse, or your car works when you close the windows. Visible and UV (ultraviolet) light comes in through the glass, and is absorbed by various things inside the room, or car. Those objects heat up, and radiate in the infrared. The problem is that most glass is opaque to infrared, so it has nowhere to go. Shades, blinds and other devices can keep a layer of very hot air next to the window glass for a short period of time, but eventually it will spread. Passive solar heating works in exactly this way, great for winter, not so much for summer.
Very high quality windows are the first step is solving this problem. The best ones can reflect up to 80% of the light spectrum that creates that greenhouse effect.
But maybe you don’t want to spend the money right now. The quick and cheap solution is to put a blocker outside the window. In many tropical places, thin, roll-down bamboo shades do a great job. You could also use foil faced board or insulation, maybe angled slats like blinds so you still have some visibility. No matter how you cut it, blocking the light before it gets to the window glass is going to be much more effective.
A few quick tips to keep that air conditioning bill from breaking the bank
Buckwheat or millet, otherwise known as Japanese pillows have airspace in the hulls so they don’t absorb body heat as quickly. These have been popular in Europe and Asia practically forever, the US is just starting to catch on.
If you have an incandescent lights in your house, exchange them for LED bulbs. A 9 watt LED bulb is equivalent to a 50 watt incandescent. The difference gets radiated into your room as heat. Saves on the electric bill as a nice bonus.
Turn off fans and other electrical appliances when you are not using them. None of these small things will have a huge impact on your house heat load by itself. But a lot of little things can add up to a noticeable difference.
- Take off those shoes and socks! Especially on extremely humid days. Wearing shoes and socks will make your feet sweat, and raise your overall body temperature. Go barefoot as often as you can. If you don’t like the barefoot style, try thin cotton socks. The floor will always be cooler than your 98 degree body temp.
Many ceiling fans have seasonal settings. In summer, the fan should be rotating counter-clockwise to give you a gentle breeze at night. A little wind-chill is not a bad thing, and ceiling fans are generally quieter than box fans.
Eat spicy foods. There’s a reason people eat hot and spicy food in India, Malaysia and other humid tropical climates. Those peppers and jalapenos cause you to sweat, the evaporation will cool you right down. Some of those exotic spices can cause an endorphin rush that’s quite nice, a little feel better freebie.
- Cooking generates a lot of heat, grilling outdoors or microwaving can make a big difference. If you are considering a kitchen upgrade, have a look at Induction Cooktops. They are more expensive than electric, but prices are coming down. There is no heating element, they use magnets to heat the pot, so there’s very little waste heat. While not a primary way to lower your interior heat load, it’s an added benefit if you’re upgrading for other reasons.
As part of my own experiments, I’ve turned my thermostat up to 78° this summer. Some of my friends think I’m insane, but it only took a few days to get used to it. When I come in from the 95° outside, it still feels icy. I have a medium sized tower fan that runs on the lowest setting when I’m in the room. Not the best or cheapest type of fan, but good enough to prove the concept. It’s quite comfortable, even on the hottest days.
A friend of mine pointed out an idea I completely missed, using a Slow Cooker / Crockpot. I found one old blog post where someone had actually ran the numbers, and in many cases a Slow Cooker is much more energy efficient. How much of that translates to less heat in the room is harder to gauge, but less kilowatt hours and BTUs is going to have a positive effect. Plus the added bonus that you can time shift. Cook when it’s cool and a little extra heat might be a good thing, and warm or nuke when you need it.