Friday, May 14, 2010

Dancing Days are here again

(Go on, indulge. It'll make sense soon enough.)

I've alluded in the past to how, during our time of unemployment (which stretched out Yea These Turbulent Nine Months--and was not fun), the work that we had done for adaptation to a low/no energy lifestyle was a huge help to us. But I've managed to not really discuss how, except for a lengthy diatribe about the importance of social services and how you really ought to be looking for them now. So while most of my computer's speed is being taken up downloading a video game off of Steam (hey, don't judge--it's old, cheap, and no packaging), I thought this would be a great time to finally delve into that particular project. This will likely be a multi-part post, because my attention span is only just so long ya know.

Some of the ways our low-energy adaptations were helpful should be pretty obvious. I mean, when you don't turn your A/C on at all for the summer, your electric bill is bound to be lower, right? But part of that was being in the right situation to pull that off. In our case, this means having the presence of mind (er, well, at least having a spouse who had the presence of mind) to see the value of buying an old house--other than the gorgeous interior woodwork. Our house was designed to not have A/C. It has high ceilings and lots of windows. I seriously doubt we could've pulled off the no-A/C thing in your modern tract house, or any house built on the assumption that you will cope with exterior temperature fluctuations by moving a little slide-bar on a box screwed to your wall. How did we actually do it, though? Several ways.

The Dance of the Windows
C'mon, sing it with me, you know you want to: "Dancing days are here again as the summer evenings grow / I got my flower, I got my power, I got a woman who knows". How does one dance with windows? Easy. Once the outside temps cool down to at least 65*F, you go around the house and open every window you can find. Leave them open all night. Then, the next morning, very first thing, close them all, pull the blinds, etc. If you have reasonably good insulation, and especially if you have high ceilings, this will do wonders for keeping your temps down.

Two problems with this strategy: first, it's easy to let things get away from you. Once you let your house warm up, then that insulation starts to work against you. So don't slack off! And start doing it sooner than you think you need to. The first time you think "Man, we should've opened the windows last night" it could already be too late. Constant vigilance! Second, summers around here eventually hit a point where even the nights don't go below 70*F. It's about this time that the temps in the house will go to, and stay at, around 80*F or even higher. Sleeping isn't too bad typically, if you have open windows and good fans, but during the day it can be brutal. At this point, other measures are necessary.


Being outside
Yes, being outside when it's hot is better than being inside when it's hot. I think there are a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes it can actually be cooler outside than inside, so that has something to do with it. There's air movement & breeze, although with good circulation you can get that inside, too. But I think there's also a psychological thing in our heads that says "It shouldn't be this hot inside!" (which is, of course, nonsense--there is no normative "ought" about interior temperatures, except to us modern Americans). It's just "more okay" to be hot outside. Fine, whatever, go outside. Sheesh.

This is technically still in the "being outside" category, but is so significant I think it deserves its own heading. Last year I sprung (sprang? springed? Can I get a past tense on that?) for one of those blue pools, where you blow up the ring at the top and then fill it with water, etc. And you know what? That was the solidly, hands-down, no doubt about it BEST $50 I've ever spent. Period. To hot? Go sit in the pool. Bliss. And once you come back inside, it just felt cooler somehow, even once I was all dried off. And the kids loved it. Yes, you have to have the filter plugged in, but the electric increase was negligible (and minuscule compared to the energy it would've taken to run our A/C). Yes, you do need chlorine for it, and chlorine is a nasty thing (besides other issues, it makes me puke). I am very willing to entertain non-chlorine options for pool care, so if you've got 'em, throw 'em my way. But seriously, the pool is 10' across and 2' deep--we aren't talking chlorinating Niagara Falls here. Furthermore, it must've been of at least a mild enough concentration that, no matter how much got splashed on our lawn or, occasionally, the potato plants, it never killed or damaged anything. And the pool was deep enough to comfortably submerge oneself, and even stretch out a bit--very, very relaxing and cooooool.

Remember those curtains I put up for winter to keep the heat trapped in certain locations? Well, they work the other way around, too. We put the curtain back up between the kitchen & the rest of the house to keep the heat in the kitchen. And you know what? Even a single-layer sheet makes a HUGE difference.

Acclimatizing, and letting your expectations go
Don't turn on your A/C. At all. No, not even to take the edge off. Your body will get used to the temperatures, but not if you keep monkeying around with them. Will it eventually be as comfortable as a 68*F room? No, of course it won't. But once you're acclimatized, you can be in a state where you're up & doing, and suddenly you realize "Hey, it's hot in here!" and then you just keep doing whatever you were and forget again. Given that I have an office job now (where I have no control over the thermostat, and would probably anger people greatly if I tried), I'm very curious how my body will react this year. And let your expectations go. Like I said above, there is no "ought" about indoor temperature. Or if there is an "ought", it's of the form "If it's hot outside, it ought be hot inside, too." Just stop thinking that somehow houses are supposed to only hover between 68*F & 72*F.

Isn't this dangerous? No, not in our climate it isn't (midwest). Can children and elderly handle this? If properly managed and checked-on, of course they can. I mean, crap, no one had A/C anywhere until the 1970's! Did everybody's granny and baby die each summer? No, they all had the skill-set to cope. Now, if people have a medical condition (and no, age is not a medical condition) that compromises their body's ability to self-regulate, or worse, their ability to identify when they need to get cooler (and here, age is a concern, both young and old), then you're in a different situation. If you have an elderly person in your home, especially if they're easily confused or disoriented, make sure they are doing okay, drinking enough, and have ways of staying cool. If they aren't doing well, take them somewhere cool to recoup. And if they've lived a long life and just cannot cope anymore without A/C in the summer (for whatever reason), maybe it's time to re-evaluate the no-A/C decision. For kids, watch them closely, make sure they're staying hydrated, and coming in to the shade to cool down occasionally. Kids often can't tell when they're overheating, so if you're in charge of them, that is your job. Do it.

Now, what could we have done to make things even better?

Ceiling Fans
Someday we're seriously going to install a bunch of these all over the place. As it is, we have a number of box fans around that do a reasonably good job, but ceiling fans are just more efficient and effective. But they're also more expensive and very high on the DIY scale, where I rank about a 2 out of, say 500.

Attic Fan
Big purchase time, but if we could afford one, wow would that be awesome. And our house has a great setup for one, too. Suck all of that hot air right on out of your house, pull in cooler outside air!

Moving Downstairs
We never actually moved downstairs to sleep at night. The discomfort of sleeping upstairs where it's hotter never seemed to outweigh the annoyance of setting up shop (kids & all) downstairs. But that might change this year. We now have a sleeper sofa (or, as my kids put it, a *gasp* TRANSFORMER COUCH OMGOMGOMG!), which is posh and in fact more comfortable than our regular bed. But will we be willing to put our bed up and take it back out every day? Hm. Kinda doubt it. We have been known to clear the dinner plates to make room for the breakfast plates....

What else can/could we do? Suggestions? Send 'em along--I'll be out in the pool. =)

(In other news, the State of the Garden is GOOD this year. Pictures and details forthcoming.)


  1. hi there!

    here are a few things we use to keep our house cool with no AC:

    sleep on the floor of the ground floor. We have a really nice futon mattresses from northern naturals (so no weird chemicals) and we let it take up a room and have a big family bed (more practical with a baby than two young boys perhaps) the closer you are to the ground the further you are from the heat. we have a ceiling fan above us. and it works great. We don't pick it up every day, we just use the room in the back of the house.

    IF you replace your roof, consider white steel. We only had the money to put it on the back of our house this year-- but will finish the front next year. there is a really noticeable difference in heat. under a white steel roof vs. black (chemical) shingle roof. added bonus: I feel more safe saving the rain water off the steel roof.

    use a dehumidifier when the going gets tough. we water our house plants with it, and prevent mold growth. . . which is important in an old and humid house. we'd prefer not to use any electricity-sucker, but having a less humid home helps it not feel as hot and prevents long term mold damage to boot. Another more obvious way to help with humidity issues is to create good ventilation in your most humid areas. for example, leave bathroom windows open, vents on after showers and the bathroom door shut to prevent additional moisture from getting in your home.

    cooking: do less of it. find creative ways to use a toaster oven vs. an oven, seek out recipes with short cook times, or find creative ways to not cook much at all.

    Green growth- vines/shrubs/etc absorb heat. look in to landscaping tools that help with summer heat. we've started grapes on a trellis up our west wall which gets the worst late afternoon sun.


  2. isolation! isolate ,your roof or the floor of your attic at first.

  3. There's considerable overlap with my suggestions here: Turn Off Your Air Conditioning, except you left out what I consider the most important suggestion: In the heat of the day, go someplace cool.

    There are plenty of places open to the public that are air conditioned: public libraries, campus buildings, coffee shops, movie theaters, grocery stores. There are complexities if you have kids or need to be at home to get work done, but it's almost always possible to schedule an hour or two someplace cool on the hottest days.

    I've also got a slightly different take on who's vulnerable to heat related health problems (basically, people who can't react to excessive heat by just going someplace cooler).

  4. I'm sitting here basking in the comfort of my attic fan going right now and I've got to say its completely worth the cost. We live in the south (outside Atlanta) and we can generally manage to keep the AC off until about mid June - and even then we often will only run the AC for a few hours in the late afternoon. We will run the attic fan any night it gets below 80 out. So far, I'm managing to get the house down to about 70 by morning and then I do the window dance. Most of my neighbors have been running their AC all month or more already (not even opening their windows when it was getting down into the 50s at night!)

    I find that the biggest problem with going without AC is going places where they have AC. An hour or two isn't so bad, but working with AC and then coming home to a hot house is SO much worse than just staying warm. When I was a kid we mostly lived without AC until my mom started working full time in an air-conditioned office. When she came home, the AC went on. We still didn't have AC upstairs in the bedrooms though, just an attic fan. A few nights every summer, we would bed down on the sofas downstairs - when it was still 85 plus degrees at 11 pm, it was well worth packing up the sheets in the morning.

    I like the pool as a cooling off device - sitting in the shade by our neighborhood pool seems at least 10 degrees cooler. Also when it is just too hot here, but I know it will cool back off, I can go hang out in our basement.

  5. Hello, I grew up in the midwest (so. Ill, across the river from St Louis) and we did not have air conditioning. One trick is to take a cool shower before you go to bed, go to bed with your hair wet, and spray your sheets with a water mister to just dampen them before getting in bed. If you do that and have a fan blasting air at you, it feels a lot cooler.
    A friend of mine's parents got a small window air conditioner just for their bedroom. The kids came into their parents' room and slept on the floor at night when it was really hot. They only ran that air conditioner at night.