Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

July 31, 2009

Cool and Comfortable with No AC

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Electricity,Tips – Tom Harrison – 2:54 pm

air-conditionerIt has been hot and muggy here in the Boston area for the last week, with more to come, but we’re still not using our air conditioner.

We’re not martyrs, cheap, or holier than thou. OK, maybe cheap, but that’s really not it. We’re quite comfortable in our un-air-conditioned house, in fact.

[Update, August 23rd. We caved. It has been miserably humid, still, and hot and has been for a week or so. We both agreed on Sunday to put in one of our two window AC units. But it was too hot, so I didn’t. And then it cooled down a little. We survived.]

The main contributing factors to our comfort are:

  • Management of Sun
  • Management of Air
  • Our Recent Trip to Europe
  • Proper Attire

And these things have also worked in our office space. I am proud of my company and of my co-workers for embracing a few changes that make this possible, and seen how much nicer life is without A/C.

Management of Sun

I suppose it goes without saying that the sun is what makes things hot. But there, I have said it. So keeping the heat of the sun out of your house keeps it cool. Several significant changes to our house have made each successive summer more comfortable.

We have had shades on our windows for years, and lately have been using them. Several years ago, we installed Cooleroo Shades over the exterior of some of the south facing windows — while not perfect, they do their job very well. I am also expecting delivery of several awnings to install over our bedroom windows. Keeping the sun out doesn’t mean the house has to be dark — on days when I work at home, I open the shades that are not currently exposed to the sun, and adjust during the day.

This year, we added insulation — in our walls and attic. We had some insulation before, but the extra amount clearly is helping keep the heat out. We also did a good deal of sealing for drafts: a chimney balloon, some foam insulation installed in areas where there were drafts identified in our home energy audit, as well as some good ol’ caulking. Also, we keep the doors and windows shut tight when it’s really hot. Keeping the hot air out makes a big difference.

CFLs and other efficient light bulbs also burn cooler than standard bulbs. Use any light sparingly.

Management of Air

red-fanWhat can I say: I think ceiling fans are awesome. We have one in our bedroom, and another in the kitchen. The bedroom fan makes sleeping comfortable in almost all conditions — even if the air is humid, a slight, quiet breeze provides for a much more comfortable and peaceful environment for sleeping and other bedtime activities than anything other than the four to six days of great “sleeping weather” we get annually. We plan to install ceiling fans in the kids’ rooms.

I am almost as smitten with our whole-house fan as I am with ceiling fans. With very few exceptions, the evening or morning air is cooler, and it’s always the case that the basement air is. Depending on conditions, we open some windows and turn on the fan, which sucks cool, fresh air in, and pumps hot air out through the attic.

If it’s really hot out still, we open up the basement windows only, and turn on the whole-house fan so that air is drawn in through the cool basement. But so far, at least, the night air has been a few degrees cooler and we can replace the air in the house in a matter of minutes. If we leave the fan running on its lower speed, we can adjust which windows are open to create drafts where we want them — this is nice in the evenings or mornings.

This year we installed two ceiling fans in our office. So far, we haven’t used the A/C, which is a crappy metal ducted version — the air handler is so noisy that none of us can think when it’s on. The ceiling fans have just worked, so far.

Another benefit of the whole-house fan is that it flushes the super-heated air in the attic out. I also installed a thermostat-controlled attic exhaust fan which accomplishes the same thing during the day or when we’re not using the whole-house-fan. Getting the hot air out of the attic is a big win.

Cooking is best done on a grill. No ovens, boiling (although we enjoy the occasional Salad Niçoise, which calls for boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs. Turn on the kitchen exhaust fan to move that hot air out!

Speaking of exhaust fans, take cold showers, but if you need a little warmth, turn on the bathroom fan and keep the steam at bay.

Finally, good, old-fashioned table fans allow simple air management when and where it’s needed.

A lot of fans, you say? Yes, but none of them uses that much electricity, and we only run them as needed. Compared to the window units they have replaced, they merely sip electricity. And compared to central air … well, don’t get me started.

Recent Trip to Europe

OK, I’ll admit, the recent trip to Europe seems kind of like a teaser. But I am quite sure it helped us acclimatize our bodies to heat — it was quite warm there, and hardly anyone uses air conditioning — not in cars, hotels, subways and most other places. As you may have guessed, this was a great thing in my mind (perhaps other American visitors were less thrilled than I).

I have no real facts to back up my long-held belief that one’s body can adjust to hot and cold, and that it takes a little time. But it was hot in Europe, and I recall being acutely aware of that in our first few days, less so as the trip progressed. When we arrived home, it seemed downright chilly here.

So, given the carbon footprint associated with air travel, I cannot recommend that readers all go to Europe to acclimatize. If you do, beware: they exchange rate sucks these days, and there’s a restaurant in Venice where you can get a crappy, poorly prepared meal with a half-bottle of cheap wine for $140 if you’re not careful.

Instead, I offer that the best way to beat the heat is to come to terms with it.

I was shocked by several things in Europe (not just that a Euro cost $1.45 — yikes!). I think the biggest one was just how we have come to expect conditioned air where ever we go, and on the way here in the US. There are certainly some cases where it’s nice, but a refrigerated world is not a necessity. There are other ways to cope with heat and be quite comfortable.

Proper Attire

southern-gentlemanAll southern gentlemen appear to dress in light colored, cotton and linen with an impeccable hat. Or at least that’s how it seems from the movies. But the idea is right: shorts, or light pants, a loose, un-tucked shirt, and sandals (or better yet, bare feet) all make for comfort. It helps to work in an informal environment such as my office (where bare feet seem to be acceptable) or my home where anything goes.

You can do it, too!

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