RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—I grew up in a house with 16-inch stone walls, surrounded by lots of shade trees…and since my parents would never have dreamed of having even a window air conditioner, both features were good things. We owned one small table fan of antique vintage, but most summers even that wasn’t hauled out. When the season heated up, we swam in the farm pond, splashed in the creek, or sipped cool drinks (or, in my Dad’s case, hot tea, since he felt the added sweating it produced helped cool him). Mostly, we were pretty comfortable. The hottest place I remember was church, where paper fans (supplied by the local funeral home) were the only relief. There is a good deal to be said for a paper fan, once you learn to move it languidly without exerting a lot of effort, especially if you have no other options. I still prefer to be a bit warm for a few days in the summer rather than freeze my toes off in the sterile hum of air-conditioning all season. Though, when temps reach into the 90s and the humidity is so high you can squeeze droplets out of the air, I do close up the house and run the central air during the heat of the day.
But before you give in to firing up your energy-burning, power-bill-boosting AC, consider revisiting techniques that our great-greats used to stay cool in summer. Three simple cooling tips will go a long way to keeping the inside of your house more comfortable.
# 1: Get some air.
If you have windows that you can open, do so whenever it is cooler outside than in. But don’t just throw them all wide open. While that may seem like the way to get the most air movement, it often isn’t. Take advantage of the fact that hot air rises (think hot-air balloon), and create a natural draft by opening downstairs windows on the shady side of the house, and upstairs windows on the hot side of the house. Increase this natural flow by putting a portable window-mounted fan in the upstairs window. To get the best effect, experiment with how wide you open the windows; usually it takes only a few inches downstairs. If there is any natural breeze, “tune” your windows to work with it: Open downstairs windows on the side of the house the wind is hitting, and upstairs windows on the side of the house away from the wind. As the wind swoops over and around your house, it actually decreases the air pressure on the far side, and that lower pressure will pull hot air out of your home. If you live in an area with lots of pollen or dust, you may want to get window screens with filters in them for the downstairs windows.
Once the outside air starts to warm up in the morning, be ready to close your windows up tight before the outdoor air gets warmer than the indoor air. If you are leaving for the day and you know it’s going to be a hot and sunny one, you may want to shut things up before you go out.
If you own your home and there are only a few nights a year when the outside air doesn’t get cool enough for sleeping, you can take advantage of cool outdoor temperatures even more effectively by installing a built-in, whole-house exhaust fan. It will exchange all the air in your home in just a few minutes. A less-expensive option is an attic fan designed to just vent heat out of the attic. You buy an attic fan that comes with a small solar panel and runs only when the sun shines (which is pretty much when you need it). They’re easy to install, no wiring involved.
You can also use portable fans or ceiling fans to make yourself more comfortable indoors (or even on a porch or patio); the moving air evaporates moisture off your skin and takes some heat with it. Since fans don’t change the temperature of the air—they just cool whoever’s in the breeze—be sure to turn them off when no one is there to enjoy them. While running fans does take electricity, it’s just a fraction of the power an AC unit uses.