Clues for Okie Coolness:
On the JOYS of Living without Air Conditioning in Oklahoma,
Simple ways to minimize air conditioning and save big bucks on your summer electric bills.
By Robert Waldrop
Originally published Summer 2003, revised May 2005
Better Times Cookbook | Justpeace | Better Times | BobWaldrop.net |Access to Energy Conservation
For information about our plans for adapting our"urban homestead" to meet the looming challenges of peak oil, climate instability, and economic irrationality, see Gatewood Urban Homestead, the permaculture design for our home.
Keeping cool without AC, or while minimizing air conditioner usage, is not rocket science. It's mostly common sense. These suggestions are distilled from our six year experience of living without air conditioning in Oklahoma City. It should be remembered that our advice is for this particular climate, but ideas may be found here for use elsewhere..
1. Stay hydrated. Drink lots of water. Avoid soft drinks and caffeine, these will dehydrate you, as does alcohol. The idea that an ice cold soda pop is the perfect solution to thirst is a delusion fostered by hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising. Its purpose is to enrich the stockholders and management of soda pop corporations at your expense. The more soda pop you drink, the more thirsty you will be, the hotter you will feel, and thus the more uncomfortable you will be in hot weather. Soda pop advertisements are LIES! Sugar free soft drinks are as bad as the sugared versions.
2. Dress for the season when inside your house. Wear shorts and a light shirt. Loose fitting clothes are cooler and more comfortable than tight fitting garments. Go barefoot or wear sandals. Natural fabrics are cooler than synthetics. At night, use light cotton sheets on your bed. Minimize indoor fabrics, as fabric increases interior humidity. This is good in the winter, but bad in the summer. People living without air conditioning should probably opt for no carpet on the floors; during the winter they can lay down area rugs, but roll them up and put them away during the summer.
3. In the summer, shade is your friend. Keep the sun's heat from hitting windows, doors, walls. Install window shades on the outside of your house; indoor curtains are not enough (although they will help). Once the sun hits the glass and window frame, the heat is conducted inside the house, even if you have indoor curtains, so shade them in addition to your curtains.
It is easy and inexpensive to make your own outdoor window shades. For six years we have had great success using mylar covered auto sun shades that are about 5' X 2'. They cost a dollar or so at local stores. We duct tape two or three of them together (depending on the size of the window) and hang them on the outside of our windows. Then we cover that with a white roll up shade, which is mostly for appearance. An inexpensive bamboo roll-up window shade works fine. One or more curtains inside will help, and choose white or another light color (sheets are do-able and cheap, & more is better). Don't forget to shade the doors if you don't have a porch. Shade cloth is available and can be used over windows, although it costs more.
The best choice for your wall shade is vegetation. Although it takes many years to grow a tall tree, vines grow in just a few weeks. Morning glories provide plenty of shade plus flowers that are beautiful to look at. We have grape vines on our trellis, so not only do we get shade, we also get tasty grapes to eat.
If you have indoor thermal mass, such as concrete or brick floors, a masonry fireplace, etc., make sure it is shaded so it doesn't soak up heat during the day. (The opposite of what you want to do in the winter, of course.)
3. When keeping cool without any air conditioning, the basic rule is: keep the house closed up during the day when it is hot outside, and ventilate it in the evening and at night when it is cooler. At night we put box fans in the windows to pull cool air in and hot air out of the house, and we open nearly every window and door to facilitate cross breezes. During the day we close up the house to keep the heat out, usually between 7 and 8 AM, depending on the outside temperature, humidity, wind, and cloud cover.. The exact time is based on our perception of what the weather is doing outside. If it is warming up and the humidity is high, we close up right away. If the morning coolness lingers, we "stay open" longer. The longer you live without AC, or minimize your AC use, the better you will be at making this kind of judgment.
We open up the house when it seems as thought it is starting to get warmer inside than outside. We open the doors and windows on the very shady north side and shady southeast side of the house before we open the doors and windows in the southwest corner of the house, which gets the most sunshine.
We sometimes run a small window fan in a window that pulls air that has been cooled by our shady trellis during the day, but we keep the rest of the doors and windows closed.
These ventilation decisions will vary from site to site, and also people have different definitions of comfort. In the beginning you will want to experiment to find the right combination for your own particular situation, which is influenced by the design and construction of your dwelling and the microclimate of its site. But this does work.
4. Keep the air moving around inside. We use ceiling fans and rotating fans to create breezes in the house during the day and the night. Moving air can knock ten degrees off of the apparent temperature, so fans can add considerably to indoor comfort. They can also be used in conjunction with conventional air conditioning. With breezes inside, you can set the thermostat temperature higher than would be the case without the fans. Box fans are good for use in windows, but for other indoor uses, they are inefficient and usually noisy, rotary fans are better. Variable speed fans will help you get the right amount of air. Right now, as I am revising this essay, it is 5:08 PM, Central Daylight Time, in Oklahoma City, 91 degrees outside, the heat index is 96 degrees, yet I am very comfortable. A fan is cooling me with a nice breeze.
5. Insulation and weatherization help moderate indoor temperatures in the summer too. Minimizing leaks will help you keep your coolth inside.
6. Ventilate your attic. We did this during our third summer without air conditioning, and it added appreciably to the indoor comfort level.
7. Minimize heat buildup inside the house. If you have a dishwasher, don't use it or at minimum don't use the heat dry at the end of the cycle. Take cool or lukewarm showers, rather than hot steamy showers. (If you aren't using AC, you won't want a hot shower in the summer anyway.) Check your electronic equipment. Many devices such as "instant on" televisions draw current all the time, and thus create heat. Plug them into an electrical outlet strip and turn it off and on with the switch on the electric outlet strip, and thus eliminate the "hot plates" adding heat to the indoor climate. Don't use the clothes dryer, hang your clothes on a line outside to dry. If your neighbors ask what you're doing, tell them you are using your "solar clothes dryer". If you smoke, do so outside. Turn your computers off when they are not in use.
One of the biggest contributors to indoor heat and humidity is cooking, so during the summer, we cook outside, on the porch. I set up a "summer kitchen" on our shady front porch (on the north side of the house). This consists of a small two burner camp stove, and a conventional backyard gas grill. Both are hooked to 20 pound propane bottles, and seem to be fairly thrifty with their propane consumption, especially the 2 burner camp stove. To use a 20 pound bottle with such small stoves, which usually run on a small one pound or so bottle, you need a special adaptor, sold at most propane and outdoor supply stores. We also have a large gas ring (advertised as a "turkey fryer") for boiling larger amounts of water. When I make pickles in the summer, my boiling water canner fits it perfectly, and it brings the water to a boil much faster than the natural gas stove in the house. A little roller cart, bought at a garage sale, completes the setup. I have a cast iron skillet with a cover, it makes a fine "dutch oven" so that the gas grill becomes an oven for baking casseroles or biscuits. I do the prep work in the regular indoor kitchen, load everything onto the cart, and roll it out onto the front porch for cooking. When I cook outside, and see the large clouds of smoke and steam rising from the pans, I am reminded about how much heat and humidity cooking contributes to indoor atmospheres.
Cooking outside also makes sense for people with air conditioning, because the AC will have to work hard, and consume energy, and thus cost you extra money, every time you cook a meal.
8. If you are using no air conditioning at all, try to stay out of air conditioned spaces. I am most uncomfortable when I come home from my "perfectly" air conditioned office. But on my days off, when I generally stay out of air conditioned spaces, I am more comfortable. You body does acclimate itself to your surroundings, whatever they may be.
9. If the heat becomes oppressive, dowse your head, arms, and feet with cool water, or take a cool shower, or (my favorite) go outside and dowse yourself with a water hose. Keep a spray bottle of cool water handy, and give yourself a spritz of cool water every once in a while.
The title of this little essay is not a joke. Life is a joy, and I don't miss air conditioning, ESPECIALLY when I open our electric bill in the summer. The gentle breezes from fans inside the house are refreshing, as is going outside and spraying myself (and others) with the water hose. Abandoning or minimizing your air conditioner habit is a way to increase the quality of your life. As with any other movement towards sustainability, do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Summer 2003, updated and revised May 2005