Cooling will become a greater necessity and create a greater environmental burden as our planet heats. As we swing into the season when cooling, rather than warming, is the issue, it’s time to consider the great two-for-one deal of a mini-split heat pump or geo-thermal system. Both can be used to chill as well as warm your home and are as clean as the grid from which you draw your electricity.
There are federal, state and utility incentives for installing them. Check them out in the Incentives section on pages 14 and 15.
Perhaps heat pumps are a little too expensive for you, or you’re off-grid; or you don’t own the home you live in. You can still stay cool this summer, and summers to come, in an environmentally sound way. You can use these techniques and save your air conditioner for true emergencies.
For homeowners, think trees. Trees in the right places both shade your house and cool the ambient air through transpiration. According to the Wilcox Tree Nursery, evapotranspiration can reduce summer temperatures near a large tree by two to nine degrees. Shaded walls are cooler by between nine and 36 degrees. Shade on a roof can cool a house eight to ten degrees. To accomplish these goals, plant deciduous trees on the south and west sides of the house. Shading the lawn and driveway also help cool the ambient air.
It’s also helpful to shade an outside air-conditioner or heat pump unit by planting low native shrubs or using trellised vines. The DOE estimates this can reduce energy use by 10%. It’s also helpful to place the air conditioner on the north side of the house.
While cooling the air, trees perform many other environmental services; cycling nutrients, building carbon into the soil, and sending up microscopic particles that seed clouds to produce rain. But a large tree starts as a small tree, and a small tree will take awhile to grow into its job. Plant trees now, and while you wait for them to mature, take other steps to stay cool while not overheating the planet.
If you have a dark-colored roof, paint it white to reflect heat. Shade south and west-facing windows with awnings or shade cloth to keep the sun out. Draw interior shades on sunny days. Window Quilts and other insulating shades that keep the heat in during the winter can keep heat out during the summer.
Even if you are a renter, there are plenty of other approaches to staying cool without contributing to climate change. For instance, create a natural breeze through your home. Open a lower window at one end of the house and one that is higher at the other end. Warm air will exit through the upper window and cool air will flow in the lower one. The movement of air will also help you feel cooler.
Change lightbulbs to LEDs, which generate much less heat. Cook outdoors as much as possible. Use fans. A fan blowing across a bowl of ice acts like an air-conditioner. You can also hang a wet sheet over an open window or in front of a fan. The moving air will act as a swamp cooler. Damp-mopping a floor can also contribute to evaporative cooling.
If that isn’t cutting it, consider creating a ‘cooling shelter’ in your own home. Install an Energy-Star window-mounted air-conditioner in a room with a door you can close. Cool that room only, and only when you need to. You can retreat to it when the rest of the house is uncomfortably warm. A bedroom on the north side of the house is a good choice, especially if you can shift some office and entertainment functions into that room for a while. Create a ‘grotto’ there, or in your cellar, like the Italians, with snacks, chilled drinks, good books and music.
Finally, focus on cooling yourself, and you won’t have to burn fuel and spend money trying to get your house cool. Living off-grid, I’ve found that frequent cold showers, wearing a damp bathing suit for much of the day, wetting my hair, and using a hand-held misting fan can keep me comfortable. Sport clothing featuring cooling fabric can wick away moisture and cool the body by several degrees.
Some herbs, particularly hibiscus, help the body cool itself. You can make herbal sodas by steeping a tea bag or loose-leaf tea in a jar of sparkling water in the refrigerator. Make ice-cubes of herbal teas as well, so the melting doesn’t weaken the drink. Staying hydrated is an important element of healthy self-cooling. So is a little extra salt. Sweating is how the body cools itself, but the salts you lose need to be replaced. Here’s a case where potato chips and popcorn are arguably a healthful snack!
Hot nights can be made more comfortable by freezing a hot water bottle to cool the bed down, using a buckwheat-filled pillow, which doesn’t absorb body heat, putting your sheets in the freezer before bedtime, or even using a damp sheet. Sleep in a hammock for better air circulation. Sleep in the basement, or outdoors on a deck or porch. And just before bed, read a story of arctic exploration or sailing on the North Sea, to chill you mind and help you appreciate the warmth.