by Steve Apfelbaum
A little over a week ago, my wife and I had occasion to take a road trip across our home state of Wisconsin. We were struck by the barren main streets. It seemed entire towns were deserted. No people walked the sidewalks. No cars were staging for parking spaces or driving the roadways. As we passed through each town it felt like a post-apocalyptic movie; it appeared as if human life had been eradicated from the earth.
After the several hours of driving, we decided to stop at a well-known fast food chain for a famous custard and cold water. We were surprised to find this particular parking lot packed with cars. When we stepped inside, we learned the restaurant-goers were self-medicating against the summer’s first heat wave with generous servings of ice cream.
My wife and I began chatting with the other patrons. Conversations centered on how to keep cool against the stifling heat. Several jaws dropped when we explained that we don’t have air conditioning in our 165 year old home. We explained that we have made adjustments to the house – and to our behavior – to ensure it stays cool and comfortable inside. Later it occurred to me that many Americans would benefit from the same advice.
On a daily basis we close (almost all of) our windows and doors, and pull insulated curtains down early in the morning, before the day heats up. We leave an upstairs skylight and one downstairs window open. Both are located on the cooler north side of the house. This creates a draw – like a chimney in winter. The windows encourage the hot air to rise out of the house upstairs and draw in cooler air from outside downstairs or, in our case, from our much cooler basement.
At night, if it’s cool enough outside, we open up the doors and windows to quickly cool the house down. This process is like operating the house as a living organism – one that breathes at night and hibernates by day. If it’s ever warmer than we’re comfortable with, we turn on ceiling fans to move the air in our bedroom and living room. Moving air feels better than still, particularly when the still air is stiflingly warm.
We have super insulated the house, which keeps it warmer in the winter, of course, but also cooler in the summer. We have R150 in the attic and R70 or more in the walls. This protects us from both weather extremes.
We replaced older windows with high efficiency double pane windows. We insisted that our installers caulked particularly well to ensure leakage around the windows wouldn’t occur.
Finally, we installed pleated insulated “sun curtains” on all of our windows. These curtains have a reflective white fabric that faces the windows and keeps heat from the house.
Of course our system isn’t perfect, but typically our house stays very comfortable – in the 70s most days – unless we have several weeks straight of extremely hot weather with nighttime temperatures that don’t drop. And though most people won’t be able to make the jump to life without air conditioning, many of the adjustments above can be used in addition to AC. In fact, many of these tips will not only lower your home’s temperature, but also your energy bill, as well.
Apfelbaum is the founder of Applied Ecological Services, Inc. He is the author of Nature’s Second Chance, which recounts the 30-year restoration of his family's dairy farm near Juda, Wisconsin.