Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Keeping our cool

All sorts of newspaper articles can give you advice on how to save money on air conditioning costs.  Here's our own family technique:  don't own an air conditioner.

Not that we recommend this to others, mind you.  Our technique has its drawbacks.  Such as, say, not having any air conditioning in the house.  This is not a technique that most people would want to emulate.  It can get, um, a little warm in the home.  A little humid occasionally.  In August, I expect there will come a week when we're (to speak frankly) uncomfortable.  And yes, it's true that last August got a little moldy around here.  We are not, I repeat, people you necessarily want to emulate.

Our friends sometimes tell us they don't have air conditioning; "just window units" they'll say.  But we don't have central air and we don't even have window units.  We don't have any air conditioners at all.  The upside is, it saves a heck of a lot of money on electricity.  Another upside: we make other people feel better about their own situations ("well, at least we're not like Miser Mom, with no air conditioning!").

But the lack of air conditioning isn't as awful as it sounds, at least most of the time.  Most people who are used to air conditioned homes are surprised at how cool our home is.  This past week, outside temperatures rose well into the 90s just about every day, but our home never broke 80 degrees, and mostly stayed mid-70s.

Most people reading this blog will have air conditioning.  I'm not ranting that you should give it up.  But perhaps the ways that we manage to keep our own house cool in spite of blistering temps outside could help you save some money on your own air conditioning costs.  So, here are the ways we keep our home mild.  I should warn you that the first two 'tricks' take a lot of advance planning and/or money, but the rest are cheap -- almost free.

All the time:
Bonus:  one tree that shades our house
holds our tree house.
1)  Trees.  Specifically, trees planted on the west and east  side of our home about 25 years ago shade our home from both the morning and the evening sun.  (In the summer, the sun goes so close to overhead that southern trees make little difference).  Trees provide more than shade; they soak up energy from the sun and cool the air around them.  That is, tall buildings to the east and west could also provide shade, but they still wouldn't cool our home as much as the trees do.  Downside to this advice:  you should have started this two decades ago.  Another downside:  We've got so much shade, it's hard to plant a good garden.

2)  Good insulation.  About 3 years ago, we completely redid the insulation in our home.  This helped reduce our winter heating costs by about 2/3, and it also helps to keep the home cooler in the summer.  Disadvantage:  very expensive to install.  No, really.  I'd do it again in a heartbeat, but that's because of comfort and environmental reasons, not for the money.  Because in the short term (say, 15 years), the insulation cost more than it saved us.

Night time:
3) Open the windows and doors at night.  At night, when it's cooler outside than inside, we open the windows -- especially those low on the west side of the house and those high on the east side of the house.  In our area, the wind blows from west to east, so it blows cool air into the home on the west side.  The warm air in the house rises and leaves through the east side.  As far as winds go, we try hard to "go with the flow".  
Disadvantage:  This time of year, when it gets cool at night, there are no disadvantages at all.  Come August, when nighttime temperatures are only 5 degrees cooler than daytime, well, . . .  bleah.

4)  We're a fan of fans.  Particularly at night.  Our whole-house fan, mounted in the attic on the east side of the house, sounds a bit like an airplane jet if you get close to it.  But it helps to move cool air into the home and warm air out.  If you can move cool air in and warm air out, you're using less electricity than you would to take warm air and cool it with your air conditioner.

As an added benefit, when we turn our fan on, the breeze it generates makes the cool air coming in seem even cooler than it actually is, making sleeping easier.  Two of the boys have ceiling fans that they use at night -- moving air feels cooler than still air.  (When the boys are not in their rooms, we make sure they turn the fans off, because if all the fans are doing is moving existing air around it actually warms the house up.  No good!)

Day time:
A styrofoam board with a spiderman poster
blocks my son's southern window.
5)  Close the windows and doors.  This is the opposite of night time.  During the day, we close up the home.  That is, we stop air leaks.  We close all windows; we close all doors. We also cover almost all our windows (more on this below).  Do NOT let that warm air into the home!

6)  Cover those windows.  You know this equation from parking your car in the sun:
Pulling the board out and moving it over
shows where the window is.
For about a dozen years, I've used homemade styrofoam inserts in our windows to keep the worst of the sun's effects at bay, and the inserts have worked great.  You can see how we made a "spiderman" version of a window insert here.

But the boys are hard on styrofoam boards (well, really, they're hard on everything in the home), and the boards have finally started breaking beyond the point of white-duct-tape repair.  Darn.  Plus, I'm not really happy with the environmental consequences of styrofoam.  So lately, we've been sewing together versions of insulated curtains.  I wish I'd done this years ago, really.

Our kitchen curtain is -- literally -- a folded sheet.  I folded it in half, sewed a straight line to make a channel for a dowel rod, and added on three ties from the same material so I could tie it up once the sun moves out of that window.
Here are the same curtains, tied up.
Sewing curtains isn't that hard.  Here's C-son,  helping make the new curtains for N-son's room.  The boys have black striped sheets, and despite all my best efforts, seem to wad their flat sheets into balls that wind up on the floor.  So I gave up.  I kept the fitted sheets for their beds, but am using the flat sheets to make matching curtains.

Of course, the side that faces outward has to be white.  I purchased heavy flannel sheets from a thrift store for the out-side of the curtains.  For our older windows (in C-son's room), I'll also add a quilted layer for extra insulation.  We ought to finish N-son's curtains sometime this week; more once we're done.

But the point is, blocking the sun is key.  Tape a white sheet in the window.  Hang a poster in the window, white side out.  Use curtains, use mirrors, use aluminum foil, use shades -- just don't let the sun shine in and do its greenhouse effect on your home.


  1. http://loveknowledgezeal.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/awning-time/

    Another suggestion for shading windows.

    1. I'd love to see a picture of this. From what I read on your blog, it seems like your awnings hang down -- sort of like outside curtains. I've seen many houses around here that have structured awnings with a lot of hardware, like you see over the fronts of store shops -- we looked into those, but they're way expensive. But now that you mention it, I remember my dad had large roll-up awnings outside his large picture windows. This is definitely something I should look into! -MM

  2. Not my blog...a friends but here is a link to a different post with a photo from their rental house. Post from above is after they bought a house. Yes the "awnings" just hang down like outside curtains. As she says...not always the most attractive but definitely work with respect to the cost....Easily removable for the winter. If you don't have an eave to hang from you could use a flower pot bracket or other type of bracket to attached to the side of the house to hang the canvas from.


  3. I couldn't agree more with you. There's no better way to cut down on AC use than not owning one! Having windows all around your house will suffice.

    Roxie Tenner