Stay cool: Low-energy ways to beat the heat

EarthTalk: Smart thinking, water, ice, and fans can help you cope with summer in an ecofriendly way.


Q: Summer’s going to be a scorcher this year, and I’d like to know how I can keep cool indoors without just running my energy-hogging air conditioners all the time. Any tips?
John McGovern, Cohasset, Mass.

A: According to Harvey Sachs of the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the movement of air over the skin is what’s key to keeping the body cool. So instead of turning on that A/C, see which direction the breeze is blowing outside (no matter how minimal it may be), and then open a few windows strategically to try to get it flowing through the house from end-to-end or side-to-side.

If the breeze alone isn’t enough, apply some fan power. Even small tabletop fans can whip the air around. Put one facing in by a window where air is coming in, and one at an opposite window to blow warm air out to create a nice “wind tunnel” effect and pull air through the house.

This strategy can be especially effective at night when it is cooler. But then it’s important to shut the windows when you leave for the day in the morning to keep the cooler air in and the warmth of the new day out. Keep blinds shut and curtains drawn, too, as sunlight pouring into the house creates more heat. And remember that lights left on are not only wasting electricity – they’re creating heat as well.

Ceiling fans do a nice job of circulating air in the rooms you occupy most, and though they do require some up-front costs for installation, they use only about 1/30th the electricity of a room air conditioner.

Beyond moving the air around to keep cool, the website lists several tips for using water to keep cool sans A/C. One tried-and-true method is to wet your wrists and other pulse points with cold water, and then keep those spots cool by holding an ice cube wrapped in a face cloth against them. The relief is immediate, and this method will cool down the entire body  for an hour or more. Another WikiHow suggestion: Wear a short-sleeved shirt, and keep the sleeves wet with cold water (from a squirt bottle, faucet, or hose). Keeping the pant legs of long pants damp is also a good way to keep your legs cool. Add a breeze or a fan, and you may actually get cold.

Of course, if you just can’t live without air conditioning, there are greener options out there. For starters, a single window unit that keeps one room cool is far less energy intensive and polluting than central air conditioning that keeps all the rooms in the house (including those you’re not using) cool. Look for new models sporting the federal Energy Star label, which marks units as energy-efficient.

Another option for those in hot, dry climates is an evaporative cooler, which cools outdoor air through evaporation and blows it inside the house. These simple units are a good alternative to traditional central air conditioning, as they cost about half as much to install and use only one quarter of the energy overall. Again, such “swamp coolers” are only effective where humidity is low.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or:

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