How Not to Fry: Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning

The northeast is having its first heatwave of the year, and I thought it was a good time to re-run a piece I wrote about what to do in extreme heat if you don't have air conditioning. Because we all know what heatwaves mean - not just physical stress, health crises and unnecessary deaths from heat, but also blackouts and brownouts as everyone charges up their a/c. So what do you do when the power is out and the heat is on? These suggestions include, I think, the most important strategy - be aware of other people.

There are a lot of parallels between dealing with extreme heat and extreme cold in a difficult situation. The first and most important one is understanding the likely victims of each crisis. The most likely victims are people in extremely hot places (duh), often extremely hot places that haven't been that hot - for example, during heat waves there are often more victims in Chicago than Houston. Why? Because people who live in Houston are both physiologically and pragmatically better prepared for hot weather, becuase they have hot weather more often. Now global warming means that people in hot places are likely to see more extreme heat, and thus bear the brunt of the weather, but it also means that those of us in cooler places need to know this stuff too - since we're probably not as well prepared.

And the most likely victims of heat related illness and death are people who are already vulnerable, without a lot of community and social supports, whether we are talking about heat or cold. In fact, most of the people who die are elderly, disabled or ill, and they live ALONE - it might actually be more accurate to say they die, not from heat or cold, but from isolation and lack of support. So as we talk about life without power in a heat wave, start thinking about your community and neighborhood. Are there people who are potential victims? Well, now would be the time to get to know them, start checking on them occasionally, build a relationship so that no one in your neighborhood dies from lack of other people's support. If you think of heat and cold related deaths as caused by isolation, at least as much as temperature, then we find ourselves having some responsibility to keep one another alive. This is, I think, important.

Anyone who has trouble perceiving their body temperature or changes will have difficulty handling extreme heat. For example, Eric's grandfather, in his 90s, felt cold pretty much all the time. It took some persuasion to get him to drink sufficiently and give up his wool sweater on the hottest days - and without this small, simple, easy, low tech attention, he could easily have been a victim. Children are vulnerable as well, because they don't necessarily know enough to stop running around - parents need to keep an eye on this. Anyone with respiratory illnesses is also vulnerable - keep a close eye on kids and adults with asthma or other related health problems.

How do we keep cool? Let's begin from internal systems outwards, in opposition to the traditional model, that suggests that you should heat or cool a whole house.

Just as it is possible to live without heat if you have sufficient food to keep you warm, it is possible to live without cooling in the worst hot weather for most people, but not without WATER. Without water, you will die - and a lot faster in hot weather than in cold. Add to the fact that the most likely times to experience widespread power outages that affect water availability, or heavy storm backlash that contaminates water in warm times, and you have a recipe for being in a very hot period, often having to do strenuous things to adapt, with no water. This is very bad. This is why you should store water, have a good filter system and work with your community to have back up water systems - because dehydration kills, and most heat mitigation strategies involve water.

Storing water is very simple - water will keep 2 months with no additives (you have to change it every couple of months) on old soda bottles, and you can use what comes out of your tap. There really is no excuse for not having some water on hand - all of us can do this. and best do it before you need it. If you have a freezer and any space in it, your freezer will run more efficiently if you fill it all the way up - so you can fill old bottles with water (leave room for the water to expand as it freezes) and store your water here, with the added benefit that your water will then be cold as it defrosts.

How do you know if you are drinking enough? Well, if it is really hot, you should pretty much always have water around. If you are working hard in hot weather, you should be drinking pretty constantly - and some of what you drink (assuming you aren't eating things that fit this) should have a little bit of sugar or fruit juice in it. The website has information in making rehydration syrups and also what the best things to drink when you are dehydrated are. This is something everyone needs to know this, not just people in hot places, since dehydration is also common when you are ill - but don't get dehydrated to begin with if at all possible. You urine should be light colored, not dark. If it is dark, get drinking.

Make sure that babies nurse often - yes, nursing in the heat sucks, sweaty body against sweaty body, but don't let your child go too long without nursing in really hot weather. And nurse if at all possible - in a crisis, if safe water isn't available, breast milk can save lives!

Ok, dress for the weather. There are essentially two theories of how to dress for hot weather. The first is to wear something roughly like the Indian selvar kemise - loose fitting, light colored cotton clothing that covers your whole body, keeps the sun off you and allows you to breathe. Add a natural fiber hat that also breathes (remember, covering your head will keep in heat if it doesn't), and you are well set. The other possibility is "as little as possible" - this will depend also on where you live and how much time you spend in the sun and a host of other factors. I personally think the former has a lot of advantages, but there are many people who prefer the latter.

Ok, once you are dressed, how to deal with the heat - again, we come back to lots and lots of water. If you don't have to sit in a board meeting, you might be able to sit in a pool - even a kiddie pool can do a lot. If you don't have that much water, how about a pan of water to put your feet in? Soak a bandana and put it over your head, or around your neck. Take a shower. Or if the power isn't on or you can't, fill a bucket and pour it over your head or dip it over. Sponge bathe.

Get outside in the shade - and if you don't have shade, make some, both in and out of your house. If you live somewhere hot, you need trees, lots of them. Plant trees that will shade your house and minimize your cooling costs and need for air conditioning (and to enable you to live without it). Vines can provide quick shade over your windows - you can plant them in containers and trellis them up over windows if you don't have dirt. The more green stuff around you, generally, the cooler you will be. Urban dwellers with flat roofs might look into green roofs, which help reduce heating and cooling costs.

Use awnings, blinds and shade screens to keep sun from warming the house. Open windows at night and close them during the day. If your heat is dry, hang wet laundry or sheets up in the house to reduce the temperature. Swamp coolers use less electricity than a/c. Just as insulation is the key to minimizing heat usage, it is also the key to cooling - just make sure you do it well and keep good air quality and ventilation in mind. Use common sense, and keep doors closed if one area gets more sun/heat than another.

Stay outside as much as you can, if outside has a breeze and the air quality isn't too horrible. Sleep there - this is what people did before air conditioning - they slept outside, if the house didn't cool down enough. City folks slept on balconies and even fire escapes (latter is not legal or safe and I'm not recommending it), others got out in their backyards. Certainly do all cooking outside, or if you must cook inside, cook everything that needs heating the night before or early in the morning and don't cook again. Part of our problem is that we are such an indoor people - both for acclimation and comfort, we need to recognize that life can be moved outside, to the porch, the yard, etc... when time requires.

Once, farm families had summer kitchens screened or outdoor cooking areas designed for dealing with summer and keeping the heat out of the house. A simple screen house could provide eating and sleeping shaded areas, while a nearby firepit, earth oven, grill or sun oven (and probably better yet a combination) provides food preparation. Others might move a wood cookstove outside, or get fancier with some permanent structure - the more summer you have, the more this might be wise - having a way to simply keep most activities outdoors seems to be a fairly basic strategy.

If you can, shift your work times - get up very early, stay up late, sleep or rest or work quietly during the hottest periods. Get a headlamp so you can do chores outside at night. Don't exercise much during the worst weather, if you can avoid it (many people have no choice).

What if the power comes on? For most people, air conditioning is a mixed blessing - as you become accustomed to heat, your body begins to adapt to it, to sweat more and handle the heat better. Air conditioning can provide a blessed relief, but too much time spent in air conditioning can also prevent your body from actually adapting to hot conditions, making you feel it more. And this gets people into the vicious circle of needing their a/c more and more - and then gets the whole of society into the vicious circle of brownouts, blackouts and more air pollution from the coal plants and dirty diesel backup generators. I realize there are places where this is not viable, but I encourage people who do not physically have to use air conditioning to avoid it whenever possible, and to air condition as small a space as they can tolerate.

Now we come to the fly in the ointment - air quality. While pure heat can be dealt with, there are many people who simply can't tolerate the air outside during the hottest weather. For those who are ill, or vulnerable to air quality (and while we vary in sensitivity, poor air quality affects everyone), and those who have to do strenuous stuff are screwed.

If there's power in your area, you can go to a/c shelters. If nothing else has power, your local hospital may, and might allow someone with severe health issues to sit in their lobby. If there is no a/c around, go near water - even a small lake will have slightly better air quality over it, as well as cooler temperatures. You can also soak a bandana, piece of muslin or cheesecloth and tie it over mouth and nose to reduce pollutants and cool the air into your lungs. For those who have to be working outside, move slowly, take it easy, and again, drink.

If you have a serious health problem that means that the air quality and temperatures in your area are intolerable to you during routine summer temperatures, you may have to think about relocation. The statement that no one needs to die from cold is not quite true for heat - that is, as long as we pollute air as heavily as we do, there are going to be people who suffer from that. If your life depends on adequate heat or cooling or air cleaning being provided by grid systems, I really don't like saying this, but you would be smart to seriously consider living in a place where you are not endangered - or less often endangered. Because fossil fuels may not be available, even if your life depends on it.

In the meantime, take it slow, keep cool, and enjoy the ripe things that love this weather!


More like this

Earth Shelter! :-)

Seriously; every new building we need here is earth sheltered. Yes, duh, it costs more upfront. But it's one of the best investments you can possibly make.

We actually go INTO our greenhouse on sweltering days in July and August; because it's cooler in there. Not kidding.

I used to bring a bag of ice with me on long car trips. My car was ungodly hot and AC was not an option because I didn't have much money. It sat on my lap, which I later learned contains some enormous veins and arteries (from hospital work). It worked pretty well.

There are times when the ICU tries to induce hypothermia in patients, and they pack ice in the groin and armpit areas. They turn on fans and do wet wash cloths, too. Cooling the whole room wouldn't accomplish that efficiently.

I've been making lots of popsicles this summer. I've discovered that, inconveniently for someone living in Massachusetts, I don't really like applesauce. But pour it into popsicle molds and freeze it, and it is suddenly like unto manna from the freezer. I got gourmet yesterday and made coconut-lime popsicles with the coconut milk I discovered in the back of the pantry (this is especially useful since I tend to lose my appetite in the heat and getting fat into me prevents me suddenly feeling all wobbly around 3pm), but even just frozen water on a stick is very soothing. And if you don't intend to eat it, frozen water on a stick makes a lovely ice pack, with or without the cover still on it. Get the molds with the built-in stick so that you don't have to buy wooden ones.

As a resident of the South keeping cool is forefront on my mind for 4 months of the year. We are currently in the process of implementing some home improvements to reduce or eliminate our need for much beyond fans. Now I know that means a little electricity, but that's what solar back-up is for! We don't cook inside except for a few stove top things, and swim in the evening, keep blinds closed all the time, ice water all day.

We have a company applying a Super Therm white coating to the roof and planting 2 large red maples to the west side of the house. Tomorrow the attic and slopes are going to be well-insulated. I've also found window film for the south and west facing windows to reduce the absorption of heat. Our windows are failure new, but they don not have the low e coating that is helpful. I'm estimating that after some of these are in place that we will go down to little or no A/C for much of these 4 months. We are also lucky enough to have a basement that we have updated enough to be a comfortable hangout on the very hottest days. My goal is that next month, August, we will try to go without any A/C.

Sarah's popsicle comment is a good one. I usually pour the leftover morning smoothie into a popsicle mold and the kids (or I) eat it later. (Smoothies, at least the ones made with yogurt have the advantage of not being particularly drippy in the heat.)

But our big cooling advantage is the house. It's a little Cape Cod built in the 50's, but built old-school -- which meant a basement constructed out of granite blocks. Not only does it offer refuge on the hottest days, but by opening the basement door we get a cooling breeze coming up into the house. Proof once again that some of the classic and regional-specific building practices need to be brought back into the mix. Most current houses are built only with cheap and plentiful energy in mind.

Here in the Chicago area it has been quite warm though not over 90 yet. However the humidity has been very oppressive on many days. We used to use our AC quite a bit but now we open the windows at night and close them as soon as the temp starts to rise (and shades). The house stays quite comfortable. The only exceptions have been on 3 extremely humid days we closed up in the morning and turned on the AC for 1/2 to 1 hour to lower the humidity. It's been working quite well so far and overall we are just getting used to being warm.

There was an article by Jared Diamond in Natural History magazine some years ago. One thing was that the number of functional sweat glands you have is affected by the temperature regimen of your first three years of life. Most people these days are growing up in air conditioned comfort. I wonder what effect this has had on our military serving in hot desert areas. I was raised in a clapboard house in the Texas Hill Country without even a fan. So long as I am in the shade, or well covered, and have plenty of water to drink, I don't much care how hot it is. Dry heat is, of course, more comfortable.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 05 Jul 2010 #permalink

Another vote for planting deciduous trees on the south side of the house, and for construction with lots of thermal mass.

Our farmhouse is 300 years old. Only a few walls and the attic are insulated. Most windows are at least 200 years old, and we cover them with thermal plastic in winter only. Of course, there's no a/c. We do have two large maple trees on the south side of the house, and a whole row of smaller maples, locusts and a few conifers on the East and West sides. Basement is just an old root cellar, made of dry-laid granite, house is timber-framed and plastered with some tile/stone floors for added thermal mass, + two masonry chimneys.

Outdoor high temperature today: 96F in the shade, on the north side of the house.
Indoor high temperature: 79F in the foyer on the south side of the house.

Bonus: Free maple syrup every March.

This has been on my mind a lot lately, as we've had a very hot summer here in Virginia. Regarding what you said about storing water, I've seen conflicting advice on this. One food storage book I read said that you can just store your water and forget about it, and that disease organisms die off over time, making older water safer, while others say to re-fill every 6 months, every 3 months, and you say 2 months. No one ever quotes any basis for their recommendations. I have all this water stored and honestly I think I'd be afraid to drink it.

We are in the process of going A/C free. Our friends think we are crazy, but I love how my body has adjusted to the heat. I woke up the other day to a 68 degree house and felt like I was freezing. Amazing!

Keep a number of wet wash cloths in the refrigerator and periodically apply them to the wrists (where blood vessels are close to the surface) this will cool the circulating blood and lower the body temperature. The cold cloths can also be applied to the kidney area.

If you own a piece of land behind your house, you may consider building an underground air cooling/heating tunnel - dig a trench four feet deep, at least 50 feet long, place C-shaped concrete prefab elements (ideally, but you can use other things that don't rot in the ground) to form a labirynth, cover with thick plastic foil (such as used in gardening), then concrete slabs, then two feet of earth. Leave a hole on one end to allow air in and on the other to connect to a air pump that will blow into your house air at a constant 10C (50F) - that's the temperature two feet underground regardless of the season.

By hat_eater (not verified) on 05 Jul 2010 #permalink

Sadly, the recommendations in the Globe and Mail (Toronto paper) are about the exact opposite! Go to an air conditioned building, and go inside if you are feeling faint. Nothing about fans, nothing about acclimatization. Says to drink water you need to replace, but as you said, they could have pointed out that you should drink water regularly. Nothing in a pro-active sense. Arrgh!

A great, refreshing, and inexpensive hot weather drink is the old-fashioned "haymakers switchel," made with water, cider vinegar, brown sugar and ginger. History and several recipes at:

A variant that my grandmother used to make used fresh mint, crushed with the sugar, instead of the ginger.


"connect to a air pump that will blow into your house air at a constant 10C (50F) - that's the temperature two feet underground regardless of the season."

That's one of the things we built into our cool greenhouse, mentioned above. BUT - a) our base temperature is 45°F; and ground temp varies quite a bit with latitude and other local situations. And, b) the temp of the air coming into the house varies also; depending on outside ambient temp, and the speed of the airflow. Our air flow is passive, and if we're not paying attention, on a -15°F windy day in February, the air temp coming into the greenhouse can get down to 25°F or so. In midsummer on windy days, it might reach 65°F.

So it does need a little active management- but it sure as heck WORKS.

Love your name, incidentally. :-)

I live in a 90-year-old Boston three-decker, ordinary workers' housing from the 1920s. Almost every room has two doors, and generous windows. In hot weather, you can open everything and get air movement throughout the apartment just with fans. If it's really hot, you can sleep on either front or back porch. In cold weather, you close all the doors to reduce drafts between rooms. Unfortunately, former owners removed all the interior doors, including beautiful 15-light glass ones, in my place, and I've never had the cash to replace them.

Thank you, it's great to see this wonderfully simple idea put to practical use. Where I live the ground is a bit on the wet side and the climate is temperate so I obviously should have added "YMMV" or some such disclaimer, but then what would I need my name for? Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go munch on my hat a bit.

By hat_eater (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink


We rarely need air-conditioning here in the Appalachians in northern Pennsylvania. But we do need it occasionally - I have medical problems which are hell in really hot weather (painful, inflamed joints - HOT! RED! joints - caused by lupus). Also, I'm taking a medication which messes up my body's ability to handle heat. (But it is truly necessary). So we do use the A/C (two small window units) when it's brutally hot - thankfully rare here.

Anyway, our power is flaky so I bought two little battery-operated fans (from Amazon) last year. They are great, I was very pleasantly surprised at the amount of air they move. They are a good emergency measure.

We also bought so-called 'solar curtains' - shiny silver stuff - they are thin and won't last long but they are cheap - for our windows this year. They do a fantastic job at keeping out the sun and heat. Each one was only $3.99. Not bad. I got them at Harriet Carter Gifts but a lot of the online 'catalog' sellers have them.

I like a Chillow too. No, I don't like, but *love* the Chillow. It really works! Nice cool pillow for hours and hours! After many months, they start to leak and then you need another one. But in my experience they have been great for months and months. Amazon has them, has them, and lots of other places do as well.

Most of our house is shaded by a large oak tree, and this is a big help. We also beefed up the insulation in the attic which presumably helps too, and we would like to put a solar operated exhaust fan in the attic someday (if/when we can afford it).

And we have lots of windows and cross ventilation, which helps most of the time (house built in the early 1960s). Nothing but A/C helps today, it's going to hit 95 today or higher. But usually our summer weather is pleasant, and we use a 20" box fan plus a window fan in the bedroom and that's all we need to be comfortable.


By Pat Meadows (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

*first* heat wave of the year? What did you call the week of 90s in early May, a warm spell?

grumpy to find Maine so warm. pesky climate change.

By curiousalexa (not verified) on 06 Jul 2010 #permalink

I live in inland Australia and we reguarly get weeks on end of 40+ C (not sure what that equates to in Farenheit, but more than 100). I've never had an airconditioner, and don't really want one so I've developed a fair few techniques for keeping cool. I keep the house closed up during the day, with curtains on the windows, but once the sun has stopped hitting the windows I open them up to catch the breeze. If water's not a problem (and it usually is here) you can hose flyscreens *before* you open the windows and that will act like an evaporative cooler if there's any breeze. Wetting a tea-towel and hanging it over a covered fan is pretty effective in the same way. A cold shower before you go to bed helps you to sleep, and if it's really hot, take the shower in your nightgown/t-shirt whatever, and don't dry off. A fan trained on your body helps even more. I've also spent afternoons lying on the tiles on my bathroom floor reading - usually accompanied by the cat, who is no slouch when it comes to finding the coolest/warmest spot in the house depending on the prevailing climate.

haha cats are fun right, and they happen to know whats up. i spent all day today working outside in 110 plus degree weather and came home to an a/ced house. im affraid to go to sleep cuz someone told me id die. is it possible i could just from coming in from the heat and going to bed?

oh and incidentally, i quit my job today due to the heat lol.