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4 Air Conditioning Alternatives to Stay Cool This Summer

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The first apartment I lived in as an adult was on the second and third floors of a building, above a store. The kitchen and living room were on the second floor, and the bedrooms and bathroom were on the third. As you can imagine, it got pretty hot in my room in the summertime – and to make matters worse, the old building had no air conditioning.

But the location was great and the rent was affordable, so I was willing to deal with the summer heat. I quickly learned that I could keep my room much cooler by keeping the windows and curtains closed during the day when the sun was out, and opening them at night to let in the cool breeze. I also found ways of cooling myself with fans and cold water.

I’ll admit, none of these methods really keeps you as cool as air conditioning. But on the plus side, they’re a lot cheaper. According to home energy expert Michael Bluejay, running a central AC system for one hour uses 3.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. Based on the national average rate for electricity, as calculated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, using air conditioning for eight hours a day costs about $341 over the course of a whole summer.

By contrast, running a floor fan on high speed for an hour uses only 0.1 kWh – about one penny’s worth of electricity. Using it all summer would add less than $10 to your utility bill.

Furthermore, in addition to saving on summer energy costs, skipping air conditioning can make a big dent in your household’s carbon footprint. Based on the numbers above, running a central AC system all summer adds 33,160 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent to the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A floor fan running for the same amount of time produces only 943 pounds. So cutting your AC use doesn’t just save money – it could help save the earth as well.

1. Keep the House Cooler

When you’re trying to stay cool without air conditioning, keeping excess heat out of your house is half the battle. Sometimes the heat comes in from outdoors through your windows and walls, and sometimes you make it yourself by cooking or running appliances.

Here are several ways to keep your house from overheating:

  • Keep Curtains Closed. Sunlight shining in through your windows can raise the temperature of a room by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Michael Bluejay. So just closing your window shades or curtains during the day can keep your house significantly cooler. Curtains do a better job of blocking out heat than blinds, especially if they have white linings, but any window treatment is better than none. In the evening, when the sun is down and the air is cooler, you can open the curtains and windows to let in cool air.
  • Filter the Sunlight. One problem with keeping your curtains closed all the time is that you block out the view and light along with the heat. However, by covering your windowpanes with a special reflective film, you can filter out as much as 60% of the heat and still see through. Another alternative is to replace your window screens with solar screens, which filter out heat and light without obscuring the window completely. Solar screening costs about $25 per window, while reflective film costs around $10 per square foot.
  • Insulate and Seal. The better insulated your house is, the harder it is for the outdoor heat to make its way inside. Sealing gaps around doors and windows with caulk or weather-stripping can also help keep hot air outside and cooler air in. These two steps can also save you money in the wintertime by keeping out cold air. According to ENERGY STAR, improving the insulation and sealing in your home can save you as much as 15% on your annual heating and cooling costs. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that it costs between $3 and $30 to fill air leaks in your home with caulk, and only $5 to $10 to weather-strip your windows.
  • Don’t Use the Oven. Running the stove or oven heats up your kitchen, and all that extra heat eventually spreads to the rest of the house. To avoid adding excess heat, cook your meals in a microwave or a slow cooker, or cook outdoors on a grill. If you have to use the stove, run a ventilation fan to blow out the hot air.
  • Use Cooler Lighting. Incandescent light bulbs produce a lot more heat than light. If you still have any of those old-fashioned bulbs in your house, replacing them with compact fluorescent (CFL) or LED bulbs will keep you a lot cooler. CFL bulbs cost about $2 to $3 apiece, and LEDs cost $2.50 to $10 each. However, they also last much longer and use less electricity than old incandescent bulbs, so they’ll save you money in the long run.

Keep House Cooler

2. Cool Yourself Directly

When it’s really hot out, insulation and shade aren’t always enough to keep the interior of your house cool. Fortunately, you don’t actually need to cool the whole house to stay comfortable – you just need to cool yourself.

Here are several techniques to try:

  • Wear Less Clothing. If you go around in summer dressed in the same long sleeves and heavy fabrics that you’d wear in winter, it’s much harder for your sweat to evaporate and cool your body. Wearing lighter, summer-appropriate clothes makes it easier to stay comfortable in summertime temperatures.
  • Take a Cold Shower. Drenching yourself in cold water cools you off immediately, and it keeps you cool for quite a while afterwards. Taking frequent showers in the summer might increase your water bill a little, but it’s a lot cheaper than using an air conditioner.
  • Apply a Cold Cloth. You can’t spend all day in the shower, but you can take some of that cold water with you by soaking a cloth in it and wrapping it around your neck. Your neck has major blood vessels very close to the surface, so applying cold water there cools down your blood and lowers your body temperature.
  • Soak Your Shirt. You can also soak a t-shirt in cold water, wring it out, and put it on. The cold water will chill your skin right away and continue to cool you as it evaporates. This only works well in dry climates, however. In a humid area, the excess water can’t evaporate, so the wet shirt just clings to your body and impedes air flow.
  • Use a Cold Pack. If you want the cooling effect of a cold cloth without the wetness, try using a cold pack. This is a gel-filled pad that you chill in the refrigerator or freezer and then apply to your body. You can sit on it, drape it across your body, or rest your head on it as you sleep. Chilling a cold pack in the fridge uses only a tiny fraction of the energy you’d use with air conditioning. You can buy cold packs online and in drugstores for about $10 each.
  • Wear a Cooling Vest. Online retailers also offer special cooling vests to keep you cool as you go about your business. These vary widely in price depending on their type. The simplest kind, which can be soaked in water to cool you by evaporation, cost $30 to $80. Vests with built-in cold packs or pockets to hold a removable cold pack can cost anywhere from $100 to $300. The most expensive are “active cooling vests,” which contain a battery-powered pump to circulate coolant. These range in price from $350 to $2,000.
  • Chill Your Pillow. Keeping cool is most difficult at night, when the pillow always feels hot under your head. One solution is to wrap your pillow in a plastic bag and stick it in the refrigerator during the day so it will be cool when you rest your head on it. You can also try giving just the pillowcase a quick chilling in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes before bedtime.

Cool Yourself Directly

3. Use Fans

Like all warm-blooded animals, you naturally throw off heat. That heat warms the air around you, creating a bubble of hot air on all sides of your body. A fan blows away that hot air, allowing cooler air to take its place. In fact, sitting in front of a fan makes you feel cooler by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to California’s Consumer Energy Center.

This means that there’s no point in leaving a fan running when you’re not in the room. It won’t make the air cooler – in fact, the heat produced by its motor can make it slightly warmer. It also means that fans can’t do much to cool you in an extreme heat wave, when the indoor temperature is higher than your body’s natural skin temperature. The New York Times reports that when temperatures climb above 95 degrees, sitting directly in front of a fan just blows hot air across your body, increasing the risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion.

However, at normal summertime temperatures, fans can be very useful. There are several types of fans you can use in your home, each with its own particular uses.

Free-Standing Fans

Free-standing fans are one of the cheapest ways to keep cool. Even the smallest window AC units cost at least $100, but you can buy a basic desk fan, which is powerful enough to cool a single person, for as little as $15. A more powerful tower fan, which can send a cooling breeze through a whole room, costs less than $60.

The energy use is a lot lower too. According to Bluejay, a medium-sized air conditioner uses about 900 watts of electricity per hour. That means that at the average electric rate, it costs about $0.11 an hour to run. That may not sound like much, but it adds up to about $88 over a whole summer. By contrast, a tower fan on its highest setting uses less than 100 watts per hour – about $0.01 per hour.

You can boost your fan’s chilling power by misting yourself with water from a spray bottle as you sit in front of it. The evaporating moisture combines with the breeze to cool your body even faster.

Ceiling Fans

Basic ceiling fans sell for around $100 at Home Depot, and they use only around 75 watts of electricity per hour, according to Bluejay’s estimates. That means that at the national average rate for electricity, a ceiling fan costs less than a penny per hour to run.

A nice perk of ceiling fans is that in addition to cooling you in the summer, they can help circulate warm air to keep you warmer in winter. In most cases, when the fan runs counterclockwise, it pushes air downward, creating a cooling breeze. When you reverse the direction to clockwise, it pulls cool air up, sending warm air from the ceiling back down along the walls and toward the floor.

Attic Fans

On a summer day, the attic of a house can heat up like a furnace. An attic fan mounts to the wall or ceiling of your attic and forces hot air out. This removes the cushion of heat at the top of your house so it can’t filter down to your living space.

However, if you use air conditioning regularly, an attic fan could actually make your house warmer. Many attics aren’t that well-sealed – so as the fan runs, it can suck cooled air through gaps and up into the attic, blowing it right out of the house.

Moreover, if your attic does have good insulation, cooling the attic doesn’t affect your house temperature that much. A well-insulated roof means the attic doesn’t heat up as much from solar radiation, and a well-insulated floor means heat from the attic is less likely to spread to living areas.

If your attic is poorly insulated, upgrading it may save you more on cooling costs than adding a fan. So for many homeowners, the cost of adding an attic fan – around $100 for the fan itself, and another $400 if you pay someone to install it – isn’t that good an investment.

Bed Fans

Keeping cool in bed is difficult because air can’t circulate freely around your body. As a result, even people who can manage without air conditioning all day often need it at night.

A novel solution to this problem is the bed fan, which sits at the end of your bed and directs a stream of cool air under the sheets. These are especially useful for people who suffer from night sweats or hot flashes. A bed fan costs about $100 and requires 10 watts or less per hour to run.

Use Cooling Fans

4. Alternative Cooling Systems

Cold compresses and fans can cool your body, but it’s also possible to cool an entire room without air conditioning. The simplest way to do this is to use a fan to pull in cold air through the windows at night. In dry climates, you can use a swamp cooler, which cools your home with evaporating water. And if you’re prepared to make a really big investment, you can install a geothermal system, which draws on cooler temperatures below the earth’s surface.

Window Fans

If you live in a climate where it gets cool at night, you can reduce the temperature in your house just by opening the windows. However, you can get much quicker results by adding a window fan. Window fans typically cost less than $60 and use no more than 70 watts of electricity per hour.

If your house has two floors or more, you’ll get the best cooling effect from your fan by pulling air in through the windows on the lower floor, where it’s naturally cooler. As the air warms up, it will rise and exit through the windows on the upper floors. This will create a cooling breeze throughout the entire house.

Whole-House Fans

Another way to cool your whole house with moving air is to install a whole-house fan. These large, ceiling-mounted fans pull cool evening air in through open windows and blow it into your attic, where it is expelled through the vents. A whole-house fan can move thousands of cubic feet of air through your home each minute, completely replacing all the air in the house with fresh air 30 to 60 times an hour.

Whole-house fans cost a few hundred dollars to purchase and another few hundred to install. The DOE says installing one is definitely a job for a professional, since it requires a dedicated electrical circuit and possible changes to your attic vents. However, installing a whole-house fan is still much cheaper than adding a new central AC system, which typically costs $3,500 to $4,000.

A whole-house fan is much cheaper to run as well. According to this chart from Silicon Valley Power, a whole-house fan uses less than 500 watts of power per hour, while a central AC system uses around 3,000 watts. That means you could run a whole-house fan for eight hours a night, all summer long, for less than $50. Running an air conditioner for the same amount of time would cost more than $300.

Pro tip: If you need to locate a contractor to do this type of work, HomeAdvisor is a great place to look. They will give you a list of qualified contractors and you can then choose one fo the job.

Evaporative Coolers

A more elaborate alternative to air conditioning is an evaporative cooler – also known as a swamp cooler – which cools air by blowing it over water-soaked pads. According to the DOE, this evaporating water can cool the air by anywhere from 15 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. (You can also create a low-tech version of the same effect by placing a bowl of melting ice in front of a table fan.)

Evaporative coolers are cheaper to buy and run than air conditioners. You can buy a free-standing swamp cooler for as little as $120, as opposed to around $200 for a window AC unit. A larger whole-house evaporative cooling system costs between $1,400 and $3,300 to install – significantly less than the $3,500 to $4,000 you’d pay for a central AC system. It also runs on about 25% as much energy, according to the DOE.

It’s also possible to make your own swamp cooler from simple parts such as a plastic bucket, a small desk fan, and a bag of ice. In fact, most of the “homemade air conditioners” featured in articles and videos online are actually swamp coolers. However, professionals who have tested these DIY coolers find they’re not nearly as effective as a real air conditioner. For instance, testers at Consumer Reports found that such a contraption could only cool a room by two to three degrees Fahrenheit.

The testers may have had such poor results with DIY swamp coolers because they were using them in the wrong kind of climate. This is the main drawback of any swamp cooler: it only works in dry climates. In areas with high humidity, the air is already too saturated with water for evaporation to work.

As this map from the appliance company Air & Water shows, swamp coolers work best in the western part of the country, from Montana down to New Mexico and out to the Pacific. From the Atlantic to the Midwest – including most parts of Texas – an evaporative cooler isn’t useful.

Geothermal Systems

While the air outside your house changes temperature with the seasons, the ground about 10 feet below the surface stays at around 54 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. This makes it much easier to transfer heat from your house to the ground – or vice versa – than to transfer it to the air the way a standard AC system does.

A geothermal system runs a fluid-filled loop of pipe, called a heat exchanger, under the ground and up to your house. There, it passes through a heat pump, which is like an air conditioner that works in both directions, adding or removing heat as needed. This lets you use the same system for heating your home in the winter and cooling it in the summer. You can also use it to heat your water – and in the summer, this heating is free, since it uses the heat that was extracted when cooling your house.

Geothermal systems are expensive to install – between $10,000 and $25,000. However, if you’re building a new house, a geothermal system costs only about $3,500 more than a conventional heating and cooling system, and it can cut your home energy use by more than $30 a month. In addition, up through the end of 2016, you can get an ENERGY STAR tax credit that pays back 30% of the cost (up to $500).

Geothermal System Cooler

Final Word

The tricks I learned for keeping cool while living in my first apartment have come in handy many times since then. The house I live in now doesn’t have central air conditioning, but I never miss it. Even the little window air conditioner in my home office only gets used once or twice in a summer.

Of course, everyone’s internal thermostat is different, so what feels comfortable for me might not be comfortable for you. But even if you find you can’t get along without an air conditioner every day, the tips here can help you use it less often, which is good for the planet and for your wallet.

What other tricks can you suggest for staying cool without air conditioning?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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