Environment

Air-Conditioning Is Terrible for the Earth -- Here's How to Live Without It

We live in a society that has been built around the idea of energy-intensive cooling. Here are some easy ways you can stay cool and cut your summer energy consumption.

This story was written by Stan Cox, Priti Gulati Cox, Chris George, Dani Moore, Sheila Stewart and John Stewart, with an introduction by Stan Cox.

Over the past decade, gains in the general energy efficiency of appliances have been wiped out by our growing reliance on one device in particular: the air conditioner. Just since the mid-1990s, as the U.S. population was growing by less than 15 percent, consumption of electricity to cool the residential, retail and automotive sectors doubled.

If people in India, Brazil and Indonesia used as much air-conditioning per capita as we do (and why not, their climates are hotter than ours), they would consume not only their own electricity supplies but also all of the electricity in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Italy -- plus all 60 nations of Africa! The air-conditioning of America's homes, businesses schools, and vehicles causes the release of greenhouse gases equivalent to 400 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

But while working on Chapter 1 (pdf) of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, I learned that there are still plenty of people who, out of ecological and other concerns, live without air-conditioning -- even in the hot heart of the Sunbelt.

Chris George and Dani Moore, for example, kept their windows open and their refrigerator stocked with ice water through the entire summer of 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. I visited them on the second-hottest day of the year, when it was 114 degrees outdoors and 100 in the kitchen.

Sheila and John Stewart have been opening their 1920s-era house in St. Petersburg, Florida to Gulf breezes year-round since 1984; Sheila tolda local reporter in 2006 that life in hot, humid Florida without air-conditioning is "a thermostatic thing. Your body gets used to it."

Meanwhile, we residents of central Kansas are no strangers to triple-digit temperatures. Torrid south winds can ripen our eight million acres of wheat overnight. But my wife Priti and I have lived here for the past 10 years without air-conditioning. Life in Kansas, and before that, in India, has taught us a few ways of adapting to heat.

As I see it, if you want to get some really creative ideas for keeping cool at the height of summer, go to someone who has figured out how to live without air-conditioning on the fringes of Phoenix -- the world's number-one urban heat island -- or in the sun-broiled steambath that is southwest Florida.

So I asked John, Sheila, Dani, Chris and Priti to help me come up with a summertime guide to remaining comfortable -- or at least of sound mind and body -- without air-conditioning.

If you follow any of this advice, it may be out of a desire to reduce your carbon footprint or your utility bill. But we're betting that as you begin to realize some of the benefits of the non-refrigerated life, you'll find yourself looking for more opportunities, even excuses, to turn off the air-conditioning. — Stan Cox

A Guide to the Great Indoors, Without Air-Conditioning

We now live in a society that has been built around the idea of energy-intensive cooling. That will have to be reversed, and it won't happen overnight. But if you don't want to wait that long to cut your summer energy consumption, here are a few ideas. We came up with these collectively, and not all of us do all of these things. Some may not apply directly in your region of the country or world. And you may have some tricks of your own for staying cool that aren't listed here.

Bring the outdoors in: During the day, direct sunlight is the enemy, so keep the windows shut tight and block the light with blinds and drapes. If your house is oriented along the points of the compass, you can close the eastern windows in the morning and leave the western windows open. Reverse the process in the afternoon. Or just close all windows around noon. But at night, let the outdoors in. Pay attention to the outdoor temperatures and throw open the windows every evening to let the cooler air in. Open the doors to your porch or patio and let your indoor life flow in and out. Spending time on the front porch or patio is a nightly relief and strengthens connections to the neighborhood. Try sleeping on the porch, on a couch or in a hammock. A fan should keep you cool, and night sounds can be very relaxing.

Move the air: Your body is constantly producing heat, in amounts comparable to what's put out by a 100- to 300-watt light bulb. In hot or hot/humid weather, your body has a harder time ridding itself of that heat, creating discomfort. Air moving across your body is highly effective in helping you shed heat; indeed, the mass production of electric fans in the early 20th century probably made a bigger difference in people's comfort than did the later introduction of the air-conditioner. Attic or whole-house fans, when turned on in the evening after the outdoor temperature has dropped, replace hot air that has accumulated inside during the day with fresh, cooler air. Keep the air moving at night. If there's no natural breeze and you don't have an attic fan, use box fans to blow air in through a window on one end of your house or apartment and out a window on the other (and take that out-blowing fan seriously; it is equally, if not more, important). Replace plate glass with windows that open. Sliding glass doors can provide a wall-sized breeze. Remember that the coolest temperatures occur just before sunrise, so capture as much cool air as you can before the sunlight returns.

Get wet: Use water strategically. Drink plenty of it to stay hydrated. When you shower, turn the temperature way down to cool off your body (and for extra energy savings, consider shutting off your hot water heater; you'll probably still get warm water out of it when you want it). And respect the power of evaporation. Spray yourself with water every now and then, and you will quickly appreciate it. When going to sleep, spray yourself a few times and lie down under a ceiling fan or in front of a box fan, and you might even feel chilly. If it's not feasible to hit the lake or local swimming pool, but water supplies are sufficient, set up the lawn sprinkler. If the vegetable garden is getting dry, set the sprinkler to overshoot the sides of the garden a little and send the kids (or yourself) out to cool off in it. Lying in a few inches of water in the tub can cool your entire body, especially if you splash it on yourself or turn your body in the water. Try plugging the drain during a shower, then lying in the collected water for a few minutes. Then rinse off before getting out of the shower.

Use other appliances strategically: The goal may be to save energy, but don't let it stop you from using other appliances to help you stay cool. You will easily see in your electric bill that turning off the A/C more than compensates for extra use of these other appliances:

  • Portable and ceiling fans: These are essential.
  • Portable swamp cooler: Quite effective in dry climates.
  • Refrigerator: Keep a large supply of water in the fridge. Also keep an eye on any perishable food. In especially hot homes, most breads and fruits will quickly go bad unless refrigerated.
  • Freezer: Be vigilant about refilling your ice trays. Also, don't be afraid to use the freezer for more creative uses. At some point in the summer, cold foods and beverages won't stay cold for long once you take them out of the fridge, so consider keeping a few cereal bowls or drinking glasses in the freezer. That way, they'll keep your food cold as you enjoy it. And, hey, if you're getting dressed up for any reason, try putting an undershirt or other clothing in the freezer for a few minutes before putting it on. It will keep you cool as you finish dressing and get out the door.

But unplug anything you don't need. Any household device that runs on energy in the form of electricity or gas also releases much of that energy as waste heat. The fewer things you have turned on, the less heat you have to deal with. There's a reason that around the world, kitchens traditionally have been separated from the main house. Cut back on boiling and baking especially. Try grilling outside to keep the kitchen cool. Grill enough food on the weekend to provide several meals, then warm it up in the microwave during the week. Keep any unneeded lights turned off. Energy-efficient light bulbs and refrigerators pump out less heat than conventional ones. If you haven't turned off the water heater, take tepid, not hot, showers, to avoid filling the house with a big load of humidity. And use advanced solar technology -- the clothesline -- to dry the laundry. You'll find clothes drying faster in the warmer temperatures, even if hung indoors. And as a bonus, pets love the drying rack because of its evaporative cooling effect.

Go back to the cave: If you have a basement, take advantage of it. The Flintstones' rock ranch house must have been a furnace in summer; our actual Stone Age ancestors would certainly have appreciated geothermal climate control as they took refuge in their caves. If the humidity gets uncomfortable down there, a fan or room air-conditioner can take care of it at very little energy cost. If you don't have a basement, cool a one-room refuge with a small air-conditioner that can be turned on only when needed.

Make shade: Vegetation cools twice, by shading and by evaporation. For the long run, plant trees, especially on the south and west. In the shorter run, or if trees won't work, put other types of tall plants -- giant reed, sunflowers, or even corn -- along the sunbaked sides of the house.

Open up, and have no worries:It's a subject we might rather not discuss, but decorative grilles are very common on ground-floor windows in hot countries around the world. Fear of crime has been cited as a factor in American urban-dwellers' reluctance to open their windows. In both homes and office buildings, protective grilles (let's not call them "bars") can be a green construction feature.

Workers of the world, thaw out! In the workplace, we often have much less control over the indoor temperature than we do at home. The number-one summer complaint of people working in large offices is that it's too cold. If, instead of blowing on their hands or taking sweaters or space heaters to work, the nation's overchilled employees united to demand a less frigid summer work environment, there is no telling how many power plants could be closed down.

Lose a little weight? Air-conditioning is a prime suspect in widespread weight gain. Cut off the chilled air, and your body will burn more energy simply keeping cool. You'll eat less and be more active. And as the fat layer under your skin thins, you'll be less heavily insulated and feel cooler.

Adjust your schedule:Don't plan on spending much time inside your un-air-conditioned home in the afternoons, the hottest part of the day. It will be coolest in early morning and late evening, so plan your home time to take advantage of it. Try to spend your afternoons doing other things: work, running errands or even just being outside in the shade. People in two-story houses can move downstairs in the afternoon when the second floor becomes hot with rising air. And of course, you can migrate from there to the basement if you have one.

Adjust your attitude:Try to remember that comfort is relative; it's all a matter of what you're used to. If you feel hot or if you are drenched in sweat, you can let it bother you, or you can try not to think about it. You will get used to it eventually, and when you do, it might not even occur to you that you should feel hot or sticky. But be patient.

Embrace the outdoors: It's easier to survive the great indoors if you don't spend too much time in it! Going without the A/C will encourage you to spend more time outside. You'll find the outdoors much more welcoming than you would if you were emerging from an air-conditioned home. Go swimming, soak up some shade, and make your gentle breeze by riding a bike. Summer may be hot, but it can still be fun.

Watch your health and your pets: Don't go too far. Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. If your home is designed with air-conditioning in mind, understand that it may be difficult to keep it habitable without A/C. Don't put your health or your pets' health at risk if the indoor temperature climbs too high.

Set a concrete, realistic goal: Don't try to give up A/C cold turkey. Work your way up to it with intermediate goals, and stick to them. And once you shut off the A/C, consider ahead of time which conditions, if any, would prompt you to turn it back on -- and for how long. Don't make up excuses to turn the A/C back on, but don't set yourself up for failure by setting overly aggressive goals. For example, in the first summer that you've shut off the A/C, if you have great difficulty sleeping for three consecutive nights, maybe you allow yourself a few hours of A/C usage to help you fall asleep on the third night (or, hopefully, you'll come up with another way to fall asleep before the third night). But decide on exceptions like these ahead of time and you'll be more likely to hold out and meet bigger and bigger goals.

New, more efficient (and more expensive) air-conditioning systems are coming on the market. Ground-source or solar-powered cooling are also possibilities. But before you go out and spend a pile of money, try following the above advice, tested by my friends in the nation's hot spots. You'll find it's really no sweat -- well, not much, anyway.