Thinking About Heating and Cooling Differently

Sharon August 12th, 2008

Today’s posts will focus on heating and cooling and how to deal with these issues.  If you live in the north, heating is probably a growing anxiety for you, because of the rapid rise in cost of nearly every method of heating.  Oil prices are now effectively prohibitive for poor and working families - with 100 or 125 gallon minimum deliveries and no credit extended, many households that rely on heating oil (disproportionately in the Northeast) simply won’t be able to afford to heat their houses at all with conventional methods.  Gas prices are expected to rise steadily, and besides the rising cost of electricity, there’s the question of whether heavy reliance on electric space heaters to replace other heating methods may actualy result in power outages, leaving even more people in the cold.

And if you live where summer temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees, and every summer seems hotter than the last you are probably deeply concerned about what happens as the price of electricity spikes and air conditioning becomes prohibitive - or is shut off.  What do we do, short of abandon our homes?

 I’m going to talk about strategies for both of these things - first of all, how not to die from heat or cold - how to live without any heating or cooling, even in very cold or hot places, and then also how to cool and heat your house using fewer fossil fuels, but before we go there, I want to talk about how we *think* about heating and cooling overall.  Because that has at least as deep an effect on how we approach this as the actual method we use.

Now we all know that people have lived in very cold and very hot places in the world for most of human history, and most of them still have no central heating and no central air conditioning - and no one, not even the richest folks - had them until the last century or so.  So any discussion of heating or cooling has to begin from the recognition that our sense that we “have to” have certain temperatures, barring a few medical conditions - is really cultural, not physiological.  Human beings would not have survived in Northern climates, living in houses heated only by an open fire (and most of the heat goes up the fireplace) in uninsulated houses - or in more portable dwellings - for thousands of years if human beings couldn’t tolerate temperatures below 65 degrees inside. 

I realize this probably won’t make me anyone’s best friend, but the truth is that except for the ill, very elderly and underweight, you can regulate your body temperature in a house that is in the 40s or 50s - you won’t like it, but you can live that way  - in fact, you probably evolved to live that way.  If you dress very warmly, in layers, and move around a lot and have enough blankets, you will be fine - period. If you have an infant, the best strategy is to keep them against your body all the time - and they will be just fine. 

What is true is that people lived differently - they slept with another person, spent their days mostly together in the heated areas, or moving around and being active.  They often slept a lot more in the winter, and spent a lot of time when they were not being active in bed. 

The same is true of extremely high temperatures - while the world is manifestly warmer than it once was, it is also true that human beings have lived in very, very hot places for much of human history, and mostly lived.  But again, they lived differently - activity ceased in the heat of the day, life moved more into the night times, people spent more time in and near water - for example, in some parts of Southeast Asia, a shower (a bucket with holes in it) is a basic part of hospitality.

 It is true that most of us are physiologically better adapted to one kind of temperature than another - if you are from a hot place and move to a cold one, you will feel the cold more, and vice versa.  People raised in warm places actually do have more sweat glands, for example, than people from cold climates.  That said, however, our bodies also can adapt individually - someone who spends a lot of time working outdoors in a hot climate will build sweat glands, and someone who doesn’t over heat their house and goes out will acclimate to colder and colder temperatures.  The process of acclimation and adapting our lives is probably the most basic thing we can do to deal with heat and cold - and up until now, we’ve been using tools (central heating and cooling) that prevent acclimation - that is, we spend half our day in air conditioning, so our bodies don’t adapt to the heat.  Everyone who has ever worked outside on a bitterly cold day knows how *hot* even a lightly heated house feels when you go in.  This is acclimation, and we have to use it more than we have.

Now the odds are good our bosses probably won’t let us start siestaing, or give us the winter off to hibernate, and that we can’t totally change our lives to adapt to temperature.  But we can change our lives, and our ways of thinking to adapt to the weather, and we can work on acclimation.

One of the things that shifts in an era of cheap energy is the relationship we have to the idea of central heating or cooling.  When energy is cheap and widely available and perceived as having no major environmental consequences, we can afford to keep the whole house at a comfortable temperature - and central heating and cooling seem to have the advantage.  When costs go up and impact matters, central heating and cooling don’t work very well - the temperature your house is at goes up above what is comfortable or down below it, and localized heat or cooling starts to have the advantage.

 Why?  Well, we tend to think of heating or cooling as “keeping the house” at some temperature, but localized heating or cooling simply doesn’t work that way - over by my woodstove, there’s a spot that is often nearly 80 degrees - it feels great if I’ve been sitting at the computer in my 49 degree office, but far too hot to sit there all the time.  Out a bit further away, is an optimal temperature, and that’s where everyone will read or hang out.  Further still, it gets cooler, and the sleeping spaces (where we are warmed by heavy blankets and body heat) are the coolest of all).  Elderly people, or those who have been ill, or new babies can have the spot next to the fire, and be warm.  Those who need it less can have periods of comfort for quiet work, and less heat when they are up and moving.  And the same is true of cooling - if you need air conditioning, localizing it to the most urgent spot - perhaps the bedroom or living room- gives you comfortable sleep or a place to congregate and do your work.  This is less costly than trying to cool a whole house, but it also gets you adequate cooling in a localized space.  If you don’t use a/c, perhaps moving your bedroom to the shady north side of the house where the cross breeze comes, putting your mattress on the floor for summer, or sleeping outside (which is what people used to do) will be sufficient.

The most localized heating and cooling of all is the heating or cooling of your body - this could be as simple as dressing warmly, wearing a hat indoors, holding a cup of tea or coffee or even hot water, using a hot water bottle in bed or on the back of your chair, and putting your feet on a hot brick or other heated substance.  As I’ve mentioned, my office last year hovered in the high 40s, and I wrote a book that way, rather cozily, actually, with my fingerless gloves, my tea, my hot bricks and a bathrobe over my clothes.   For cooling, soaking a bandana or freezing it and putting it under your hat or over your hair, drinking copiously and sticking your feet in cool water are good strategies - it isn’t always necessary to cool your environment, just your body.

Heating and cooling are going to be serious strains on our society - we may first experience an “energy crisis” in a real sense this winter or in a coming one.  We’re going to have change our way of thinking - to start from acclimatization, and localized heat sources, rather than begin from the assumption that we all must live in 68 degrees.


18 Responses to “Thinking About Heating and Cooling Differently”

  1. Fern says:

    While I’m not sure what I’m going to do about cooling - or at least dehumidifying - here on the east coast, we’ve figured out a plan for heating: many of my friends and I are having hot flashes. Get a bunch of us in the basement, and our combined heat will take care of the entire house. Localized heat will be provided by our daughters, who are having babies and nursing, thus running a bit ‘warm’ themselves.

    This may not be practical in all groups….


  2. rube cretin says:

    a good sleeping bag is one of the best investments for cold weather. recommend one for each member of the family.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a LOT lately. I live in one of those *100-degree, super-humid summers* places and am astounded at just how cold some people keep their homes/offices. I have a friend who I love dearly, but she keeps her thermastat set on 68*!!!! Yikes! I thought it was telling that last week, we tied a record-high of 100* for the day; the original record was set in 1899. Clearly, it’s possible to survive extreme temperatures, and I agree that acclimation is key. We generally keep our a/c set to 79/80* and 100* didn’t seem THAT bad to me. I’ve been looking at how I might set up a “sleeping porch” in our house; my family’s house on the river had one that I remember sleeping on very comfortably many summer nights.

  4. AV says:

    A couple of other suggestions.

    Ceiling fans take very little power and move air to keep one cool. Also if you have a house with an attic room that would be the place to sleep in the winter as heat rises. If you have a basement that is the place to sleep in summer as being partially underground keeps basements cool.


  5. Pica says:

    Sharon — these are great suggestions. We live in a hot-in-summer climate but it’s dry and have yet to turn on the a/c more than about 5 times in nearly 10 years, even when it gets to be 108°, because there is almost always an evening breeze and if you open the windows at night and shut the house up in the morning it’s fine.

    The problem is work, where I am cold in summer and hot in winter… But I’m thinking that’s going to have to change at some point.

  6. homebrewlibrarian says:

    The building I live in has baseboard radiators and all three units share the same boiler. I can turn the heat down but I can’t not heat every room since the radiators are in every room - except the kitchen but it’s in the center of the first floor footprint along the wall separating two units.

    I kept the unit at 65 F all last winter and I plan to drop the temperature more this winter. It’s true about acclimation - I walked or took the bus to work in temperatures down into the negative numbers so my unit felt really warm. Until I was still for a while than I’d have to get up and be active and put on more clothes. Here in Anchorage, air conditioning isn’t at all needed and my unit has been staying pretty close to 65 F which is only slightly warmer than outside temperatures. In the past, I’d have needed a jacket to be outside but now I’m finding I don’t need it. I’m also spending a lot more time outside and that’s made a difference in my comfort level over all.

    There’s been some talk about installing wood stoves for emergency back up heat and in Alaska that’s not a bad idea. Unfortunately, the chimney and wood stove that was in this unit back in the ’50s was removed and the chimney filled in when the second floor unit was built. There isn’t a convenient place to put an external chimney because of jutting eaves, a second floor balcony and second floor windows so I’m going to have to get an installer to come over and assess the situation. The chimney is still present in the other first floor unit and a wood stove will be installed pretty soon. So I expect to keep the thermostat rather low and wear lots of clothes all the time. Might try getting to bed earlier too!

    Kerri in AK

  7. Sally says:

    We don’t (currently ;) ) suffer from much in the way of temperature extremes in the UK but the winter tends to feel cold as its so darn damp. I am finishing my degree this winter - lots of sitting in front of the pc - so thanks for your tips Sharon, I had never considered indoor hat wearing but can imagine it would hitch you up a coupla degrees! I am planning to build a stash of thermals and as a compulsive knitter I was hugely cheered by your advice (hidden somewhere on this site, can’t put a finger on it now…) to stock up on wool, now I may be way behind you good folks on here with gardening, food storing and canning but, boy, can I give you a run for your money with the wool stashing ;)

  8. Colleen says:

    We use ‘heater pillows’ quite a lot in the winter.
    I heat my ‘belly belt’ one up when I get up. I often wear it while getting ready for work then heat it again before getting in the cold car. I heat it again before leaving work for the drive home. At home, I will heat it again, before settling in my reading chair with a blanket. At bedtime, it gets heated and put in the bed while I clean up & brush my teeth.

    A ‘heater pillow’ is a pillow with a filler that when heated gives off moist, radiant heat. I bought my first over a decade ago. It was locally handmade and filled with cherry pits. (The threadbare cotton shell finally gave after 10 years of regular use.) Several companies make them for national retail sale including ‘Dreamtime’- which is my favorite. They offer them in neck wraps, belly belts (great for menstrual cramps & backaches), gloves and booties.

    I was taught an ‘quick & easy’ version in my doula training - the rice sock. You fill a clean sock about 2/3 full with dry rice. Tie the cuff in a knot and heat in a microwave oven. Check it every 30 sec until desired warmth is reached.

    These are often heated in a clean microwave though I have warmed them on radiant heaters & hearths and in sunny cars to varying degrees of success.

    They can also be put in a bag in the freezer & chilled for treating inflammation and for cooling ( maybe they could cool in a root cellar or springhouse - not sure about humidity’s effects ).

    I plan to use some ‘fat quarters’ and some white rice to make handwarmers and boo-boo bags for holiday gifts.


  9. bridget says:

    When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, our family did not have central air in our 3-story brick house in St. Louis. The summers there are hot and humid. We did have an window unit in the first floor, and that was were we spent a lot of our time, when we weren’t outside. On the hottest nights, when the fans didn’t offer relief, we would bring sleeping bags downstairs and the family would have a camp-in. Our grandparents told us in their youth they would go to the park to sleep when it was that hot.

    One worry or challenge I have is people with asthma during the winter. During an ice storm, we had to rely on an intermittent space heater. I think we were in the upper 40s, and DH had real problems with asthma. He concurrently got pneumonia. Anything lower than 64 in our house seems to be a health risk.

  10. Sharon says:

    Bridget, the asthmatics I know tend to do better with acclimation - presumably the situation was sudden in your case? A sudden drop of temps can be tough on cold-air sensitive asthmatics, but someone with asthma and other good health may well be able to gradually acclimate to lower indoor temperatures, particularly if you can raise the humidity up.


  11. bridget says:

    Yes, the asthma situation was very sudden. An ice storm knocked out power to our house (and thousands of others in the area) for 5 days. It’s good to know that acclimation can work for people with asthma! I’ll keep setting the thermostat a degree lower.

  12. bunnygirl says:

    One of the biggest problems we face in heating and cooling our homes is new construction. Prior to air conditioning and central heat, buildings were designed to work with the environment.

    For example, my father’s New Mexico property is adobe, which provides such wonderful insulation from heat and cold that he only turns on the a/c a few times a year, and then just for a little added comfort during the hottest time of the day. My grandmother’s cast iron cookstove puts out enough heat to warm the whole house and the adobe holds the heat for hours.

    In my own experience, I moved from a 1980s construction apartment to a 1950s construction house just last summer. The house never gets as hot as that apartment used to, even without a/c. The construction of the house explains why. It’s raised off the ground so air can flow beneath. The roof is designed to move air through the attic space. The windows and doors are placed so breezes can flow through from any direction. The house is built of thick, solid materials and is well-insulated. Big trees provide shade.

    Contrast to my old apartment with enormous plate glass windows that didn’t open. The few windows that did open only allowed air in, but not through. The construction was of low-grade materials and the insulation was poor. As a renter, I could not add canopies over windows to keep out the afternoon sun in summer or add insulation to my attic space.

    My point in these illustrations is that people living in new construction will likely have their work cut out for them. Renters even more so. We used to know how to build with local weather conditions in mind, but an assumption of cheap-forever electricity and fossil fuels led to form taking precedence over function. If we fail as a society to come up with a solution to our impending energy crisis, we’ll one day be cursing our architects almost as much as we’ll be cursing our politicians and oil execs.

  13. Colleen says:

    Here is a link to DIY instructions to make your own ‘heater or heated pillow’.,1983,DIY_13765_4414798_ARTICLE-DETAIL-PRINT,00.html

    Warm winter dreams - Colleen

  14. Brett says:

    Here in Missouri, it can get downright miserable with 100+ heat in addition to high humidity. This summer has been unseasonably mild, so we’ve had to use our window a/c unit very little. For the most part, opening the windows at night and closing up in the morning is often enough to stave usage off until the late afternoon if we even have to use it at all. Living in an apartment, all our windows are lined along the same wall which makes airflow a bit challenging, but we manage with a couple of fans.

    Currently, our biggest problem is when we cook as that creates a lot of heat, but we’re not allowed to use a grill on our deck. I watch the thermostat closely and only turn the unit on when it gets over 85 inside at which time I close off all other rooms and only cool the living room and kitchen which amounts to less than 300 square feet. Last month was the warmest of the year so far, and our electricity usage increased by less than 20% above the previous month in which we used no a/c at all. Of course, we just got a new unit that is far more efficient than the one we had before.

    For the winter, we have a brand new gas furnace that we’re not allowed to turn off, but I keep the thermostat on the lowest possible setting for most of the day. We sit in front of a radiant heater which is fairly efficient, and the indoor cooking comes in rather handy that time of year. At night, I pop the thermostat up for a moment and adjust the vents so that all the heat goes into the bedroom to give it a “jump start” that is maintained by an incredibly small space heater after I turn the thermostat back down to its lowest setting. With the bedroom door closed, I estimate that it stays between 60 and 65 except on the coldest of nights, and the rest of the apartment drops as low as 50. In the morning, I run another “jump start” cycle for the living area, and run the radiant heater on an as needed basis. We’re hoping, still, to acclimate ourselves to even lower temps so that we may run heat even less this coming winter.

    I do, however, have a couple of concerns I’d like to share. First, I worry about expanded prevalence of wood-burning stoves as energy prices rise, prompting more and more people to take to cutting down trees. While most currently only cut down dead trees, competition might lead some to take to live trees and severely diminish nature’s capacity to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The second is not so much a concern as it is advice. Basically, keep storage of foodstuffs and medication in mind when determining your localization strategy for heating/cooling your dwelling. In most cases, it’s probably easier and more practical to carefully choose where medications are stored as opposed to shifting the focus of temperature control, but each household is different. We actually don’t have medications in our home, but we did have to make considerations when choosing where to store our bulk beans and rice.

  15. greg says:

    I’m glad I built a superinsulated passive solar house. On sunny days it heats itself and will last til morning. On cloudy days we can use the woodstove. In the summer no sun comes in due to the 2ft overhang so no overheating. Worse electric bill (everything is elec.) was $90 one Jan. for 2,500sf house. I wish they had changed the building codes back in the 70s beefing up insulation. It would have helped in keeping demand down.

    Here’s an example of a superinsulated house in Illinois:

  16. Kati says:

    I’m glad to say that for the most part, keeping cool in the summer is largely not an issue in my household, and has never been. If it’s overly warm outside, we come inside where our house is at least shady, and with the windows on East and West, and the one on the South open, that bit of cross-draft and a glass of water are generally all the more that’s needed to cool us down. (Oh, and we do have box fans placed in each of the East windows for added draft, if needed. And one in each of the bedrooms for night use if it’s really warm. Though we don’t keep them on at all times.)

    Heating, however…. Our governor is smart enough to know that our winter will be hard enough, that taking a small portion of the State’s oil revenues (and yes, it is a reasonably small portion) and giving each family a chunk of it to pay for oil or electric will help us survive at least this coming winter with costs as high as they are. UNFORTUNATELY, I don’t think anybody in the government (or, not the majority of them anyway) are considering that this may be a long-term issue and getting through NEXT winter is going to be a problem too. As most of our representatives (at state AND federal level!) have been “bought out” by coal or oil, I worry that nobody is really considering the importance of hydro-electric, geo-thermal electric, wind electric, or solar electric on a large enough scale to reduce the use of coal and oil for electric and heat. In fact, the main push lately is either to get that freaking “natural gas pipeline” put in (“it will save us!”) or mine more coal (“naw, coal doesn’t pollute the air!! This is CLEAN COAL!”). *rolling eyes*

    We started turning our thermostat down a couple of degrees year before last, trying to acclimate ourselves to the cold a bit more. I don’t want to live in a house that’s only 40 or 50 deg. but 60 during the day when nobody’s home, 66 most of the winter (with the temp turned UP to 68 during the -40 and -50 days at the worst of the winter), and back down to 64 at night….. Well, that’s what we did last year. We’ll have to keep the house a BIT warmer overall this winter, as the kiddo is homeschooling and I don’t expect her to stay home in a house that’s only 60 deg. when the hubby and I are at workplaces hovering around 70 deg. It just wouldn’t be fair to her (at least, on the short-term, though in the long term it would allow her to acclimate faster than the hubby and I).

    This summer, we replaced our front door, which was in horrible shape and fit so poorly (the whole frame was very poorly shimmed in and insulated!) that this area of our house was always very drafty. This winter, we’ve got a sturdy new door that has been PROPERLY shimmed in and insulated and shuts snuggly during the summer, and during the winter should be so snug that no ice forms around the frame and door, like in past winters. We’ve got curtains for most of the windows (just a couple more need it), lighter or not at all in the summer, heavier or actual quilts for winter. Now if only we could afford to build arctic entry-ways for both front & back. That’s one of the plans, but not yet done.

    On a public level, there have been a couple of environmental movements, and a study by the local U. as to more ecological home design, heating, and energy production. Just last year during the winter solstice, the U. conducted a study to see how much solar energy could be produced by only about 4 hours of sun a day. The results have not been made public yet. And this summer an eco-housing company here in town has test-built a residential home that uses ancient Native Alaskan building styles, with new eco-friendly techniques. The plan is to use the newer (and mostly eco-friendly) building materials to build a single-story, 900 sq-ft single-family home that’s banked into earth for extra protection from the elements. This house is ideally planned for a village called Anituvik (sp?) Pass, where most residents live in “stick built” 70′s era homes in a very windy, cold environment. However, should the test version work this winter, and the results come back as positive from Anituvik Pass, I could imagine these sorts of homes being built here in the Fairbanks area as well. I know I’d appreciate one in the dead of winter. (Gardening on top the back end of my house, tossing the football with the kiddo on top the front roof….. *grin* What a thought!)

    Anyway…. Some meanderings from this little corner of the world on how we’re dealing with a tougher upcoming winter (and many more to follow).

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