How Not To Fry: Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning (or not much)

Sharon August 14th, 2008

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 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 this stuff, both for winter and summer, 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.

So let’s go, as we have been, from internal systems outwards, in opposition to the traditional model, that suggests that you heat or cool a whole house, let’s start from inside you, as we talk about keeping cool.

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.

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. has information in making rehydration syrups and also what the best things to drink when you are dehydrated are - everyone needs to know this, not just people in hot places, since dehydration is common when 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 awning, 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 probably not legal or safe), 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). 

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.


21 Responses to “How Not To Fry: Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning (or not much)”

  1. Shamba says:

    Excellent recommendations, sharon!

    I find that a wet bandana or just water on the back of the neck, wrist, and feet make me feel a somewhat cooler if I can’t do anything else. Also, even if your AC is working fine if you personally are just too hot to sleep get in the shower or pool and then wrap a sheet or lightweight cloth around you and go to bed. Don’t dry completely off; perhaps you shouldnt’ get your hair wet although I’ve gone to sleep with at least damp hair. This should help you get to sleep.

    anything to move cooking/making heat outside is very good.


  2. alyssaceleste says:

    Just spent almost two weeks camping and wearing linen versions of salwar/kemise and a thin, thin gauze scarf to keep the sun off my neck and face. I felt better with more clothing then I’d wear if I were out in public! How smart these hot weather adaptations are, easy to wear, and comfortable.

  3. risa b says:

    As we approach our 60s we find that 100 degree weather (such as today and tomorrow!!!!) is a real threat to us and our plan to make it through life (as we have so far) never to have owned A/C …

    We have tarps up all the way around the south and west sides of the house, use reflective roofing, have insulation (and will be adding more) and make judicious use of fans. We’ve also been known to hose down the whole place in an “emergency.”

    The best thing we seem to do, though, is open doors and windows all night, then button up the place at dawn. Our temp swings are large, sometimes 30-40 degrees F (not good tomato country), and we take advantage of that by trapping night air.

    I realize not everyone can leave door open all night in their neighborhood but screen doors can have locking latches and there are ways to make them secure without looking too much like a jail cell.

    risa b

  4. Kerr says:

    Passive evaporative cooling, if you live in a dry area and have sufficient access to water—even not very drinkable water—is great. You can hang a sheet of light and light-colored absorbent cotton material over an open window, shading the room, and set the end in a pan of water. As the water evaporates it will cool the air in the room. Greywater, washwater, and cooking water can all be used for this purpose, depending on how attached you are to the pristineness of your air-conditioning fabric. But of course don’t try this in a swamp in Florida; it won’t help much and will invite mildew.

    Cheap solar fans are available if you have a little extra cash to throw at them. Blowing air across your evaporative cooler can make it work faster. Or if your region is too humid for EC to work, just having a fan to move the air can help everyone breathe more easily.

    One danger with heat that many people don’t think of is cooling too quickly. If you don’t have ice available you’re probably safe, but if you get extremely overheated and fill your body with icewater, or plunge into an icewater bath, the sudden change in temperature can cause disorientation and dangerous illness, or so I’ve been told. I drink water at room temperature when I’m very hot.

    Plants in the mint family are among the best known refrigerant herbs. They aid in cooling the body. I used to think that this was just a kind of sensory illusion, but apparently not; I’m still not sure what the precise mechanism is. Ginger and cayenne also help people to perspire, if you’re one of those people with few sweat glands. There’s a reason spicy foods are very popular in hot climates. Plant foods that have a lot of water in them, like succulent plants, cucumbers, and melons can also have a cooling effect—mostly due to the water, but you need to eat, too. A friend recently showed me an excellent cooling drink—soak some cucumber slices and a couple of mint leaves in a glass of cool water for several minutes. I don’t know if it objectively makes you cooler than water alone, but it certainly tastes and feels refreshing!

    If you live in one of those dry areas, you can make a evaporative cooling minifridge, or a pot-in-pot refrigerator. You need two large unglazed terracotta pots without drainholes, or with drainholes covered, that can sit one inside the other. You also need sand, water, and a cloth. You put the smaller terracotta pot inside the larger one, fill the space between them with the sand (including the bottom) and water, and put food inside the smaller pot and cover it with the cloth. This is great for storing some fresh fruit and vegetables just a little cooler than the surrounding air; it will help them last a little longer and also make them an even more refreshing snack.

    There are also ways to make your solar ovens into refrigerators at night. At first I thought this was a case of “if we plug the light bulb in backwards it will become a dark bulb!” but actually the science is sound even in a non-Doctor-Who universe—you use reflective material to bounce the heat from whatever you want to cool in a direction where nothing will reflect heat back. Here’s a simple account from Australia, and here’s a pdf on the subject from Colorado State University.

  5. Kelsie says:

    We bought 3 large, outdoor bamboo shades for our three largest windows (2 west-facing and one east-facing, that gets the morning sun). It has made all the difference in the world. Used to, I could stand in front of those windows (even with the blinds pulled down) and SWEAT. I’d say the house is at least 5 degrees cooler because of those shades. They were about $30 apiece, though we could have bought some PVC ones for $15-we just chose to go with the more sustainable option. My boyfriend jokes that our house is like the Bat Cave on hot summer days, but even when it’s 90 degrees inside (and 115 outside), it somehow feels cooler, because it’s dark. :)

  6. Colleen says:

    Great ideas, Sharon!

    Countryside magazine had an article in the July/August issue (vol92#4) on canning outdoors. It includes instructions for a welded rebar canning grill to use over a firepit. Alas, it is not available online. Here is a link to the site for back issues.

    While trying to find the Countryside article, I found this wood-fired cooker.

    Given the severe drought and wind patterns in my area (WNC), this design looks like a better fit for me.

    Folks can contact their fire departments to learn the current local outdoor burning regulations in their area.

    I have seen instructions for building trellises and living awnings in two recently published books.

    The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne & Erik Knutzen 2008

    The Carbon-Free Home by Stephen & Rebekah Hren 2008

    I can hardly wait to see what ‘pearls of wisdom’ fall from the pages of Sharon’s new book. Soon… : )

  7. Rebecca says:

    As someone who has lived in hot areas all my life, I can say that the “as little as possible” clothing option really works when you are out of the sun or when you need to cool down. The first thing I do when I come in from working in the heat and am hot is strip down to my skivvies -I cool off so much faster that way.

    Sharon, I am wondering what you think of newspaper as insulation. One of the traditional redneck insulation solutions down here is to put shredded newspaper in the walls and floors. Mostly because its cheap (all you need pay for is the blower if you can find a source of newspaper) and I have been wondering if it works and/or if its a fire hazard. Another insulation thing I’ve seen people do is to put thick heavy quilts on the walls.

  8. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: How Not To Fry: Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning (or not much) says:

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » How Not To Fry: Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning (or not m… 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. Degringolade: In the mind of a doomer August 14th, 2008 [...]

  9. Fern says:

    Basements. Never underestimate hanging out in a basement during the summer. The same poured concrete floor that will give you hypothermia in winter will suck the heat right out of any skin you have on it.

    I don’t have a basement right now, dang it, but the house is built on a poured slab, and in the entryway there are ceramic tiles on that slab. During hot flashes I lie down on those tiles, and it’s wonderful.

    We did set up a summer kitchen out back, and I picked up a screen house at a garage sale for sleeping in those nights when thunderstorms knock over trees and thus take out our power.

  10. Paula Hewitt says:

    Finally a temperature post I can relate to… One point about the eldery and heat is that they tend to be more vunerable to heat because they stay locked up indoors, without adequate ventilation, because of security issues (ie they wont/cant leave doors and windows open to catch the breeze, worried about home invasions, theft etc) - this has been an issue locally. This could be more of an issue for the general popn if TSHTF.

    On really hot nights, the best way to cool down is a cool/cold shower, a wet facecloth, or a spray bottle of water - dampen your skin, and lay under a fan - naked or almost. make sure you have a sheet to pull over you if it gets too cool. sarongs are good to sleep in or under - open the up - spread them over you like a sheet - if you have to get up in the night they are easy to tie around you like a dress, or skirt if you need to be boobs free to breast feed…

    We invested (huge $$$, but cheaper than AC) in ‘crim-safe’ a tough metal form of flyscreen for all windows - which means we can leave them open 24 hours.This made a huge differerence to internal temp of the house, especially during the day - go out for a few hours and lock up the house - come back and it was stifling! - im not sure I agree with your open house at night, close up in day - it may work in some areas, but id prefer the fresh air through the house the whole day. we do spend more time outside (under cover) in summer - we have a backyard ‘kitchen’ homemade pizza oven, bbq and table and chairs, no screens though, so flies and mozzies are an issue.

    another point about staying cool is the food you eat/prepare - in summer we eat a lot more Asian style food - Vietnamese salads, bbq meats, raw food, cool food, and food with chillis which help keep you cool. (i think)

    We have (and I know most don’t have this luxury) designed out house to be as passive solar as we could, north facing, wide verandahs, open plan, no windows on western wall, insulation on western wall and roof, large windows etc, many trees. No a/c, but we have installed ceiling fans for summer.. makes it cold in winter though - so we just pile on the clothes and quilts.

    my last point - is about clothes (and I dont practise what I preach here) i think the long flowing loose clothes are probably best - alone with the heat issues is the issue of skin cancer cause by exposure to sun. We are told here to slip, slop, slap - slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slapl on a hat - whenever we go out in the sun (and to try to avoid going out in the sun at all during the middle of the day) being scantily clad may seem like a cooller option (in both ways) than wearing a muu muu but skin cancer isnt pretty.

  11. bunnygirl says:

    I live year-round on the Gulf Coast where the humidity is very high. It was 90% at 8 am this morning and even though the early morning temp was only in the 70s, it was the kind of weather where the slightest exertion leaves you drenched with sweat. For humid climates, it’s usually best to wear as little as possible because anything you have on will only get wet, stay wet, and stick to your body, hindering your body’s ability to cool itself via the evaporation of sweat. When the air itself is saturated, a wet barrier between the atmosphere and your body slows down cooling and you’ll feel like you’re suffocating.

    My father lives in the New Mexico desert, and I usually go for loose, lightweight coverage and a hat when I’m out there. In the desert, you want to trap some of your body’s moisture inside your clothes while leaving room for the breezes to get underneath and cool you. If your sweat evaporates too fast (like it does with fewer clothes), your skin bakes dry and you don’t cool as efficiently.

    I hope my experiences help someone!

  12. Bob Waldrop says:

    We lived for 5 years here in central Oklahoma without AC. Our general drill was to close the windows and doors in the morning, as the outside temperature approached the inside temperature, and then keep them closed until the temperature inside was equal to the temperature outside. This usually happened about 5 PM-ish during the hottest part of the year. Once the inside/outside temperature is equalized, it is important to open everything up again or it will soon be hotter inside than it is outside.

    We found that about every hour or so, the temperature would seem to become unbearable, but this was solved by going outside and dowsing everybody with the water hose.

    I also like to put one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a quart of water. This somehow makes the water seem more refreshing in hot water. My grandmother told me that they used to do that when they were working in the fields in the heat all the time.

    I am dubious about hanging laundry inside in a humid climate during the summer. It would probably work great in a dry climate, but in a humid climate it would add to the discomfort, since there are no passive measures to deal with humidity. That’s why evaporative AC doesn’t work if the humidity is above 60% or so.

  13. teresa from hershey says:

    I had my house broken into years ago when I left all the windows open at night to cool the place off: this is a very valid concern waking up to find out that someone had been in your house to rob you!

    I still keep my windows open but have learned how to minimize entry from outside. This only works on double hung windows by the way. If you have wooden double hung windows, Stanley Hardware makes a lock that you mount on the upper window so that the lower sash cannot be opened higher than the locking mechanism. They are pretty cheap and you can put two on each window (one per side) if you want more protection. Mount them so that the lower sash can only be opened to about 3 inches. This isn’t great ventilation but it is much better than the alternative. You will need a screwdriver and a gimlet to start the pilot holes.

    If you have vinyl or aluminum double hung windows, you will need a pair of 1/2 inch diameter oak dowels for each window. Cut the dowel to 3 inches; this goes on the window sill with the lower sash resting on it. Cut the remaining dowel so it fits snugly (felt shims on the ends help with fit)between the top of the lower sash and the top of the upper window frame. This makes it very difficult to open the window from outside, enough to discourage casual burglary. The same dowels perform double duty as they hold up the sash all the way: my windows don’t stay up on their own. The only tool needed for this method is a small saw to cut the dowels.

    A large, territorial dog helps too.

  14. Rebecca says:

    Teresa: I deal with the threat of home invasions when the windows are open another way: I have a dog (well, actually two). Most burglars will pass up a home with a dog for one without. I also have weapons beside the bed, but that’s another post. ;-)

    Earlier I forgot to add one important consideration when sleeping outdoors in hot weather: mosquitos. Make sure you are protected from them or you could get sick as well as bitten. This was the purpose of the screened porches that use to be ubiquitous in Southern homes: a place to sleep outside where it was cooler and also safe from mosquitos.

  15. Marnie says:

    We live in Toronto, where summers can not only get hot (regularly 100F in August, except for this year - global weirding, I say) but really, really humid, so sleeping at night with no air-conditioning can be a challenge. One of the things which has helped immensely is: sleeping on a wool mattress.

    If you don’t have a wool mattress, amass a stack of wool blankets and put them under a 100% cotton sheet (or even better, linen) and sleep in comfort. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works because wool has such a capacity for absorbing moisture, leaving you much more comfortable throughout the night. So much better than the polyester batted/covered mattresses. (Never use any sheets with polyester in them: it doesn’t breathe.)

    However, it is important to pull back the covers during the day to let the mattress breathe, and we air ours in the sun on a dry day at least once a year. It’s an annual ritual that has elements of the comedic, considering our bedroom is on the second floor…

  16. risa bear says:

    We do have double-hung sash (house built in 1940s) and we hit upon just putting a high speed 4″ screw through each pair of sashes at the best height. We manage the screws with a Phillips bit in a brace and bit; “batteries not included!” Each BR has two windows and we open one at the bottom and one at the top, for best airflow.

    With 100 degrees today, our buttoned up house stayed at 75 all day. It leaped up to 85 when we got home and were in and out gardening, etc., but now it’s 10 pm and the attic fan has got some traction. By morning we will be back to 65 and will close everything up again.

    There is one room that has a slab floor and counts as a basement (it was once the garage). If we had 100 for a whole week, our scheme would give out but then we would move into the slab room while waiting for the weather to break. It is always cool there.

    The vinegar trick was used by medieval reapers; it was their electrolyte, so to speak. I’m learning to make and drink switchel and, yep, it works. Try it with mint solar tea and a little molasses.

    I had forgotten about wet cotton sheets! So many good ideas show up here! It’s like the Mother Earth News Archives, or Carla Emery, or something. Empowering… Thanks, all!!

    risa b

  17. Kelly says:

    I am finally coming out of lurkdom, as I think I have something meaningful to contribute to the topic of keeping cool - your food at least. I found this article that describes how to refrigerate food without electricity.

    A short quote:
    “From a family of pot-makers, Mohammed has made ingeniously simple use of the laws of thermodynamics to create the pot-in-pot refrigerator, called a Zeer in Arabic….

    “To give an idea of its performance, spinach that would normally wilt within hours in the African heat will last around twelve days in the pot, and items like tomatoes and peppers that normally struggle to survive a few days, now last three weeks. Aubergines (eggplants) get a life extension from just a few days to almost a month.”

    This method does rely on an ample source of water, but where I live, temperatures often reach 100+ for a few weeks at a time. Rolling blackouts were frequent a few years back. This pot refrigerator strikes me as a good back-up measure and a nice way of keeping an overabundant harvest for a time before processing.

  18. BoysMom says:

    We choose to live in the western desert states precisely because of health issues: the family asthematics are symptom free here. (I’d rather deal with water scarcity in a grid-down situation than kids and spouse unable to breath.)
    I can’t begin to guess how much money we’ve saved on drugs, doctors, and hospitals in the last six years.

  19. Mary Campbell says:

    Wait, wait…the treatment for hyperthermia is to cool the afflicted as quickly as possible, preferably before his brain cooks. Pack him in ice expecially around the neck-to chill blood headed for the brain, offer chilled water if he’s still conscious. The belief that cooling down quickly is dangerous is a dangerous belief.

  20. Dan Roberts says:

    I found your blog and read a few of the posts. Keep up the good work. I am looking forward to checking out more from you in the future.

  21. Mark says:

    I survived 127ºF (50ºC) heat in Vegas without a/c by spraying myself with a cheap water sprayer and sitting in front of a $10 fan. This is known as “evaporative cooling” as it’s very effective in hot, dry climates.

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