Thinking Differently About Heating and Cooling

Sharon August 27th, 2009

Note: This is a re-run from last year, but I think it bears repeating – we’ve been talking about these issues in the AIP class and what always emerges is that at least as important as temperature itself is our attitude towards it.  As long as we believe we have to live in a particular way, at temperatures that simply haven’t been typical for most human beings through most of history, we will justify almost anything – including the burning of the very last forest to keep us warm, or the burning of the last scrap of coal to cool our bodies and heat the planet.  We’ve got to start thinking about this differently.

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.  When I wrote this piece last year, oil prices were 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) were terrified they would not be able to afford to heat their houses at all with conventional methods. The collapse in oil prices came at a good time, but the problem isn’t over.  Meanwhile,  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.


22 Responses to “Thinking Differently About Heating and Cooling”

  1. Mareenaon 27 Aug 2009 at 11:07 am

    Chiming in on keeping yourself cool, we don’t have a/c in our house here in Asheville NC. I have a spray bottle of water that I keep nearby. Whenever I get to feeling hot, I just spritz my head and face, and sometimes arms and legs, and then the evaporation really cools me off.

  2. Mareenaon 27 Aug 2009 at 11:15 am

    I forgot to say, lest you think that this works because of Asheville’s mild climate, I’ve used this technique in south Texas as well, and it works there too.

  3. Laura in So Calon 27 Aug 2009 at 11:37 am

    You are so right about it being about attitude. You should have seen the looks I got at my book club meeting when I said we hadn’t used our A/C all summer so far. We have good insulation, double paned windows, and do the “window dance” each day. As long as it cools off at night, this keeps it in the low 80’s in the house most of afternoon even with the 103F temperatures like we had yesterday. People looked at me at said “I can’t stand it in the house when it gets above 75F, how do you do it.” All I could say was that you get used to it…I have to take a sweater to the movies and restaurants in the summer time because I freeze to death in their A/C. :-)

    Laura in So Cal

  4. Glennon 27 Aug 2009 at 11:57 am

    We’ve been using our home-built ger (yurt) as a bedroom for 10 years now. In winter we use a jotul #3 stove to warm it up in the evening. Other people’s houses seem hot and stuffy to us. In short, we’ve acclimatized to a cooler living temperature than most of the people we know.

    Marrowstone Island
    NE Olympic Peninsula

  5. Brad K.on 27 Aug 2009 at 12:25 pm


    You didn’t mention choosing your diet to complement adapting to ambient temperatures. Such as making sure you get 30% diet calories from fat sources in cold weather, limiting meat calories in hot temps, and maintaining water intake when sweating – and in cold temps to enable the body to regulate your internal temperature.

    Then there was something about soups and teas, and I forget where popcorn comes in there, but I do know that planning meals needs to take temps and work load into account.

  6. hengruhon 27 Aug 2009 at 1:00 pm


    When I was alone canoeing I fell in a river in early spring. I began to go into hypothermia. Thinking quickly, I stripped all my clothes off and wrapped in plastic. Then I opened a can of sardines in oil, and not only ate the sardines, I gulped down all the oil as well. That did the trick, and I was able then to warm up enough to start a fire and dry out my clothes.


    Yeah, I find I write better as well as sleep better in colder rooms. They say your brain actually operates better in cooler temperatures.

  7. Lorrion 27 Aug 2009 at 1:44 pm

    We could probably do without A/C, but it’s very sticky down here. We haven’t figured out what to do about that part. In the meantime, the A/C is as warm as we can get it, and fans are turned on when we need them.

    Any ideas on how to counteract the mugginess?

  8. Sue in pacNWon 27 Aug 2009 at 3:46 pm

    During an ice storm when my kids were little , several families were gathered at the only house in the neighborhood with a fireplace. We had couches and chairs pulled close to the fp and piled on the blankets and coats because the cold air was rushing across the floor toward the fire and freezing our behinds off. Our host’s father was visiting from North Dakota and tired of hearing us grouse and the kids whine elected to go to bed. He was elderly and everone was worried about him until he explained that he was going to stretch a blanket from the headboard over the footboard, crawl in his “tent” and get some sleep. Said that was something he often did at home.

    After hearing about this, my kids reminded me of the “camping” at home we sometimes did for fun, using furniture to drape throw rugs, blankets and even towels to make our tent. All the kids pitched in and made a space big enough for all (including dogs) and after a lot of giggles finally settled down. My kids said the only thing missing were the hot baked potatoes wrapped in a dishtowel and then a pillowcase for more warmth. (Used for fried potatoes the next morning for breakfast)

    Wrote a friend then living in England about our adventure and she said that at her children’s school, all children were required to bring boots and coats and mittens etc. because they were going to be outside after lunch…every day, rain or shine or snow. The teachers insisted that children who got outside every day no matter what the weather were healthier overall.

    Sharon, thanks for all you do, and I agree, attitude is everything.


  9. ctdaffodilon 27 Aug 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I would find ac tough to sleep without – but I could get rid of it if the choice was that or enough heat in the winter.
    Not even a question.

    reminds me to make sure the furnace gets cleaned before fall (yeah we could do it ourselves but its a really old one, not taking chances)

  10. MDon 27 Aug 2009 at 4:08 pm

    My husband and I have started using the strategies you mention to save energy- acclimatization first, wool sweaters and boot-style slippers in winter, bare feet on hard-surface flooring and lots to drink in summer. We are tall and thin, so the long warm seasons here are easier for us (more surface area to radiate heat). We use the AC at night to knock down humidity so we can sleep only when temps are above 80 at night and humidity is high. Mercifully we’ve had a much cooler summer this year, so our energy consumption is a little more than half what it was last year. Even with the AC set on 85, off is better than on. I grew up without AC (in middle TN) until age 17, and as long as you catch the breezes and some air moves, you can get evaporation and be OK. The old house in which I grew up (circa 1868) was built for ventilation (huge openable windows, high ceilings, chimneys that pulled a draft through the house) and was surrounded by mature trees, so that helped A LOT.

  11. Katkinkateon 27 Aug 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Here in Australia we don’t have much of a problem with really cold weather. I’ve collected a number of colourful, cotton sarongs that in winter can be used as a hood or a scarf when it does get uncomfortably cool and in summer you can wet one down and wear it the same way to cool off. I remember working through one of my bigger honours assignments for uni draped in a wet maroon sarong. My flatmates thought I was crazy, but I was cool.

  12. Laurie in MNon 27 Aug 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I can usually tolerate the warm in the summer in MN, but the cold does get to me. Started with some clothing adaptations last year (and continuing this year with My First Sweater ™ as well as others in the planning stages, and various other layering schemes), but my hands get *really* cold. I just have lousy circulation in my hands. This is not great for a professional seamstress. ;) Going to have to try the fingerless gloves, I think, although a single tea light candle burning near my workspace seems to help — both for directly warming my hands over and warming the immediate area a little bit. Thank goodness I have the warmest room in the house for my studio! :D And having to have the iron on at least sometimes seems to help too. (I am working on not just leaving it on constantly while I’m working, but old habits die hard. May need to get an auto shut off on the next one….)

    My husband does not do well in the heat, however, and I suspect the fact that he spent his entire childhood in AC all. summer. long. is the culprit. (I cannot BEAR having the house closed up in the summer unless it is simply STINKING hot — we have to have it closed up far too long over fall/winter/early spring.) I think he needs to adapt to showering in the evenings in the summer — something my family did not only to stay cool, but because my dad was in construction. You simply did not shower *before* work when you were going to get hot, sweaty, stinky, and covered in goo. Apparently the same applies to small children. ;) I also find that a judiciously applied cool/cold washcloth is helpful in the summer, but honestly — Minnesota simply does not usually get that hot in the summer if you are not working outside. And neither of us does. (We’ve also had a very cool, albeit dry, summer. I kind of miss the heat, actually. I always feel that if I don’t bake myself at least a couple of days during the summer that I’m never really warm in the winter.)

  13. Jimon 28 Aug 2009 at 2:14 am

    We’ve been able to keep the A/C off all summer except for an hour or so in the evening before bed. We set it to 75deg and it’s always below 80 (usually 77-78) before turning it on, no matter how hot it was during the day (typically 80’s to lower 90’s here in MD – sometimes upper 70’s on a cloudy or cooler day).

    It drives me crazy to hear all the A/C compressors running throughout the neighborhood through the night when temps are in the 70’s – sometimes even upper 60’s!!! ARGH!!!!

  14. Lori Scotton 28 Aug 2009 at 4:45 am

    Where we lived in Australia, our temps went from -6Celcius min in winter to highs of 48Celcius in the summer. You find lots of ways to adapt.

    We never had heating or cooling – houses were unequipped, unsuitable and I was not prepared to pay for the electricity needed.

    Winter was layer up time and if possible, persuade the dog to sleep on your bed.

    Summer, you crammed all your jobs in between 5.30am and 9.30am and again from about 6.30pm. In between, you did as little as possible. I even cooked a full evening meal at 5.30 in the morning so the stove could go off and not put heat in the house.

    Woollen blankets were wet, wrung out and hung over all the windows to make a little cool wet cave and keep the worst of the midday heat out of the house.

    If it was particularly hot at night, my children went to sleep covered with damp towels. That was enough to allow them to drift off and if necessary, they had a wet cloth on their head. Don’t worry about the rest of you, if your head is cool you will keep heat exhaustion at bay.

    I think we might be already mutated to meet the global warming challenge and I will not allow a thermometer in my house because measuring the extremes of temperature makes you feel worse.

    We had a medical thermometer which we would carry around outside to make sure that we knew what sort of heat the animals were coping with. Air temp in the shade is VERY different from ground temp in the sun. Some of the animal enclosures had temps of 55Celcius on the ground near their water or food. Green boughs or damping of the soil helped with this.

    And yes, you’re quite right. Calories up in winter, especially for all pets and poultry.

  15. Billieon 28 Aug 2009 at 8:18 am

    I don’t really like it hot. In the winter we do better. The house basically kept itself at 65 degrees last winter. The furnace rarely turned itself on. This is because our condo faces west and gets full sunlight as well as being on the top floor.

    Unfortunately, that great location for the winter totally and completely sucks for the summer. Even with all the windows and blinds closed, a hot day (say 90s) will put our house into the middle 80s or higher. It puts all of us in a cranky mood and is a severe relationship killer.

    We save money in the winter but probably use a fair chunk of it up trying to keep it at 72 degrees in our house in the summer.

  16. Debon 28 Aug 2009 at 8:54 am

    Wristers and pulse warmers are easy to knit and do an amazing job of keeping your hands warm in a cold house. Wool socks will keep your feet warmer if you wear them over a pair of cotton socks–and you will be even warmer if you put a pair of leather mocs or thick felt slippers over that.

    I have arthritis in my neck so I wear a smoke ring/neck warmer around the house to keep the joints warmer. I have it in my knees to so I made some knee warmers that I wear between the long johns and the loose jeans. And I sit with a lap robe over my knees. For the arthritis in my lower back, I toss a pillow I stuffed with wool fleece in the dryer for a few seconds or the oven if it’s on and use that as a heat source when I’m sitting down.

    On the up side, those hot flashes actually feel pretty good in the winter.

    Deb in Wisconsin

  17. Maddieon 28 Aug 2009 at 11:24 am

    Right now I’m sitting in an office with outside air of 68 degrees and a/c running full blast. My boss insists on this waste of a/c to the point where all the female workers are bundled up in bankets and heavy wool jackets, but that doesn’t help our noses, hands and feet. Don’t tell me to wear warmer clothes — there’s a dress code which includes hose and thin dress shoes.

    Those of you able to stay home in the comfort of your homes and adress accordingly, count yourselves lucky. I’m at the mercy of a man who wastes more energy than everyone reading this blog (g). I, for one, will be soooo glad when “the end” comes and there is no more a/c and I no longer have to freeze every day at work.

  18. Maryon 28 Aug 2009 at 2:36 pm

    I was sitting at my dining room table last Feb talking up the Riot for Austerity to a friend. I asked proudly, “Can you believe that in the last year we’ve only used 20% of the electricity, gas, and water that an average American uses?” She waved her mittened hands at me and said, “Absolutely.”
    I made a quilt with a weird batting–it didn’t want to bend. We hung it off the bedboard to make a lean-to for our heads. Last winter we turned to bed hats. I pull my hat down to my nose and the covers up to my nose. Very cozy–quiet, dark, and warm. Hats in the house are also a huge help–my hair is bad Dec through March even when I don’t wear a hat.

  19. Heather Gon 28 Aug 2009 at 10:12 pm

    A good one to re-run! We made it through most of the summer without a/c, just the ceiling fans sometimes. But I finally needed the a/c in the bedroom because the constant high humidity this month was getting to me (asthma). Even L slept better after we put it in… of course now it looks like we’re past the worst of it, thank goodness!

    Last year I only needed the a/c three times, but this year it was about a week I think. I’m glad we moved to a higher elevation — in the valley I sometimes needed the a/c for a couple of months! The air is generally cleaner and drier up here.

  20. Steve in Hungaryon 29 Aug 2009 at 3:16 am

    I have to say that earth houses have a lot going for them. I have walls close on two feet thick and they are just a huge natural heat sink. They warm up slowly in the summer and release the heat slowly in the winter. I had a neighbour call round in the heat of the summer last year and we sat in the kitchen. Her first words were “What a lovely cool house!”. We had a cold snap this winter – I know not as cold as many parts, but it never got above -5C daytime and was down to -16C-ish night times. The lowest the kitchen got down to was +8C first thing in the morning. Once you are clothed you can live with that.

    I actually removed central heating from this place. Not needed, especially as I have gone to wood stove in the kitchen.

  21. Candace Uhlmeyeron 29 Aug 2009 at 2:05 pm

    I have ranted more than once on similar topics, and it’s nice to see that some folks actually agree that we have essentially conditioned ourselves to “need” particular temperatures in particular seasons.

    Last summer I went without A/C (in north Texas, with temps hovering around 100F and humidity in the range of 20-40%) for a month on purpose, just to make myself conscious of it. We live in an old (85 years), solid wood house with two large attic fans, ceiling fans in most rooms, and three window A/C units that go in during the summer and out in the fall, in the rooms we use most. When it really heats up (over 95) we try to cool only the room we’re in. Windows in the other rooms are left open, and the appropriate fans run when necessary. As a result our electric bills are less than half of our neighbors’ and we manage to stay comfortable because we’re not constantly switching between over-air conditioned rooms to the out of doors. The shock of change makes it much more difficult to handle heat.

    Younger folks don’t seem to know that we haven’t always lived with temperature choices. I grew up in an era that maximized fan efficiency with a block of ice, or (for the lucky few) evaporative coolers. This part of Texas was quite a bit less humid before all the reservoirs went in, so it was easier to manage the heat in old-style houses with deep eaves and porches, shaded by large pecan trees. I also spent a large chunk of my childhood in Asia, where a hand-held fan was as good as it got, and in winter everyone gathered around a charcoal hibachi arrangement to keep warm.

    If we could retrain ourselves to open windows and tolerate heat in summer, and to dress more warmly in winter (and as mentioned above, eat more appropriately in all seasons), we could save enormous amounts of energy. But we really have gotten soft and spoiled in the last half century, and when I mention the possibility of change to anyone (especially my students), I get glassy-eyed stares from the young and am called a Luddite by my own generation. Thanks for re-running this post; I feel cooler already.

  22. Alexon 01 Sep 2009 at 3:59 pm

    There are tons of things we can do about this. You mentioned a lot of things we can do without making lots of changes. One I do a lot is in spring and fall you don’t even need the heating or cooling if you utilize window shades and open/close windows at the right times in the evening etc.

    Also when designing a houses we have abandoned lots of proven architecture based solutions. A shallo porch shades windows in the summer but allows sunlight to heat the house in the winter. Placing the house with regards to where the most light/heat/wind comes in the house is dependent on location not cookie cutter houseplans. Insulation (thatch roofs are very insulating) and Thermal Mass (Brick retains heat and heats slowly) contribute a lot to the passive efficiency as well.

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