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Top 10 Ways to Cool Your Home More Easily
In most parts of the US, making it through the entire summer without air conditioning is nearly impossible. After all, who wants to spend three months sweating through their clothes while they slowly dehydrate? As climate change leads to increasingly warm summers, more and more of us are trying to find the best ways to beat the heat.
Of course, while air conditioners are an easy and effective way to quickly cool your entire house to a more comfortable temperature, there are also some downsides. AC units are notorious for using a ton of electricity, and nobody wants to keep them running all summer if it means opening astronomical power bills every month. More electricity also means more strain on the environment, which is an important factor for those of us who don’t want to live on a flaming ball of dirt in the future.
Still, that doesn’t mean you have to just suck it up and avoid air conditioning altogether. To save you from spending all day baking in the heat so you can avoid running up your power bill, we’ve put together a list of a few things you can do to cool down your house for free. Taking advantage of these tips will allow you to ease the workload on the air conditioner and keep energy bills nice and low.
Block the Windows
Because modern houses are typically extremely well insulated, a significant percentage of the heat in your home comes in through the window. If you’re starting to feel the warmth a little too much, cover the windows with blinds or curtains to keep the sun’s rays from shining through. If you have mini-blinds, you can also tilt them to reflect the rays and cool the room down just a little bit more. Blackout curtains work the best for completely blocking the sun, but if you’d prefer something that meshes with your decor a little better, neutral-toned curtains with white plastic backing also do a great job of keeping the heat out.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can also have your windows treated with insulated window films. These films are made of thin laminate and allow light to shine through while turning away UV heat radiation. You can have them professionally installed if you like, but a dedicated DIY specialist can pick up a home film kit at any big box hardware store and take care of it themselves.
Finally, once the sun finally goes down, pull those curtains back and open as many windows as you can. The cool night air will blow in and lower the overall temperature of the house while also allowing for some airflow so it doesn’t get too stuffy overnight. Just make sure you get up early enough to close the windows again before the sun rises too high, otherwise you could wake up to an uncomfortably warm home before your day even begins.
Plant Some Natural Shade
Every gardener knows that using vertical planters is a great way to save some space in the yard, but it’s also a good way to cut down on your power bills over the summer. If you have a lawn on the south-facing wall of your house, try putting your garden right up against the wall, as high as you can get it. Vertically-growing string beans are a great choice for this kind of garden, but you can also hang planter boxes off a trellis to keep them off the ground. Not only does this location give your plants plenty of sun to help them grow, but it’ll also block that same UV radiation from even making it to your house.
If gardening isn’t really your thing, you can still take advantage of nature’s shade umbrellas by encouraging vertical plants to grow up the side of your house or a nearby trellis. Vines like ivy will grow quickly without requiring too much work from you, and they can easily block the sun from reaching an entire wall of your house.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to have a house with a tree in the yard, let that thing grow out and enjoy the shade. Homes with large trees on the lawn tend to see fairly significant drops in their energy bill. Unfortunately, trees like these take decades to grow so it’s not an immediate solution. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind this Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Invest in a Ceiling Fan
If you only end up following one tip from the list, make it this one. Installing ceiling fans in the rooms where you spend the most time can make a huge difference in the perceived temperature, and they require significantly less electricity than even the most humble air conditioner. In fact, installing a ceiling fan in just the right place can actually cut your power bill by up to 40% since they’re so effective at cooling the room, and the electricity usage is so low. Ceiling fans tend to cap out at about 35 watts and have an hourly power cost of under a cent, which means you could leave the fan running 24 hours a day for an entire month and it would cost you well under $10 in electricity. Not that you should leave it on, of course – fans don’t actually change the temperature in the room, they just create a breeze that makes the room feel colder, so leaving it on while you’re not around won’t make it any cooler. In fact, the heat from the fan’s motor will actually heat the room up if you leave it unattended all day.
Did you know that ceiling fans have two settings: clockwise and counter-clockwise? Most homeowners don’t realize this, but there’s a little switch on every ceiling fan that switches the direction of its rotation. The clockwise setting will create an updraft and distribute warm air throughout the room, making it ideal for the winter, but the counter-clockwise setting sends a cool breeze directly down into the room. Before turning the fan on, make sure it’s set to spin in a counter-clockwise direction, otherwise, you could just end up making the room warmer.
As we mentioned above, fans don’t actually do anything to make the room cooler, they just make it feel cooler by moving air around. That can make a huge difference, of course, but sometimes it’s just not enough to keep moving the same hot air around. In this scenario, you can use two fans to create something called a cross-breeze that will circulate cool air through the room while blowing away hot air.
You can create cross-ventilation without a fan if there’s a breeze outside. All you have to do is open a window in the direction the wind is coming from so the breeze is blowing directly into the room. Next, open another window on the opposite side of the room. This allows the wind to blow straight through the room and out the other side, constantly cycling out the air before it gets stale.
If the wind is frequently changing direction or there’s just not much of a breeze, you can use a couple of fans to simulate cross-ventilation. Just put one fan next to an open window, facing the room, and another fan on the opposite side of the room facing out another open window. That way, you have one fan pulling fresh air in from the outside and another fan pushing stale air back out through the opposite window. If you only have one window, you can place two fans next to it at different levels: the lower fan facing in, and the higher fan facing out the window. Because heat rises, the higher fan will blow the warm air out the window and the lower fan will pull fresh air from outside.
Utilize Your Doors
One of the reasons why air conditioners use so much electricity is because they need to cool down the entire house at once. If you spend most of your time in one or two rooms, consider closing the doors to the bathrooms, bedrooms, and any other room you’re not currently using. Isolating specific parts of the house can help concentrate the cool air and help the most relevant rooms stay cool for longer.
We usually think of insulation as a way to keep warmth inside and the cold outside, but it actually works both ways. If the temperature outside is extremely hot and you’ve managed to keep the inside cooler, you’ll want to do everything you can to prevent that cold air from escaping outside. You can do this by keeping all the windows and doors shut, but sometimes that’s not enough and air escapes through cracks or underneath the door. Providing a little extra insulation to any doors that lead outside can actually go a long way towards preserving the comfortable temperatures created by the air conditioner.
Weather strips are an inexpensive way to block up the cracks around your doors and can easily be installed by even the least experienced do-it-yourselfer. For the bigger crack at the bottom of the door, installing a door sweep is an easy option.
Keep Appliances Off
If you’ve ever tried staying in bed while working from home, you’ve probably discovered just how warm laptops can get. The same goes for pretty much any other electronic device, from your phone to the game console. We don’t need to dig too deep into the physics of how electronics work but suffice it to say that all those electrons bouncing around on the metal conductors release energy in the form of heat. It’s not usually enough to make a noticeable difference in the temperature of the room, but when you consider how many electronic devices we have running in our homes at any one time, that volume is enough to make a difference.
Electronics still draw power and create heat even when they’re not on, so the best way to keep them from warming the room is to unplug them. Investing in a few heavy-duty power strips can make this job a lot easier.
Of course, the single worst offender when it comes to creating heat will always be your oven. While most ovens are insulated pretty well, there’s still plenty of heat escaping when you turn them on, so try to use the oven sparingly if you’re trying to keep cool. The same goes for the stovetop burners as well. If possible, try to keep the cooking to outside grills and other al fresco options on particularly hot days to avoid warming up the entire house while dinner’s in the oven.
Replace Your Lightbulbs
This is decidedly less obvious, but ovens aren’t the only thing in your house warming up the air. Lightbulbs can actually generate a surprising amount of heat, especially the older ones. Old-school incandescent lightbulbs create light by taking in electricity and transferring that energy to a thin filament wire inside the bulb. As the filament absorbs more and more energy, it heats up and begins to glow, releasing that energy as both heat and light. When an incandescent lightbulb is on, the filament inside is actually heated up to over 4500 degrees!
This was a pretty smart way to create light back when incandescent bulbs were invented, but it’s also extremely inefficient. In fact, only about 10% of the energy absorbed by the lightbulb filament is released as light, while the other 90% is released as heat. Today’s CFL and LED lightbulbs are significantly more efficient and release much less heat. A 25-watt CFL bulb gives off just as much light as a 100-watt incandescent bulb, and LED lightbulbs are even more efficient – it only takes a 16-watt LED bulb to match the light output of a 100-watt filament bulb.
Making sure that every lightbulb in your house is either an LED or CFL bulb will help lower the temperature of the air while also saving you a ton of money in electricity costs due to the more efficient technology.
Several of the tips in this guide have to do with changing the perceived temperature instead of the actual temperature. You don’t really have to make the house colder as long as you can make it feel colder, and one of the best ways to do that is to alter the humidity level in the air. You can take a look at any heat index chart to see how dramatically humidity can affect the apparent temperature in a space, so reducing the humidity in your house can make it feel like the temperature has dropped by 5 or 10 degrees right away.
Because humidity and heat are connected, running the air conditioner will actually lower the humidity on its own. When air cools down, the water molecules suspended in it are able to cluster together and form droplets that are too heavy to stay in the air. It’s the same principle that creates rain in the clouds, and it means air conditioners can often change the apparent temperature even more drastically than the actual temperature. However, there are plenty of ways to reduce the humidity and make your house feel cooler without having to turn the AC on.
Your best bet for managing humidity is a simple dehumidifier. Whole-house dehumidifiers are able to control the humidity in the entire house at once, but those will cost you $1,000 or more, so they’re not always the best choice for a quick fix. You can also buy portable dehumidifiers for a couple hundred dollars and place them in whichever room you spend the most time in. As they pull the humidity from the air, you’ll feel the room start to get cooler. As an added bonus, lowering the humidity in a space allows the sweat on your body to evaporate more quickly, eliminating that uncomfortable sticky feeling.
Most of what we’ve been talking about so far have been examples of passive cooling, as compared to active cooling techniques like air conditioning. Passive cooling focuses on ways to redirect or block out heat energy from the sun through insulation, specific materials, and other strategies. As you prepare for the next summer, you can implement passive cooling techniques into your remodels and other plans for your home and cut down on your air conditioning requirements in the future.
- Sun Shades – Like the plants we talked about earlier, sun shades are a great way to cut off UV radiation before it even reaches your house. A well-placed balcony, pergola, or extended roof can block the sun’s rays from reaching your home while also creating outside spaces that are both shaded and well-ventilated for summer hangouts.
- Insulation – Insulation is key for walls, windows, and doors during both the summer and the winter. There are plenty of insulation techniques you can keep in mind next time you’re remodeling or building an addition to your house. Hollow bricks, for example, are ideal for outdoor walls because they don’t allow heat to pass through them, creating a tighter envelope inside the house. A reflective coating on your roof can also redirect sunlight and prevent heat from passing through, as can false ceilings.
- Clerestory Windows – Because windows are weak spots in any thermal envelope, small clerestory windows placed high on the wall are a great alternative to regular ones. The height allows enough light to enter through the window, but a smaller size restricts the amount of heat that can pass through in either direction. Clerestory windows are best placed on the north side of your house, but if you do put them on the south wall, make sure they’re well-insulated.
- Water Features – If you have a big enough yard, a pond or fountain will cool down the area surrounding it while adding a touch of rustic flair to your home. As water evaporates off the surface of the feature, it cools down the air around it, creating a comfortable outdoor space to spend time during warm summer nights. This technique is called evaporative cooling and also works on water features inside your home, although those can be a little more high-maintenance than a pond.
- Thermal Chimneys – In homes with windows on multiple levels, you can take advantage of the fact that heat rises and create a thermal chimney. By opening all the low windows on one side of the house and all the high windows on the other side, you can make a cross-breeze that covers the whole house and allows cold air to enter through the low windows while warm air rises up and exits through the high windows on the other side.
If you have any other questions about passive cooling or you’re looking for other ways to make your air conditioner as efficient as possible, it’s never a bad idea to bring in a professional. An HVAC contractor will be able to make sure your AC is costing you as little as possible as well as pass on any other tips and tricks you can use to stay cool in the summer.
If you’re in Marin, Sonoma, or Napa Counties and you’re looking for a little help this summer, Valley Comfort Heating & Air is here to help. We have plenty of experience handling the climate in the Bay Area and we’re more than happy to help out in any way we can. You can give us a call at (707) 329-4120, contact us right here through our website, or just stop by and visit us at our physical location in Santa Rosa.