Surviving Summer Heat without Air Conditioning

By L. Kevin Johnson

 

Living in the Deep South has its’ advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side are our mild winters. There are several months in the winter when we can enjoy being outside, working on yard projects, gardening, etc. Living in a small dwelling such as the B.E.L.L. is quite comfortable and cozy and by opening and closing the windows and building a fire in the woodstove, we can generally maintain a pleasant level of comfort. However, once the humidity and temperature start climbing, especially about mid July through early September, it’s really hard to get comfortable. It feels like our bodies are going to rot and mildew from the steamy heat.

Though we do have a small air conditioner in the B.E.L.L., there is a limit to how much temperature regulation it can handle. The design of the B.E.L.L. just can’t compete with standard box-shaped, over-insulated houses. It was never meant to. The philosophy of the B.E.L.L. is about living in harmony with nature rather than being insulated and apart from it.

The problem of the intense heat, however, seemed impossible to overcome.  We just couldn’t figure out what to do.  Recently we were suffering through one of the hottest dry-spells on record. In fact, early September 2000 broke 90-year records for drought and high temperatures. We tried everything we could to keep the B.E.L.L. cool, from putting the water sprinkler on the roof to shading the western windows and running the air conditioning at full blast to cool the building down as much as possible before the sun reached it’s peak. But no matter how much we tried, by 2:30 p.m. the temperature inside would reach 90 – 95 degrees, while the outside temperature would top off around 110 degrees. It felt like our bodies were being weighed down with a hot-iron press. It was impossible to get cool. We’d sit in front of the fan with a wet towel draped over our faces, but it wouldn’t really help that much.

Eventually the heat would win and we’d have to get in the car and leave – go sit at the library or go to a movie until 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. What was the answer – insulate more? Get a bigger air conditioner? That wasn’t what we wanted to do. Ultimately we wanted to figure out how to adapt to the humidity and heat, but nobody seemed to have any cost-effective, practical solutions.

A few days ago, we were going through the whole affair again. It was 111 degrees in the shade. The air conditioner was cranked up and the temperature was climbing to 90 degrees inside the B.E.L.L. again. We were hosing the building down every hour but it wasn’t helping at all. Finally I suggested we just turn the unit off, open all the windows and go sit outside. At least there was a hot breeze blowing.

A few weeks earlier, Donna and I had been talking about building a “cool tub” (a 5 ft. diameter, 300 gallon Rubbermaid tank, under $200.00 ) and outdoor deck.  When it gets unbearably hot, we could go sit in the water and cool our bodies down significantly in order to get some relief. Unfortunately we hadn’t gotten around to building the cool tub yet and on this one particular day we wished we had. So we decided to do the next best thing – we squirted ourselves with the garden hose and got soaking wet – clothes and all…and you know what happened?

We felt wonderful! After a couple of minutes of sitting in the drenching cool water we felt alive again and had energy to do things. And even though it was 100+ degrees outside, I felt like splitting firewood! Can you imagine? And Donna started digging in the garden and watering the trees. We had a great afternoon doing the things we love to do, all because we were willing to get soaking wet.  All afternoon, we alternated working a while and then sitting under the hose, staying wet and cool - so simple and primal.

It’s funny how kids and dogs instinctively know to get drenched when it’s hot but as adults we resist this idea.  We insist on staying dry, demanding that the air conditioner keep us comfortable. But it felt very empowering to turn off the air conditioner and not rely on electricity to keep us cool. I’ve always wondered how people survived 100 years ago without electricity, especially during the summer in the Deep South. And this must have been their secret – they drenched themselves with water.

Next summer we’re going to set up the cool tub on a deck with a couple of spray misters overhead. And when the intense summer heat comes again we’ll be able to conserve electricity better than we did this year. By dunking and dowsing with cold water and staying wet and cool outside, we will be able to enjoy summer without suffering the ill effects of heat exhaustion.  And because the water in our cool tub will have no chemicals in it, each time it is emptied (about once a week or so), the water will be used to irrigate plants and the garden.

The simple life is all about improvising and adapting, especially in relationship to the environment. You never know when the day may come when we Americans have to learn to survive without the luxury of modern conveniences. Best of luck to all. We hope this information helps.



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