How to stay cool in the summer without air conditioning

I’m going to point out right away that depending on where you live, you might not be able to ditch your air conditioner entirely. Some places get so hot in the summer that it can be a health risk, particularly for people with certain medical conditions. Here are some things that I learned from my grandmother (who never had air conditioning in her Dover, PA house) and during 6 years living without AC at home in Ithaca, NY.

Hypocrite alert: We now have AC in our apartment in St. Paul, MN, which we use moderately. These tips still work if you want to reduce your AC use, so I thought I’d share them.

It sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first, but the best thing you can do to keep your house cool in the summer is not to have the windows open during the day. The best strategy is to open all of your windows in the evening and at night while the air is cool, and depend on your home’s insulation to limit heat gain during the hot parts of the day. This works best if you have a fan in your bedroom window that blows cool air in, and if you cover as many south-facing windows as feasible with either insulating curtains or window film that lets light in but limits heat gain. We had a thermometer both inside and outside the house, and we would open the windows in the evening when the temperatures were the same inside and out. We had days where it was more than 10 degrees F cooler in the house than outside during the hottest parts of the day.

Fans won’t reduce the temperature of your house, but the movement of the air over your skin removes heat (think of wind chills in the winter). Make sure that you only have fans on where they can actually move the air around you unless they are being used to circulate cooler air to warmer areas of your home.

Next, limit the use of anything that produces heat in your home. Change your light bulbs from incandescents to either compact fluorescents or, better yet LED bulbs, which are more efficient and produce less waste heat. Don’t blow-dry your hair, instead allowing water to cool you down as it evaporates. Limit use of the stove and oven, particularly during the hot parts of the day. Instead, use heat-producing appliances in the early morning or evening, eat cool sandwiches and salads, or use alternative cooking methods that keep your home cooler like slow cookers, outdoor grills, and microwaves. Did you know that you can use a plastic-wrapped glass bowl on a south-facing brick surface to melt chocolate in the summer? That’s the only form of solar cooking I’ve managed to get right, but it works really well if you need to bring a treat to an event and it is too hot to bake.

Let’s say you have a craving for noodles. Here are some additional ways to make this bearable in the summer. Use an electric kettle to get the water boiling faster and with less steam production than if you used the stove. Make a quick cooking type of pasta. Do like the Japanese do and eat your noodles cold in the summer, with refreshing hiyashi chuka or cold soba noodles.

Some days, it is too warm even in the early morning for hot coffee. Make cold-brew iced coffee overnight for your morning resuscitation instead. Ingesting cold things can really help cool you down from the inside. On hot summer afternoons, a smoothie made using frozen fruit, yogurt, and milk is incredibly refreshing. Put ice in your drinks even if you don’t normally do so, and enjoy popsicles in moderation. This next one doesn’t sound like it would make a big difference, but keep a pitcher of water in your refrigerator. Refrigerated water is so much more appetizing and refreshing on a hot day than lukewarm water straight from the tap.

Spend time outside in the evening while it is cooler outside than inside, and your home is still cooling down.

Take a cool shower in the evening to cool off before bed. This made extremely muggy, heat-advisory days at my grammie’s house bearable in the summer.

Go swimming, or at least wading. If possible, the stream at the bottom of a gorge is a wonderful place to be on a hot day. Take advantage of natural shade on your outings. For example, stroll in a hemlock grove rather than an open field.

Finally, this is kind-of cheating, but it you are going to have a rare, really hot day you might consider staying late at work, going out to dinner, or otherwise going out somewhere with AC to avoid your hot house until the outside temperature goes down. This doesn’t need to cost anything, either. We ducked out of some hot weekend afternoons by visiting the local library.

If you have AC, try to keep it off except for really hot weather. We were usually fine with our AC-less lifestyle, but there would be a couple heat waves every summer where my spouse would start saying that he couldn’t live without AC. If we had AC, we would have used it on those occasions, but the weather always improved before my spouse had time to acquire a window-based AC unit.

All of this might sound like a crazy amount of additional bother, but there are reasons to stick it out. Most obviously, you can save a ton of electricity by not using air conditioning in the summer, or at least using less than other households. While that was part of my reasoning for an AC-free life, a larger component was probably that I didn’t want to be used to living in AC. I hate that feeling you get when you leave the AC and feel like you are being slapped in the face by a wall of heat and humidity. I wanted to be able to better enjoy the outdoors in the summer by being acclimated to warmer temperatures. Plus, while I spent most of my time at work in an air-conditioned building, I also needed to be able to work all day outside or in a hotter-than-outside greenhouse.

Have any additional tips for keeping cool in the summer? Share them by leaving a comment below.


Featured photo by Wikipedia user Mattkenn3.

2 thoughts on “How to stay cool in the summer without air conditioning

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  1. Well this is not an issue here in Ireland where temps have yet to get much above the 50s! Haha, but I did live 10+ years without AC in various states and so I can give a few recommendations. Ceiling fans plus box fans are a huge help. When I lived in a tiny room with no airflow in a swamp, I used to take a bag of ice to bed with me, but you can put other things in the freezer (wet towels, sheets, or pillow covers) to help cool yourself off at bed time.


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