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Surviving Off The Grid Without Air Conditioning

keep house cool in summer

“Is it hot enough for you, yet?”

Chances are you’ve been asked that a few times already this summer. At first you probably just smiled and nodded your head, or made some lame joke about how everyone talks about the weather but never does anything about it. But as July has meandered on and the miserable steamy weather has begun to take its toll, your sense of humor about the situation has likely started to wane. What is most discouraging of all is that there are still several weeks worth of brutally hot days yet to come before the blustery winds of autumn finally bring relief, and while you may appreciate the presence of summer in principle, in reality the extreme heat is enough to drive you crazy if you let it.

Many people of course attempt to beat the heat by retreating to their homes to soak up the chilling emanations of their air conditioners. But on the list of energy-hogging appliances, air conditioners really are the crème de la crème, and that makes them largely anathema to off-the-grid enthusiasts who must watch their energy consumption as carefully as a performance juggler watches his flaming torches. An average home centralized AC unit can use up to 10 times as much energy as a typical large fan, making air conditioning a luxury that few preppers and homesteaders can afford. This is why it is paramount that those embracing an off-the-grid lifestyle find alternative means of keeping themselves cool during those grinding, torturous, hazy, lazy dog days of summer.

Made In The Shade

When outside temperatures are warm, any un-air-conditioned interior space will naturally be warm as well. But in addition to the heat brought in by the natural exchange of air, the materials from which homes are constructed will also soak up heat from the sun and from the surrounding atmosphere like a sponge, causing temperatures inside a set of walls to frequently soar well beyond exterior mercury readings. The situation is especially bad around windows, where sunlight can penetrate indoor spaces more easily and directly.

One of the best ways to protect any outdoor surface from sunlight is through natural shading, which is another name for the screening capacity of trees, shrubs, and other types of foliating greenery. Landscaping practices that provide ample natural shade over a home in the summer can reduce interior temperatures by as much as 20⁰ F., in comparison to what would be the case if a house were left to bake under the sun at midday with no protection whatsoever. Of course planting a tree in your yard tomorrow won’t do a thing to keep the sun off of your walls or roof this summer, but if you are planning a long-term stay on your homestead  – and what dedicated off-the-gridder isn’t? – there is nothing wrong with planning and thinking ahead.

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The best place to plant trees for shading is near the northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest corners of a home, and far enough away from the structure so their roots will have room to spread. You shouldn’t plant trees directly in front of windows outside any part of the house, because doing so will block the natural flow of cooling breezes, thereby interfering with your ability to ventilate your home properly when temperatures reach uncomfortably high levels. Deciduous trees that shed their leaves in the wintertime are to be preferred in colder climates, since the sun’s rays bring welcome warmth during that time of the year. And if you can plant something that will grow tall enough to shelter the roof as well as the walls and windows, that would be absolutely ideal.

For quicker-growing window and wall protection, you might want to try green vining plants with trellises as their medium of support. The trellises should be dug in at least two to three feet away from the sides of the home so that as the plants spread and grow air can circulate freely behind them. This is important because the process of photosynthesis has a cooling effect on the surrounding atmosphere, so any vegetation planted around the exterior of a home will tend to create pockets of coolness that will moderate the temperature of the air before it flows in through open windows. Even lawn covering helps out in this regard; during the hottest part of the year, a lawn planted with simple grass will have a surface temperature that is up to 10⁰ F. cooler than bare ground.

Natural shading delivers great benefits, but so do man-made shading devices that can help prevent unwanted summertime sunlight from entering the rooms of a home. Awnings are especially desirable, and they can reduce heat gain through southern windows by up to 65 percent and through east or west windows by up to 77 percent, as long as they extend out far enough to block any light from hitting the glass. In addition to awnings, other good options for shading windows include shutters, louvers, rolling shutters and shades, and solar screens.

While most of these are installed on the exterior of the home to reflect sunlight away before it ever has the chance to enter, solar screens are actually used to replace regular window screens. Even though they do not inhibit air flow or block the outside view, these tinted marvels will keep direct sunlight out and eliminate a dramatic percentage of the heat that would normally enter through windows to bake or sauté the helpless occupants of the adjacent rooms.

Ventilation Nation

Even if air is warm when it is moving, its effect on the human body will generally be to cool it, as long as the temperature of that air does not surpass 98.6⁰ F. (normal human body temperature, in other words). This is why fans can cool a person down so effectively, and it is why fans are such a reliable low-power solution to the problem of excessive summertime heat.

But you must be sure you are using your fans in the most efficient manner possible to guarantee that they will work as well as they can and should. Circulating floor, table, window, or ceiling fans can keep the air moving, but to really make the process hum along, every effort should be made to locate them so that cross-ventilation and/or updraft potential is maximized. Fans placed in or near windows should be set up to blow into the room if they are on the side of the house where the prevailing breeze is entering and out of the room when they are in front of windows on the opposite side of the home, which will ramp up the speed of the resulting air flow and thereby allow it cool off anything or anyone it rushes past more efficiently. It is also a good idea to use fans exclusively in rooms that are to be occupied while shutting windows and doors in rooms that are not in use, so that the air that flows through the house will be concentrated and put to good use. The exception to this rule is if there are windows are on the upper floor or floors of a house with more than one story; because hot air rises, windows kept perpetually open on top floors will help create a continuous updraft, and this will promote excellent ventilation in every circumstance. Ceiling fans can also help create good updraft, as long as the air they are drawing upward can follow a pathway that will eventually lead out of the home.

If setting up a network of conventional fans is not enough to do the trick, you might want to consider installing a whole-house fan. These large, centrally-located ceiling units are more powerful than a normal fan – although still vastly more energy-efficient than an air conditioner – and will set up vigorous flowing/cooling currents as they draw air into a house through any open windows located around the building’s exterior. After pulling air in, whole-house fans blow it upward, so as warm air rises it is sucked into the fan and vented skyward, where it can then be expelled harmlessly into the atmosphere through open vents in the roof or attic. Whole-house fans are not especially innovative – a fan is a fan, after all – but the powerful design of a whole-house fan system makes them extremely effective at keeping interior spaces comfortable in even the most sizzling conditions.

While fans are energy-efficient and effective, undoubtedly the best type of mechanical ventilation and cooling machine available is the evaporative cooler, a.k.a. the swamp cooler. When you sweat or take a dip in a pool, the evaporation of the water off of your skin will help to cool you down, and swamp coolers rely on this very same principle to get the job done: the machine has interior pads that are kept saturated in water when it is in operation, and as air is drawn in and circulated through, evaporation is precipitated and heat loss occurs. When the air is re-emitted by the evaporative cooler, it will be 15-40⁰ F. colder than it was when it first entered, depending on the size of the machine being used.

Even though it does draw electricity, a swamp cooler will only consume about one-quarter of the power of a traditional central air conditioner and will cost only about half as much to purchase and install. Through constant moisture release swamp coolers do increase humidity levels on the interior of a home, and for this reason they are only a practical option if you should happen to live in a relatively dry area of the country (they would never work well for someone living in the American southeast). Centralized installation is perfect for small houses with open floor plans, while ductwork should be used in connection with the evaporative cooler in larger houses that contain multiple rooms, regardless of where the unit is to be installed.

New book focuses on the unique requirements of off-grid living.

Thermal Mass Is The Gas

Building materials with high thermal mass do an outstanding job of regulating interior heat flow.  Concrete, brickgranitelimestonestucco, marble, tile, and other types of masonry used in construction are especially effective at absorbing the heat from sunlight that strikes them over the course of the day, and when they finally release that heat they will do it slowly and gradually, after the darkness of night has cooled the temperature of the surrounding air to a more acceptable level.

Of course, if your home has been constructed from such materials, you will have an advantage right from the beginning. But even if it was built entirely with wood, take heart – interior walls or masses made from masonry can be quite effective at regulating indoor temperatures if they are installed in areas near windows where penetrating sunlight will reach them. So you always have the option of doing a little interior renovation to include more materials with excellent thermal mass properties, presumably near southern-facing windows where these new features would make the most impact. And the great thing about high thermal mass structures is that they will absorb and re-emit solar heat just as effectively in winter as in summer, keeping night time temperatures warm in the former and cool in the latter.

But choosing the proper building materials isn’t necessarily the only way to experience the cooling wonders of high thermal mass. You probably didn’t realize it, but you are actually already surrounded by a material that has exceptionally good thermal mass properties – the planet earth itself.

Have you ever been inside of a cave in the heart of summer? If so, you know that the temperatures down beneath the surface of the earth always stay cool, even when the mercury has risen to astronomical levels above it. That is because the ground below our feet has tremendously high thermal mass capacities, allowing it to absorb seemingly endless amounts of solar emissions without deviating even one iota in temperature.

If you were really concerned about staying cool in the summer, you could build an underground home, and that would work great. But even if you live in a normal house, you can still experience the joys of earth cooling right down in your very own basement. You may have been using your basement strictly as a storage facility up until now, but if you are serious about staying comfortable in July and August that is a situation you should alter immediately. Setting your basement up as a recreational area, a den, a second living room, or as a location for bedrooms if partitions are added will allow you to escape the terrible heat of summer right in your own home, without any need to resort to artificial cooling. As long as the door is kept closed, it is normal for basements to be 10-15⁰ F. cooler than upstairs spaces, so if you have yet to convert your basement into an area for summertime working, living, or playing, you are really missing the boat.

There Is A Cure For The Summertime Blues

The ideas discussed here by no means exhaust the possibilities for staying cool in your home when mercury readings approach the boiling point of lead (okay, it doesn’t actually get that hot in the summer, but it sure feels like it!). There are probably some ideas you could come up with on your own that would also make a huge difference – ice baths, anyone? – but the important thing to realize is you don’t have to sit idly by melting like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz just because you have made the wise and economical decision to eschew the use of an energy-hogging air conditioner. Use your own imagination, or use some of the suggestions offered here; but either way, don’t just sit there like a helpless lump letting the heat get the best of you.

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7 comments

  1. I was eight years old when we got electricity. Recently my AC failed and I decided to see how life is without one, and this is Texas. With a ceiling fan to move air a person can live with the heat. If you do outside work it feels cooler when you get in a shade. The thing to do is drink lots of water and stay hydrated. My AC is now running and I’m not sure that’s a good thing?

  2. just recently bought battery operated fans…just in case! also ,if I ever build a house I would like to make the floor to ceiling windows with sliding windows on the top and bottom, like there use to be over a hundred years ago!

  3. This article is useless in a state like Arizona. 95% or more homes do not have basements. The hot weather starts in May sometimes as early as April. July, August and part, if not all, of Sept. brings not only hot weather but humidity as well. It can be over 100 and humidity as high as 90 to 100 percent. Try living in that with no air conditioning. Believe me, sitting under a fan blowing hot humid air does not work!!! If the power grid were to go out, scores of people would die here from the heat. So, come up with practical ideas on how to have air conditioning if the power goes. Digging an under ground home is not doable for people with finances to do it. Finding a cave is near to impossible and if you could find one, chances are others have discovered it as well. Do or would your solar units be able to run even a small window air conditioner because that is about all that would help.

    • I am not sure where you are originally from but swamp coolers are made for Arizona. When it gets a little humid use a fan to blow air across your self. The house we live in currently is poorly insulated so on those 115 degree days we only cool down to about 89 but that is liveable. And all on solar power

      • We lived the experience in Queen Creek, Arizona. The coolest it got with a cooler (and it was a Master Cool!), was 95 degrees in the middle of the humid time of summer! After the monsoons hit at the end of June, swamp coolers are freakin’ useless in Arizona!

  4. My experiences:
    Past – Shade trees on East side. Open windows and full size window fan at night to cool off house, closed tight with good curtains during day and small fans cooling us off.
    An apartment I lived in for a couple years pumped water thru radiator with thermostat controlled fan for heating and cooling. Slow to change temp but effective. If I had cold spring water I would use same.
    Weeks long working camp out in tent, although some tree shade, added another tarp over tent for complete shade. Afternoon in hammock under shade tree.
    Now – Can only grow trees on North and South (do not plant anywhere near your sewage system/pipes). Solar screens on East, South and West windows. To help on the West side. I planted grapes along the fence 7 feet from house with trellis up fence then over to house, took 2 years to get complete shade on West side (too much shade for the grass to grow). Installed Radiant Barrier on bottom of attic rafters. Reduced summer electric bill by more than 25%, saving $100+ per month.
    Future – Will seriously consider Earth Sheltered living, probably only partially buried structure as I do like window views. Consider Geothermal with buried piping.

  5. A proper airflow of the house would be needed to have a good natural ventilation. On summer days, I believe an AC would really be needed.

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