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The Greenest Ways to Beat the Heat

There are better ways to beat the heat than artificially cooling a building. And even for those not ready to go A/C-less, options abound.

Oh my god, it's so hot out. And it's going to be hotter tomorrow. Normally, it's boring to talk about the weather, but when there’s a heat wave sweeping across half of America, what else is there to think about except how to deal with the temperature? Those of us who are environmentally minded are also thinking about how to avoid trading in every one of our good, carbon-saving intentions for a chance to stand in front of a blasting A/C unit for even just five minutes.

There are greener ways to beat the heat than artificially cooling a building to a comfortable temperature. A few of the techniques that people used to cool off in the pre-air-conditioning era were downright genius. And even for those not ready to return to a state of A/C-less grace, options abound.

First, though, I want to say: Don’t die. Seriously. Heat is dangerous: It killed more people in the United States than any other type of weather event last year. We’re not set up to take advantage of all the ways that people kept cool before air conditioning, and it’s not reasonable for everybody to go without it. Oh, sure, don’t keep the thermostat turned down to 53 degrees Fahrenheit; don’t run it when you’re not at home; clean the filter; don’t cool rooms you’re not occupying. But if you’re going to be sleeping in a windowless bedroom on the 9th floor of an apartment building in the middle of a city, you’re going to need central air.

Before air conditioning, people didn’t spend time in rooms like that on hot summer days. One of the smartest ideas that people had for dealing with summer heat was to sleep outside. On a porch. In a yard. On a fire escape. In Central Park. It’s a low-tech innovation, but if a night outdoors is accessible, it’s one of the easiest ways to avoid turning on the A/C. During the day, a shaded porch or park can serve the same function.

Houses were also more likely to be designed with thicker walls, higher ceilings and windows placed to take advantage of cross-breezes. These design principles kept the whole building cooler. Planting shade trees also kept houses from getting so hot to begin with. These ideas are living a second life as "passive cooling" techniques.

But let’s assume that you don’t live in a beautifully designed green home. And that you can’t hang out outside. Here’s how to avoid keeping the air conditioning on full blast, all day long.

First, you’re going to want an awesome fan. Then, you’ll probably want to keep the windows open in the morning, when the air is cooler. Let that cool air in! When the sun starts hitting the building, which might not happen until later in the day, close the shades to keep the air inside from heating up as quickly. And when the air outside starts getting hotter than the air inside, close the windows to trap it in. It’ll stay cool for at least a little while.

Of course, as those of us living on the East Coast might have noticed by now, these strategies are less effective when it’s humid and 85 degrees before 10 a.m. If you’re going to turn on the air conditioner, energy-efficient units are obviously a better choice than that old dusty one from the basement. But air conditioners are one of those technologies that no one has figured out how to make really efficient: Energy Star units only use 10 to 14 percent less energy than conventional ones. There’s a low-tech way to make air conditioning more efficient, though: make sure more people enjoying the cooling effects of each unit that’s on. Instead of turning on a home A/C unit, hang out at a coffee shop, a movie theater, or a friend’s house.

Here’s one last strategy for dealing with hot days in a green way. Take a minute to consider that, in the long term, the world is experiencing more intense weather—heat waves, snow storms, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes. After you turn on the air conditioning, make another choice that will help mitigate the chances that hot days will become hotter: Skip meat for a few meals. Take a bus instead of driving. Switch your electricity plan to one that uses renewable energy. Because at this moment, the thought of having to sweat through days even a couple of degrees hotter is pretty unbearable.

Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

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