As I write this it is the middle of summer, and like many of the recent summers past we’ve experienced hotter than normal temperatures.
And yet, in our household we are surviving without any air conditioning, our roof has not exploded, and so far, no one in our household has passed out from heat stroke.
Why Reduce Your Reliance on Heating and AC
When bodily comfort is easily obtained with the press of a button, why bother trying to go without?
We are heading towards a future of uncertainty. We may live to see the day when electricity is no longer an available utility. Before such a point arrives, there may be a transition period of chaos, and the things we take for granted now may become unreliable before they eventually fail.
Sound like science fiction? Last year Chad and I spent 15 frigid days without heat after a freak winter storm took out the electricity for the entire county we were living in.
Climate change will keep causing more freak weather events, and while we may not be able to predict them ahead of time, we can prepare ourselves by knowing how to regulate our own body temperatures without the help of electricity.
Another reason to stop using those controls on your thermostat to stay comfortable is sustainability.
Instead of resting on abstract words like “carbon footprint,” picture somewhere beautiful, like our home in Utah.
Every time you use more fossil fuels than you truly need, that’s one vote for replacing the pristine habitat of junipers and prairie dogs with ugly, noisy, polluting oil wells and refineries.
Which would you rather live next to?
Homes on Life Support
One of my building biology instructors liked to point out that our homes are like a sick person on life support – they are connected with tubes for air, and tubes for temperature.
Her point was that you can build a home that is naturally healthy, not requiring this type of life support.
Through both my building biology training and my many years living in Europe, I have come to see the American way of staying cool or keeping warm as the opposite of what is natural, efficient, and resilient.
My Own Approach
Before I share my tricks with you for reducing your own reliance on heating and AC, don’t go thinking that I’m one of those people that isn’t bothered by heat or cold. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Most of the year, my natural state is too cold. And in summer, the heat will easily get to me if I’m not careful.
Yet, following these tricks, I am usually extremely comfortable temperature-wise. Here’s what I do:
- Dress appropriately.
- Use passive heating and cooling at home.
- Eat foods that are suited to the seasons.
When I lived in Paris I didn’t have air conditioning there either – but neither did anyone else. Like most other Parisians, I coped with the heat by wearing lightweight clothing.
When I’d come home to the US to visit family during the summer, I rarely saw people dressed for summer. I saw jeans and long sleeve t-shirts. And I had to remember to bring a sweater everywhere, to keep myself from freezing in the 65F AC that blasts in any restaurant or store.
How to Dress in Summer
Our inefficient lifestyle is an anomaly in the world. We are over-reliant on that push of a button. In places where people don’t have access to AC, here are some of the clothing tactics they use to stay cool:
- Light colors reflect heat instead of absorbing it – so wear light colors when you have to spend time in the sun.
- Lightweight materials cover your body, protecting it from the sun, while letting air flow through. When you sweat, and air flows against your skin, this cools you off.
- Natural fibers (such as cotton, linen, and hemp) breathe, allowing air to flow while synthetic fibers trap heat.
- Loose clothing will encourage air flow, cooling you. Body hugging clothing will make you hot.
In summer, you will find me wearing lightweight cotton and linen. When I’m outdoors, I cover up with lightweight, light-colored, long-sleeved, button-down shirts and shorts or, if hiking, lightweight cotton pants.
How to Dress in Winter
Likewise, in winter there are also better clothing choices to be made in order to stay warmer naturally:
- Dark colors absorb heat on sunny days – good to know if you’re recreating outdoors in winter.
- Natural animal fibers such as wool, cashmere, and alpaca will keep you toasty warm. You can find these fibers in lightweight fabrics for under layers, and heavier weight fabrics for outer layers.
- Layering will help keep you warm, and if the day warms up, you can shed layers as needed.
- Loose clothing will trap air inside your clothing, which will be heated by your body, and which will, in turn, keep you warm. Tight clothing will create a thermal bridge between your skin and the cold air, failing to keep you as warm as possible.
In wintertime, I wear several layers, mostly wool, even at home. Along with having no AC, our heating system is non-standard for the US – we don’t have heat that is sent into every room of the house; instead, it blows in the center of the house, so the farther rooms stay pretty chilly. So I bundle up quite a bit at home.
I have a pair of baggy, Cossack-style insulated pants I wear almost everyday in the depths of winter. I stay much warmer this way than wearing, say, long johns under a pair of more fitted pants. Much, much warmer. On top, I wear several layers of wool, starting with a lightweight wool base layer, a midweight merino wool sweater, topped with a chunky knit wool sweater.
Since working out this warming, winter clothing system for myself, I rarely complain about being cold at home. Now, it is more often Chad complaining of the cold and I’m the one reminding him to put on a sweater.
And this advice holds true not only for clothing but also for bedding. When do you want a thick wool blanket on your bed – and when do you want a thin cotton cover?
Passive Heating and Cooling
Pretty much everybody knows you can harness the sun’s energy with solar panels to create electricity.
Not so many people realize that you can also use the sun’s energy to your advantage without solar panels, through passive heating and cooling – and there is a huge opportunity for increased efficiency through this method of temperature regulation.
I mentioned above that wearing dark colors when you’re out hiking in winter will help you keep warm. That is an example of passive heating.
When it comes to your home, know that you can get started creating passive heat – even without any renovations.
Let’s get back to the sun, you remember the sun, right? Closest star in our sky?
In summer, the sun is high overhead. Unless you have a skylight, that means that the sun is not shining directly into your windows.
In winter, on the other hand, the sun is lower in the sky, and if you have windows that face full south, you will get sun – and heat – coming straight into your windows.
So, in winter you are going to want to do everything you can to get the sun to come through your windows and heat up your house. In summer, you’ll want to do the opposite – reflect the sun away from the windows.
Passive Heating and Cooling with Curtains
One way you can manage this is by using curtains to your advantage. I actually change out our curtains depending on the season.
Dark colors absorb heat, light colors reflect it. So, decide what you want to do – heat or cool – and use those colors accordingly.
In summer, I put up white or light-colored curtains that are also lightweight. I close the curtains during the day, to block the sun from heating the house through the curtains. Being light in color and lightweight, they allow light in but reflect the brunt of the heat away from the windows.
In winter, I put up our thicker curtains which I leave open during the day. The sun comes streaming in, heating up the house. At night, we close the curtains to keep the heat in.
Passive Heating and Cooling with Thermal Mass
Using curtains to passively heat or cool your home is really just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to get serious about it, you incorporate thermal mass into the equation.
What is thermal mass? Thermal mass is any material that can absorb and store either warmth or cold.
Some examples are:
- ceramic tiles
These things take longer to change temperatures than say, wood or plastic, but once they do, they hold those temperatures for much longer.
If designed correctly, you can use these building materials to passively heat a home.
If this sounds like a new and untested technology, trust me, it’s not. Passive heating has been used for a long time in traditional architecture, as evidenced in the adobe constructions of the Southwest – and many other locations around the world.
You can use this same principle to passively cool a home. Stone built homes in Mediterranean countries remain refreshingly cool inside even when it’s sweltering outdoors.
There are many more aspects of passive heating and cooling, but I’ll explore these in another post. For now, let’s get to the yummy part – food.
Season Appropriate Food
This is one of those commonsense things that seems perfectly obvious once you think about it, but is rarely taken into consideration, at least in American culture. I think this is because most of us in this country live our lives really without much worry to the temperature outside – as long as the indoor temperature makes us comfortable.
I’m not talking so much about seasonal foods (what’s ripe when) although I think we should all be doing that too, and there is some overlap. I’m talking mostly about how we’re eating foods in different seasons.
A nice luscious stew full of your favorite meat and veggies. Yum. Sounds like the perfect thing to eat in… summer?
What to Eat in Summer to Stay Cool
No, no, no. Of course you don’t want a steaming cup of stew in summer, unless you really love to sweat. If you want to stay cool, there are ways to do so through your food:
- Eat raw foods. Think salads and sushi.
- Eat cooling foods, such as cucumber, avocado, watermelon, or yogurt. Tzatziki, a Greek dip made from cucumbers and yogurt, is wonderfully cooling, as is raita, a similar dish from India.
- Eat less. Food does more than give us nutrients, as you know, it also gives us calories. What you might not think of though, is that calories turn into heat. We don’t need as much help keeping our bodies warm in summer, so we don’t need to consume as many calories.
- Eat foods that are physically cool in temperature, like gazpacho, ice cream or jello. You might also want to eat warm meals at a less than steamy temperature.
What to Eat in Winter to Stay Warm
On the other hand, eating a lot of salads in the winter isn’t going to help your thermal comfort level much.
Here’s what to eat to stay toasty when it’s cold out:
- Warming foods. Some foods warm you up through their chemical compounds. A few examples are ginger, hot peppers, and black pepper.
- Foods that are physically warm in temperature, like soups and stews. Leave the cold desserts for summer and instead satisfy your sweet tooth with a warm cobbler.
Stay Comfortable Naturally
I hope this has given you a few ideas on how to regulate your body temperature and stay comfortable when the mercury is rising or falling to its extremes.
To recap, wear clothing that is season-appropriate, block or encourage the sun’s rays to enter your home depending on the season, and eat warming or cooling foods.
Doing these things are simple, low cost ways to be less reliant on the thermostat on your heating and cooling system – and make you that much more prepared for times when you might have to live without it. They will also save you money and reduce your carbon footprint.