How I survived a weekend in July in the midwest without air conditioning

The air conditioner went out this week. Based on the local shop’s estimate, we’re probably looking at $3400 to fix it, which is more than the cost of a newer, better unit.

On Friday they bubble-gummed it together to get us through the weekend. It only got us through Friday night.

Here’s how we survived, and actually stayed halfway comfortable.I actually survived worse earlier in life. My high school wasn’t air conditioned, and unless temperatures reached 100 degrees, they didn’t call off school for heat. So on a day when the high was 87 or 89, I would have had to tough it out.

In college, I lived in a building without air conditioning that my uncle once derisively called "that old barn." School started in August, and temperatures often were still in the 90s, or worse, while I was there. Window air conditioners were banned, because the building’s decrepit wiring couldn’t handle more than a couple of units running at once.

So here’s what I did this weekend to keep things cooler, based on what I learned then and what I’ve learned since about saving energy.

First, any time it was cooler outside than inside, we opened the house up as much as possible and blasted fans as hard as possible to get as much cooler air circulating as we could. Besides running the central air conditioner’s blower (just the blower), we ran ceiling fans and portable fans. I wish we’d had more fans, in retrospect.

But once it started warming up, we actually did something controversial. We closed the house back up again, but that’s not all we did. I took a bunch of white foam-core board left over from a long-ago project and put those in any windows facing the sun. The white surface would reflect heat-causing light back out of the house. Then I pulled the shades down and closed them, and drew the curtains. Any place I could see a sunbeam, I would block it using any means possible. When I ran out of foam, I’d use anything else white.

I think my neighbors already think I’m nuts. Now I’m sure a couple of the busybodies down the street are talking about having me committed. It’s funny how little you care what other people think when you’re trying to keep cool.

Besides, I don’t care what they think because it worked. Today the high was 87 degrees, and the hottest it got in the house during the day was 80. Yesterday, without taking these measures, it reached 82 in the house. Two degrees makes a bigger difference than it sounds.

To determine if it was cooler inside or outside, I religiously checked the local newspaper’s web site and weather.com. A good thermometer would be even better, but I didn’t have one of those. And besides, now I need an air conditioner, so I need to save money.

The temperature is on its way down now, as I write, but some parts of the house are still getting punished by sunlight. We’ve opened the windows on the portions of the house that are receiving shade, and we’ve moved the fans to draw air through those areas. As shade conquered sunlight, we opened more windows. It hasn’t cooled off enough outside to make the temperature in the house come down yet, but getting more air moving made the house feel cooler.

To get relief, during the hottest parts of the day we would get out. Yesterday we went to Costco to stock up on necessities (we lingered in the walk-in produce fridge a lot longer than we needed to). This morning we went to church of course, and then after that we went and ate lunch at the mall food court and walked around the mall for a couple of hours.

Besides that, we also tried to avoid doing things that would cause heat. I kept as many lights off as possible, since light bulbs generate heat (even compact florescents). Unfortunately we had to run a load of laundry through the dryer, but we did that early in the day before things started heating up. When we cooked, we used the microwave. I also turned off anything else I could, since all watts of electricity used have to turn into heat one way or another.

We survived. Actually we did better than survive. I’ll daresay that for most of the day, we were actually comfortable.

I’ll add one other thing, and this is something that came to mind because we’ve been shopping for windows. If you have double-hung windows, you can open them from both the top and the bottom to get a chimney effect. Warmer air escapes through the upper window, drawing cooler air in through the bottom. In the days before air conditioning, this was how people cooled their houses. They fell out of fashion for many years, but now they’re back in fashion because you can open them just from the top, and a child can’t fall out of a window if it’s opened that way.

Today, the chimney effect is just secondary, but it can save you energy in the months when you just barely need A/C. We’ll be getting double-hung windows for that reason.

And as for the air conditioner itself? What we had was a cheap low-end unit, something often used by contractors and people who plan on selling a house quickly. Since we plan on staying in the same house for a good many years, we’re buying a high-end replacement. It will cost a lot more, but doing the math, it should pay for itself in about 10 years. Or, given the way the local electric company has the state government wrapped around its finger, probably a lot sooner.

Plus, the high-end models come with better warranties, which suggests the manufacturers have more confidence in their longevity. Or, it could be that they just have higher profit margins so they can afford to back them with better warranties, but I’d rather pay for higher energy efficiency than for extended warranties.

7 thoughts on “How I survived a weekend in July in the midwest without air conditioning

  • July 13, 2008 at 8:54 pm
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    Congrats on applying logic to improve a bad situation! I’d also suggest Weather Underground http://www.wunderground.com for finding someone with a local weather station. I trust a personal weather station a mile or two away for temperature readings much more than I trust the downtown or airport readings.

    • July 14, 2008 at 8:59 pm
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      Thanks! That’s a really good site that I wasn’t aware of. I found several weather stations much closer to me than downtown or the airport.

      • July 15, 2008 at 9:52 pm
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        Two Julys ago, we did the no air conditioning (and no electricity!) thing for five days, but managed without too much whining. Glad you turned it into a positive.

        Oddly, Weather Underground went down some time today. Earlier, I got a redirect to Network Solutions. Now, I just get a 403/You are not authorized to view this page.

        Before Group Policy, the STL page on Wunderground used to be my home page.

        • July 16, 2008 at 7:37 pm
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          I remember that July very well. I can’t remember exactly how many days we were without electricity (it’s here somewhere but I’m too lazy to check). I hadn’t thought of all the tricks yet.

          I won’t ask why your group policy is enforcing home pages. I know the answer to that one. When’s Mr. Portal going to retire?

          • July 16, 2008 at 8:45 pm
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            He retired before the last Convention, but the legacy lives on. We fought that as best we could, but it fell on deaf ears. Even the President has it applied, but IBM/Lenovo Access Connections Home Page setting trumps Group Policy 😉

  • July 15, 2008 at 10:25 pm
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    You get something paid for and it always breaks down.
    If it weren’t for your wife, I would say live without air-conditioning.
    I’m a 61 year old East Texan and I’ve never lived in air-conditioning. After fifteen years working in the Texas oilfields, I did go to work in an air-conditioned building. I still spent 16 hours a day in the heat.

    “If I owned Hell and Texas I would rent out Texas and live in Hell”
    General Philip Henry Sheridan

  • July 16, 2008 at 12:15 pm
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    Looks like Weather Underground is back. Their home page reported overcoming some DNS problems, on the registrar’s side.

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