Some cooling ways to deal with summer's hot, hot days


June 26, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Somehow the first onslaught of summer heat -- steamy, drippy, searing heat -- is always an affront. Of course, we know it's coming, eventually, but that first blast just seems to come too early.

If your house is air-conditioned, you may notice the heat only when you check the thermostat and turn on the cool air. But if it's not, you may already be in need of relief.

Rehabbed houses often don't have air-conditioning, either because it was too expensive, or because it was too intrusive in a historically accurate renovation. But that doesn't mean inhabitants have to swelter. A lot of cooling can be accomplished with simple air-handling.

There's nothing like a heat wave to make you appreciate the laws of physics: Hot air rises and cold air falls. To keep your house cooler in the summer, you have to give the heat a way to escape once it reaches the highest point. Old houses with stairwell ventilators or air shafts are designed to do exactly that: Channel the air upward and release it at the top. But even a simple open window on the top floor will release hot air. (If it's right above a stairwell, so much the better.) Modern ventilating skylights can also help heat escape.

More hot air can be expelled if you have a little mechanical help. An attic exhaust fan works great.

A fan in the window of an upstairs room can help pull hot air out of the house. Install it on the hottest side of the building (usually the south side). Installing a fan downstairs to bring air in from the cool side of the house can help, too.

If you like ceiling fans, install as many as you can. Most have switches that let you reverse the blades to push hot air down in the winter, as well. But their chief value in the summer is to keep air moving. You'll feel cooler with air blowing across your skin, even if you don't succeed in lowering the temperature.

If the "cool" side of the building doesn't seem all that cool, consider installing a window awning to keep sun off the glass (if awnings are allowed in your neighborhood; check with the neighborhood association or local office of historic preservation). If you can't use awnings, or don't like them, how about shutters? Do as Southerners have been doing for ages and use the kind with louvers, so breezes can still flow through but much of the sun will be stopped.

You may want to consider a structure, such as an arbor or trellis, or plantings, such as deciduous trees, to screen windows from heat. (In the winter, the plants will be dormant and the trees will have no leaves, so the sun can still help warm the house.) In Italy, Karol saw restaurateurs spraying water on the vines above terrace dining areas. The evaporating water helped pull heat from the area underneath. If you have a brick or stone patio, watering it can make it (temporarily) a cooler place to sit.

Installing central air conditioning, especially if you don't have a ducted heating system, can cost a bundle -- but room air-conditioners are fairly cheap, and often on sale (even in summer). Installing them in sleeping rooms and in the main congregating area of the house can provide welcome cool havens in a hot house. Experiment with exhaust fans to pull cool air into adjoining spaces. A floor fan in the doorway between a cool room and a hot one can spread the "coolth," especially if the air-conditioner is somewhat more powerful than needed to cool one room.

If you're not home during the day, consider leaving the house shut up tight with the shades pulled and the curtains drawn to keep hot air from getting in in the first place. If your house is well-insulated, it may hold cooler night air for a surprisingly long time. Or shut up lower floors and leave a window open on the top floor.

Probably no single one of these techniques will make your house seem less like the Sahara at high noon. It will take some experimenting to see which combination works best. While you're working it out, stir up a pitcher of your favorite summer beverage and put on the "coolest" music you know -- James Taylor might work. Or "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Or dim the lights and pop in a really cool movie. "Ice Station Zebra" could be nice, or "K2." Or anything made from a Stephen King novel. Chill out. You'll soon be raking leaves.

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