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Are you an air conditioning holdout?

Genevieve Jacobs 21 January 2019 63
Women dying from the heat standing in front of the air conditioner.

Can you keep cool without air conditioning?

For decades, Canberrans have boasted about not turning the heating on until ANZAC Day. But is it time to ask who can keep coolest without turning on the air conditioning? And, challenge accepted, how do you do that? Or have we forgotten how to keep cool?

Despite the ACT’s mandatory minimum energy efficiency requirements, many modern houses resemble machines, inoperable unless someone throws a switch and the gears kick into life. No eaves, no verandahs and no trees (because the block is too small and the house is too big) mean that summer is unbearable without electricity-guzzling air conditioning.

I visited a friend who’d bought into one of these new developments, with spectacular views. The apartment was fitted out with every modern gadget and had a huge plate glass window to take in the view. Facing almost due west. It was, literally, an oven and unliveable without air conditioning.

Older houses certainly aren’t immune either: for all of the govvie’s growing trendiness, plenty of traditional Canberra houses are freezing in winter and boiling in summer. And unfortunately, many vulnerable Australians live in poorly insulated houses that are quick to heat up and slow to cool down.

The elderly, sick and the very young need protection from extreme heat, and when those households are under financial stress because of power costs, the situation can be dangerous. But unnecessary air conditioning also pushes up demand and means we all pay more for the infrastructure that ensures demand can be met.

But if you’re lucky enough to have the right house, even the 40 degree plus days are surprisingly bearable without hitting the switch, then gasping when the next bill comes in. I grew up in Western NSW, in an old farmhouse built by my great-grandparents. With double brick walls and 16-foot cypress pine ceilings and French doors, it was very liveable, even on 45-degree days.

Doors and windows were flung open to let the cool change flow through the house all night. Early in the morning, before the heat built up, windows and doors were closed and curtains pulled. Outside, the blistering dry heat sucked the life out of the landscape. Mid-afternoon, nothing moved in the shimmering paddocks.

At home, it was deep and cool and dark inside, with a fan buzzing as we watched the Test, or the thunk of tennis balls at the Australian Open. Nothing much moved inside either until dusk fell and you could breathe again. It was a form of seasonal siesta.

But you don’t need an old farmhouse to beat the heat. Given reasonable orientation, and walls that are more than paper thin, shutting up the house on extreme heat days and letting it cool down at night should significantly reduce the need for air conditioning.

Keeping windows open to “let the air in” during summer is like opening an oven door: you need to think about how to keep the core temperature of the house low in the first place, rather than allowing it to fluctuate along with the outside temperature.

There are plenty of other old school tricks around: a wet cloth nappy in front of the fan, putting the bedsheets in the freezer, even wetting an old long-sleeved shirt and wringing it out to work outside. And while many of our workplaces don’t make it easy, there’s nothing wrong with a siesta either.

How do you beat the heat without reaching for the air conditioner controls?


What's Your Opinion?


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63 Responses to Are you an air conditioning holdout?
fionad fionad 11:08 pm 24 Jan 19

lots of trees in the garden – remarkably cooler than neighbours on either side of me; keep the windows shut and blinds closed until about 9pm, then throw all the windows open, keep as many blinds up during the night. Manage to do without aircon *but only just*

A Nonny Mouse A Nonny Mouse 7:28 pm 24 Jan 19

We have retrofitted our mid-70s townhouse with better insulation and double glazing. We open everything to purge at night. In the morning we are within 2 degrees of the overnight minimum. We close windows through the day. This past year we have had air-conditioning for the first time but bought it primarily for winter heating – cheaper and more environmentally friendly than gas now the ACT is near 100% renewable for electricity. We usually peak at 10 degrees below the outside maximum. We were away for the week of the 4 days above 40 but we have only felt we needed to use cooling for short periods about half a dozen times through summer.

Matt Walsh Matt Walsh 5:11 pm 24 Jan 19

I’m fortunate to live in an apartment insulated by others above and below and either side of me. Only the two ends are exposed to the elements. The veranda is good too and the overhang from the floor above keeps the sun from shining in through the doors.

As per some of the other remarks here, I open the place up when its cooler outside and close the windows when its cooler inside. I keep the blinds shut during the day to keep out the heat.

The big problem on still nights is when it (usually) drops below 20° outside but its still 25 inside. I got jack of that and bought a ruddy big fan (christened “The Dominator”) that I use to exhaust hot air out of and bring cool air into the house. It works a treat. I have neighbours that run their air con until after midnight when its nice and cool outside. How crazy is that?

When I do turn on the air conditioner, I try to run it at 26 or 27°. Its better for the energy bills and better for the environment.

Nick Swain Nick Swain 5:01 pm 24 Jan 19

Bizarre that double glazing is not mandated in the ACT. While it might add to the up front cost of new housing it certainly helps reduce running costs – but a property developer has little incentive to care much about running costs once the place has been sold.

TimboinOz TimboinOz 4:59 pm 24 Jan 19

Our house was a 1970s BV Jennings, we bought in 1980/1. One reason for buying it in the state it and the grounds were in, was that it runs almost exactly due East-West and is on the Nth side of the road. It’s got R5 plus insulation in the roof and insulation in the walls. There’s a long L-shaped verandah / pergola along most of the Nth side, which is clear-roofed, and has 91% shade-cloth hanging under that during the warm months. It is big enough for 30-40 guests sitting down for a meal. There are two deciduous trees along its front as well, to provide even more shade to the deck. All of those features have been in place since the early 1990s.

Evaporative ducted cooling. The highest temperature inside this Summer has been 27C, for one day. mostly 24C or lower. When possible we use the fan only at night to blow cooler air through the house – ? ‘night-sky-cooling’. As we are retired, managing the cooling system and exhaust openings, is not difficult.

We’ll soon have solar and will consider a battery in future. we are considering a quieter in-roof evap. cooling system.

If you have problems with URTI’s / sinusitis, evap. cooling may help / won’t make it any worse where A/C just will. We use a humidifier just down-stream of the gas heater in Winter into under-floor ducts, for the same reason.

That this GREEN-dominated government has not and will not do anything effective to enforce orientations standards and energy efficiency is a big disappointment to us both.

We’ve been ‘green’ since the 1980s, but no longer support this pair.

Trevor Watson Trevor Watson 9:18 pm 20 Jan 19

I have ducted evaporative cooling. Its most effective when it is dry.. At 41c and 15% humidity inside we are around 24c. As soon as humidity comes up efficiency drops off. Fortunately our solar panels provide enough power through the day to keep it running.

Bryan Bryan 3:24 pm 20 Jan 19

A very wet, almost dripping towelling hat is rather helpful if you have to work outside.

Wing Nut Wing Nut 3:10 pm 20 Jan 19

With a very generous and somewhat token EER of
.5, we’ve got a heating and cooling and we’re happy to use it when we need it.

Veronika Sain Veronika Sain 12:51 pm 20 Jan 19

I remember growing up poor and living in a fibro cottage oven in narrabundah. We’d go into the yard and hose ourselves when it got hot. At least we had a backyard I guess.

The nights were unbearable and you didn’t sleep.

Wasn’t much fun - except for kids running around soaking each other the rest was shite.

An older person in our street spent most summers going to hospital because of what she called the “heat”.

Oh and I’d almost forgotten schools weren’t air conditioned either and it was always one or two who’d drop in the playground from heat exhaustion after sweltering in hot classrooms. Later when I was a primary teacher for a while in the late 80s/early 90s they still didn’t have aircon. The smell of sweaty kids heads that fans would blow around isn’t a pleasant one 🤢🤣

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 2:57 pm 20 Jan 19

    I lived in a Narrabundah fibro house for almost 30 yrs. In hot weather I would close the windows and curtains in the morning, and only open the windows again when inside temperature equalled outside temperature; usually mid afternoon. No use opening the windows before that and bringing in air that was hotter than inside. But once inside equalled outside, at least I might get a breeze. I didn't find the nights too great a problem in summer, only the days, because for the same reason that the houses heated up so quickly, they cooled down quickly for the same reason; inadequate insulation. At night, windows open, the house was not too bad. I survived without air-conditioning, but I did have an electric fan for daytime use. I found the winters in that house worse. Ice inside.

    Veronika Sain Veronika Sain 3:03 pm 20 Jan 19

    Julie Macklin Surprised you didn't swelter in summer, ours was a hot box. But yeah, absolutely no insulation and in winter the walls would have condensation on them. The only room that was ok in winter was the living room cause that had a really good wood stove.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 3:12 pm 20 Jan 19

    Veronika Sain I did swelter in the daytime, but nights were usually okay, as lack of insulation and open windows did let the heat escape. Perhaps your parents were like some people's parents and opened the windows in the daytime (when outside air was hotter than inside), saying, "I'm hot." Well opening the windows in that situation guarantees the house will get even hotter. Or leaving a fan going in a room without anyone in it and telling you off when you turn it off. "But I'm cooling the air." they say. My response, "No you're not, as fans have motors that add heat to the air, and no-one is in this room to enjoy the fan, so better it's turned off." "Leave it!" I've had those frustrating conversations.

    Veronika Sain Veronika Sain 4:23 pm 20 Jan 19

    Nope my parents kept the windows closed during the heat - they were smart Europeans. And mum hand made made heavy curtains. We were too poor in those days and didnt own a fan till much later on. The old trick of having a full bowl of ice in front of a fan didn’t really work :)

Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 9:19 am 20 Jan 19

The old tricks outlined in this article are all well and good and possibly well suited to those greenies who seem to appreciate a bit of well-placed suffering, all for the good of the planet of course. Over many years my wife and I tried many of these tricks, notably windows open at night and closed during the day to conserve the night cool. Guess what? With daylight saving, the temperature remained high until well after dark, while the inside of the house became progressively more stuffy, with the morning temperature of 20 or below rising steadily to the mid-20s. Then, to get some air, we’d throw open the windows and doors and the still hot air outside would steadily elevate the temperature, so that we’d end up with another sleepless night. We also tried many of the other tricks nominated in this article, to similarly limited effect.

Eventually, we turned to evaporative cooling and we’ve never looked back. We’ve found that you can have every window and door open and that the effect is that the cool air from the system effectively pushes the hot air out of the house through those open windows and doors. During this last very hot week, the temperature in our house tends to steady around 24, occasionally reaching 25-26 during this last week, but it never felt hot because of the cool air blowing constantly on us. My only other advice would be to ensure you get a good brand of cooling with a decent controller whose auto setting is fully responsive to the surrounding conditions. Also, ensure you get your system serviced at least every two years. We couldn’t be happier with our evaporative cooling – the anti-cooling masochists can do whatever they like!

    astro2 astro2 2:10 pm 20 Jan 19

    You can also purchase plug-in evaporative coolers as not all of us have houses suitable to fit a built-in type. Not sure about the anti-‘green’ rant though. The article wasn’t about that so the comment seems a bit irrelevant. People don’t use air conditioning for all sorts of reasons as the postings on this string show.

    Maya123 Maya123 8:56 pm 20 Jan 19

    First person, “We’ve got global warming; the world is heating.”

    Second person, “Better turn the air-conditioner up then.”

Fish Zafar Fish Zafar 10:26 pm 19 Jan 19

Hannah Gardiner your mate 😂

    Hannah Gardiner Hannah Gardiner 10:35 pm 19 Jan 19

    Fish im pretty sure it’s your mate I don’t know him

Nads Johnson Nads Johnson 8:50 pm 19 Jan 19

We are temporarily living in a shed, it’s well insulated, only ceiling fans in the bedrooms. We keep it closed up during the day & open up windows at night. We’ve coped. I think we live in a society of people who’ve become indulgent & soft!

Jamie Loveridge Jamie Loveridge 5:59 pm 19 Jan 19

Give me back the temperature from back then..... idiot

Emma Em Emma Em 5:22 pm 19 Jan 19

It depends on how your house is built.

Kerry Jackson Kerry Jackson 3:06 pm 19 Jan 19

Houses are badly designed. Evaporative cooling a good compromise.

    Peter Mackay Peter Mackay 6:11 am 23 Jan 19

    At least Canberra has a dry heat - mostly. As a Queenslander I find it very difficult to go back for a family Christmas at Rockhampton, when the air is full of humidity.

    But paradise in winter!

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 1:51 pm 19 Jan 19

Planning where and which plants and trees on your block also makes a HUGE difference.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 2:49 pm 19 Jan 19

    So true. Deciduous. Shade in summer; some sun in winter. But be careful not to ruin it for the neighbour.

    Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 4:28 pm 19 Jan 19

    Julie Macklin what neighbors? Can't see any.😆

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 4:46 pm 19 Jan 19

    Cary Elliot Johnson :D I almost can't one side of my block either, thanks to selfishness of one neighbour, who won't prune. Fortunately it's on my southern side. Very expensive neighbour to have. Overgrown pencil pines, grapes, roses, rampant wisteria (all mixed together) and goodness knows what else, all right up against the fence. This would be alright if they didn't have neighbours.

    Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 4:47 pm 19 Jan 19

    Julie Macklin yuk plants as well.

    Peter Mackay Peter Mackay 6:09 am 23 Jan 19

    Certainly deciduous trees help a lot. Shade in summer, let the sun through in winter. Perfect.

Cary Elliot Johnson Cary Elliot Johnson 1:50 pm 19 Jan 19

Fully insulated home here with double glazing. Still gets up to 30 on 40 days. Bearable but not pleasant.

astro2 astro2 1:45 pm 19 Jan 19

Timing is important – making sure you close everything up at the right time and re-open when the outside temperature is cool enough; thoroughness in closing everything up is also important. Ceiling fans are useful, also a small plug-in evaporative cooler (i.e. portable fan with water receptacle) – both are a lot cheaper than air con. External insulated roller shutters are brilliant for blocking out radiant heat. Also try filling a bath tub full of cold water (you can also plonk yourself in it when you get back from work on a hot day.) Try watching slow TV – very relaxing. One big advantage of no air con is your body acclimatises to the prevailing conditions. Too much air con can make a body too reliant on it and unable to cope with hot conditions – could be dangerous in the event of a power outage.

Claudine Norton Claudine Norton 12:09 pm 19 Jan 19

Nice to have a container of water to dip your feet into every now and then

Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:41 am 19 Jan 19

I have a solar passive house. Not only does it need almost no heating in winter, it has never needed air-conditioning. The hottest days the most that is needed is a fan to be comfortable, and even then not all day, and never yet at night. No great secrets; just orientation, lots of mass (in my house's case, ALL walls are concrete), insulation (ceiling, outside walls and insulated slab), double glazing with honeycombed blinds, and NO black roof. I got the palest roof regulations allowed. I have no eaves to talk about, but this is not a problem with good design and orientation.

In hot weather in the daytime I close all windows and blinds. I have thermal chimneys which I close in the daytime. When it cools outside in the evening, I open the roof vents and windows.

Houses can be built for the climate and EVERYONE should know this. Heck I figured this out in my twenties, way before such houses were commonly talked about.

I lived for many years in an established house; one of the worst, climate-wise you could imagine. Fibro with almost no insulation (a 'sprinkling' in the ceiling). I saved to buy a better house. I could have had the type of average house (the sort most people get) built years ago, but I saved more until I could afford a house suitable for this climate. I didn't want to add yet another unsuitable house to the housing stock. My house is so comfortable. Smaller than the average house built today, because quality is so much more important (and as the last few days have proved, more comfortable) than quantity.

If you are building a house, PLEASE don't add another badly designed house for this climate to the housing stock. Unsuitable houses will be here way beyond you.

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