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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?
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.

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.”

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.

Bryan Bryan 3:24 pm 20 Jan 19

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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*

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