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Are you an air conditioning holdout?

Genevieve Jacobs 18 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?
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9:23 pm 18 Jan 19

I haven't used the AC in years. Just rest indoors, drink water and use ice packs when it gets really hot. Though a lot of people think I'm crazy, I don't really notice heat too much.

9:25 pm 18 Jan 19

Bugger that, it’s the 21st century and I’m not a homeless kid in Queensland any more.

Aircon all summer and heat whenever I want!

9:31 pm 18 Jan 19

Controlled airflow the time of day airflow...and zooper doopers!

9:44 pm 18 Jan 19

Well designed houses would be a great start

9:49 pm 18 Jan 19

We don’t have any aircon, just use fans. Even when we lived in Darwin we barely used the aircon. Both houses are on big blocks with lots of vegetation and good airflow. Makes a big difference. That and coming to terms with the temperature and trying to adapt lifestyle to cope with it. Curtains are closed during the day, windows opened when the air outside cools down.

9:52 pm 18 Jan 19

We don’t have aircon, I soak sarongs and muslin wraps in cold water and lay them over the kids at night with the ceiling fans on it’s better than nothing 😅

10:08 pm 18 Jan 19

I sweltered through far too many hot summers a before I was able to get an air conditioner (albeit a portable one in the lounge room only) and I'm not giving it up on hot days unless there's no choice. I could do without a heater in winter more easily than without an air conditioner in this weather.

10:13 pm 18 Jan 19

A few decades ago we weren’t having consecutive days of high 30’s low 40’s so we didn’t need artificial cooling

10:18 pm 18 Jan 19

No. Not since my heart attack as I cannot tolerate heat + humidity. I've had heatstroke once and I don't want it again, it was frightening.

10:22 pm 18 Jan 19

We build some pretty poorly designed homes for our hot Summer and freezing winter.

The crazy thing is most of the design elements that will reduce the need for heating or cooling are very low cost to implement when designing / building.

    6:10 am 19 Jan 19

    Chris I would love a straw bale home... maybe one-day

    6:03 am 23 Jan 19

    Building for the masses these days is about including features that will look attractive to buyers who generally aren’t too well educated about what makes a good house.

    Save money in the building up front and let the buyers spend money after purchase to make up for shortcomings.

    Cavity brick is comparatively expensive, for example. It provides not just good insulation but a solid thermal mass. My house was built in 1927 and with a bit of energy management along the lines described by Julie Macklin above, it works well. Summer and winter.

    Generally speaking, the daily minimum in summer and the maximum in winter are reasonably comfortable temperatures. For example, the current outside temp is 21°, and I have every door and window in the house open. As soon as the outside temp rises above the inside, I’ll close everything up, drop down the honeycomb blinds, draw the curtains. I’ll be able to keep the house cool all day, and open it up again about ten at night.

    And the reverse in winter, when I’ll do my best to get the house up to the maximum during the day.

    What kills this strategy is a series of 40° days, which turns the brick house into a pizza oven that can’t shed all the day's heat in one night.

    Nowadays, they will build and sell dwellings with thin walls, lots of glass, and light gauzy curtains. The inside and outside temps don’t differ by more than a few degrees, and you have to use heating and aircon to make it comfortable.

    Something which would really help here is a basement. Go down three metres, the temperature of the earth is 23°, regardless of season. But how many Canberra homes drop below ground level?

10:57 pm 18 Jan 19

Best part is my landlord bought a whole bunch of heating insulation... Then forgotten about when it gets warm. Well we're hot boxing here!

11:13 pm 18 Jan 19

Until a few decades ago, we didnt have such prolonged high temps especially at night.

    2:45 pm 19 Jan 19

    Tony Morris facts can be annoying I know but if you read the data it will back up what I wrote.

    6:06 am 23 Jan 19

    Amanda Evans Do you have a source? Not gainsaying you, but just wondering what informs your statement.

11:31 pm 18 Jan 19

No air-con, only ceiling fans. We have a well insulated house, plus awnings and shade from trees even though our block is very small. Inside it didn't go over 29 degrees.

11:41 pm 18 Jan 19

Kimberley who do you think this is ?

    9:28 am 19 Jan 19

    Carl Sharp you must have wrote this article 😂 so your accpeting the challenge aswell not to put it on in your room too.😁👍 #sweatyatitsoff

6:25 am 19 Jan 19

I refuse to get air conditioning and miss out on summer!

7:42 am 19 Jan 19

fk the challenge,,, i have no prob spending my cash to keep cool

    10:17 am 19 Jan 19

    Guy Noble this issue gets u jacked up😂😂😂

    10:32 am 19 Jan 19

    lol dont go around tellin people how to spend there money.if they want to come over and fan me and feed me grapes,, they can :-) but i aint gonna be hot lol

7:44 am 19 Jan 19

A few decades ago house blocks were big enough to place a house in the correct orientation. Now your hotondo home with windows that don’t open faces the street no matter the orientation 😂

8:43 am 19 Jan 19

So the premise is choose the right house? That doesn't help many people, particularly the less well-off. General advice: for specific help check out the ACT Environment Centre website.

8:53 am 19 Jan 19

I live in one of the govvies built in the 60s

It is at least 2 degrees hotter inside in summer and 2 degrees colder in winter

Last winter, it cost me $1600 for heating

I want to move but the market is dreadful

10:06 am 19 Jan 19

Ive lived in a home which was well positioned & passive solar etc appreciated the difference that makes. However, now I live in town in a townhouse where little thought was given to environmental issues in the construction. Due to circumstances beyond our control a lot of people can't enjoy environmentally sensitive housing or retrofit things like double glazing..which is expensive. I'd like to see some legislation around the construction of homes with these issues in mind.

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