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Thinking About Heating and Cooling Differently

Today’s posts will focus on heating and cooling and how to deal with these issues. If you live in the north, heating is probably a growing anxiety for you, because of the rapid rise in cost of nearly every method of heating. Oil prices are now effectively prohibitive for poor and working families - with 100 or 125 gallon minimum deliveries and no credit extended, many households that rely on heating oil (disproportionately in the Northeast) simply won’t be able to afford to heat their houses at all with conventional methods. Gas prices are expected to rise steadily, and besides the rising cost of electricity, there’s the question of whether heavy reliance on electric space heaters to replace other heating methods may actualy result in power outages, leaving even more people in the cold.

And if you live where summer temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees, and every summer seems hotter than the last you are probably deeply concerned about what happens as the price of electricity spikes and air conditioning becomes prohibitive - or is shut off. What do we do, short of abandon our homes?

I’m going to talk about strategies for both of these things - first of all, how not to die from heat or cold - how to live without any heating or cooling, even in very cold or hot places, and then also how to cool and heat your house using fewer fossil fuels, but before we go there, I want to talk about how we *think* about heating and cooling overall. Because that has at least as deep an effect on how we approach this as the actual method we use.

Now we all know that people have lived in very cold and very hot places in the world for most of human history, and most of them still have no central heating and no central air conditioning - and no one, not even the richest folks - had them until the last century or so. So any discussion of heating or cooling has to begin from the recognition that our sense that we “have to” have certain temperatures, barring a few medical conditions - is really cultural, not physiological. Human beings would not have survived in Northern climates, living in houses heated only by an open fire (and most of the heat goes up the fireplace) in uninsulated houses - or in more portable dwellings - for thousands of years if human beings couldn’t tolerate temperatures below 65 degrees inside.

I realize this probably won’t make me anyone’s best friend, but the truth is that except for the ill, very elderly and underweight, you can regulate your body temperature in a house that is in the 40s or 50s - you won’t like it, but you can live that way - in fact, you probably evolved to live that way. If you dress very warmly, in layers, and move around a lot and have enough blankets, you will be fine - period. If you have an infant, the best strategy is to keep them against your body all the time - and they will be just fine.

What is true is that people lived differently - they slept with another person, spent their days mostly together in the heated areas, or moving around and being active. They often slept a lot more in the winter, and spent a lot of time when they were not being active in bed.

The same is true of extremely high temperatures - while the world is manifestly warmer than it once was, it is also true that human beings have lived in very, very hot places for much of human history, and mostly lived. But again, they lived differently - activity ceased in the heat of the day, life moved more into the night times, people spent more time in and near water - for example, in some parts of Southeast Asia, a shower (a bucket with holes in it) is a basic part of hospitality.

It is true that most of us are physiologically better adapted to one kind of temperature than another - if you are from a hot place and move to a cold one, you will feel the cold more, and vice versa. People raised in warm places actually do have more sweat glands, for example, than people from cold climates. That said, however, our bodies also can adapt individually - someone who spends a lot of time working outdoors in a hot climate will build sweat glands, and someone who doesn’t over heat their house and goes out will acclimate to colder and colder temperatures. The process of acclimation and adapting our lives is probably the most basic thing we can do to deal with heat and cold - and up until now, we’ve been using tools (central heating and cooling) that prevent acclimation - that is, we spend half our day in air conditioning, so our bodies don’t adapt to the heat. Everyone who has ever worked outside on a bitterly cold day knows how *hot* even a lightly heated house feels when you go in. This is acclimation, and we have to use it more than we have.

Now the odds are good our bosses probably won’t let us start siestaing, or give us the winter off to hibernate, and that we can’t totally change our lives to adapt to temperature. But we can change our lives, and our ways of thinking to adapt to the weather, and we can work on acclimation.

One of the things that shifts in an era of cheap energy is the relationship we have to the idea of central heating or cooling. When energy is cheap and widely available and perceived as having no major environmental consequences, we can afford to keep the whole house at a comfortable temperature - and central heating and cooling seem to have the advantage. When costs go up and impact matters, central heating and cooling don’t work very well - the temperature your house is at goes up above what is comfortable or down below it, and localized heat or cooling starts to have the advantage.

Why? Well, we tend to think of heating or cooling as “keeping the house” at some temperature, but localized heating or cooling simply doesn’t work that way - over by my woodstove, there’s a spot that is often nearly 80 degrees - it feels great if I’ve been sitting at the computer in my 49 degree office, but far too hot to sit there all the time. Out a bit further away, is an optimal temperature, and that’s where everyone will read or hang out. Further still, it gets cooler, and the sleeping spaces (where we are warmed by heavy blankets and body heat) are the coolest of all). Elderly people, or those who have been ill, or new babies can have the spot next to the fire, and be warm. Those who need it less can have periods of comfort for quiet work, and less heat when they are up and moving. And the same is true of cooling - if you need air conditioning, localizing it to the most urgent spot - perhaps the bedroom or living room- gives you comfortable sleep or a place to congregate and do your work. This is less costly than trying to cool a whole house, but it also gets you adequate cooling in a localized space. If you don’t use a/c, perhaps moving your bedroom to the shady north side of the house where the cross breeze comes, putting your mattress on the floor for summer, or sleeping outside (which is what people used to do) will be sufficient.

The most localized heating and cooling of all is the heating or cooling of your body - this could be as simple as dressing warmly, wearing a hat indoors, holding a cup of tea or coffee or even hot water, using a hot water bottle in bed or on the back of your chair, and putting your feet on a hot brick or other heated substance. As I’ve mentioned, my office last year hovered in the high 40s, and I wrote a book that way, rather cozily, actually, with my fingerless gloves, my tea, my hot bricks and a bathrobe over my clothes. For cooling, soaking a bandana or freezing it and putting it under your hat or over your hair, drinking copiously and sticking your feet in cool water are good strategies - it isn’t always necessary to cool your environment, just your body.

Heating and cooling are going to be serious strains on our society - we may first experience an “energy crisis” in a real sense this winter or in a coming one. We’re going to have change our way of thinking - to start from acclimatization, and localized heat sources, rather than begin from the assumption that we all must live in 68 degrees.

For further posts see:
How not to freeze: life without heat
Heating & insulation options

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