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How not to fry: Keeping cool without air conditioning

The northeast is having its first heatwave of the year, and I thought it was a good time to re-run a piece I wrote about what to do in extreme heat if you don't have air conditioning. Because we all know what heatwaves mean - not just physical stress, health crises and unnecessary deaths from heat, but also blackouts and brownouts as everyone charges up their a/c. So what do you do when the power is out and the heat is on? These suggestions include, I think, the most important strategy - be aware of other people.

There are a lot of parallels between dealing with extreme heat and extreme cold in a difficult situation. The first and most important one is understanding the likely victims of each crisis. The most likely victims are people in extremely hot places (duh), often extremely hot places that haven't been that hot - for example, during heat waves there are often more victims in Chicago than Houston. Why? Because people who live in Houston are both physiologically and pragmatically better prepared for hot weather, becuase they have hot weather more often. Now global warming means that people in hot places are likely to see more extreme heat, and thus bear the brunt of the weather, but it also means that those of us in cooler places need to know this stuff too - since we're probably not as well prepared.

And the most likely victims of heat related illness and death are people who are already vulnerable, without a lot of community and social supports, whether we are talking about heat or cold. In fact, most of the people who die are elderly, disabled or ill, and they live ALONE - it might actually be more accurate to say they die, not from heat or cold, but from isolation and lack of support. So as we talk about life without power in a heat wave, start thinking about your community and neighborhood. Are there people who are potential victims? Well, now would be the time to get to know them, start checking on them occasionally, build a relationship so that no one in your neighborhood dies from lack of other people's support. If you think of heat and cold related deaths as caused by isolation, at least as much as temperature, then we find ourselves having some responsibility to keep one another alive. This is, I think, important.

Anyone who has trouble perceiving their body temperature or changes will have difficulty handling extreme heat. For example, Eric's grandfather, in his 90s, felt cold pretty much all the time. It took some persuasion to get him to drink sufficiently and give up his wool sweater on the hottest days - and without this small, simple, easy, low tech attention, he could easily have been a victim. Children are vulnerable as well, because they don't necessarily know enough to stop running around - parents need to keep an eye on this. Anyone with respiratory illnesses is also vulnerable - keep a close eye on kids and adults with asthma or other related health problems.

How do we keep cool? Let's begin from internal systems outwards, in opposition to the traditional model, that suggests that you should heat or cool a whole house.

Just as it is possible to live without heat if you have sufficient food to keep you warm, it is possible to live without cooling in the worst hot weather for most people, but not without WATER. Without water, you will die - and a lot faster in hot weather than in cold. Add to the fact that the most likely times to experience widespread power outages that affect water availability, or heavy storm backlash that contaminates water in warm times, and you have a recipe for being in a very hot period, often having to do strenuous things to adapt, with no water. This is very bad. This is why you should store water, have a good filter system and work with your community to have back up water systems - because dehydration kills, and most heat mitigation strategies involve water.

Storing water is very simple - water will keep 2 months with no additives (you have to change it every couple of months) on old soda bottles, and you can use what comes out of your tap. There really is no excuse for not having some water on hand - all of us can do this. and best do it before you need it. If you have a freezer and any space in it, your freezer will run more efficiently if you fill it all the way up - so you can fill old bottles with water (leave room for the water to expand as it freezes) and store your water here, with the added benefit that your water will then be cold as it defrosts.

How do you know if you are drinking enough? Well, if it is really hot, you should pretty much always have water around. If you are working hard in hot weather, you should be drinking pretty constantly - and some of what you drink (assuming you aren't eating things that fit this) should have a little bit of sugar or fruit juice in it. The website has information in making rehydration syrups and also what the best things to drink when you are dehydrated are. This is something everyone needs to know this, not just people in hot places, since dehydration is also common when you are ill - but don't get dehydrated to begin with if at all possible. You urine should be light colored, not dark. If it is dark, get drinking.

Make sure that babies nurse often - yes, nursing in the heat sucks, sweaty body against sweaty body, but don't let your child go too long without nursing in really hot weather. And nurse if at all possible - in a crisis, if safe water isn't available, breast milk can save lives!

Ok, dress for the weather. There are essentially two theories of how to dress for hot weather. The first is to wear something roughly like the Indian selvar kemise - loose fitting, light colored cotton clothing that covers your whole body, keeps the sun off you and allows you to breathe. Add a natural fiber hat that also breathes (remember, covering your head will keep in heat if it doesn't), and you are well set. The other possibility is "as little as possible" - this will depend also on where you live and how much time you spend in the sun and a host of other factors. I personally think the former has a lot of advantages, but there are many people who prefer the latter.

Ok, once you are dressed, how to deal with the heat - again, we come back to lots and lots of water. If you don't have to sit in a board meeting, you might be able to sit in a pool - even a kiddie pool can do a lot. If you don't have that much water, how about a pan of water to put your feet in? Soak a bandana and put it over your head, or around your neck. Take a shower. Or if the power isn't on or you can't, fill a bucket and pour it over your head or dip it over. Sponge bathe.

Get outside in the shade - and if you don't have shade, make some, both in and out of your house. If you live somewhere hot, you need trees, lots of them. Plant trees that will shade your house and minimize your cooling costs and need for air conditioning (and to enable you to live without it). Vines can provide quick shade over your windows - you can plant them in containers and trellis them up over windows if you don't have dirt. The more green stuff around you, generally, the cooler you will be. Urban dwellers with flat roofs might look into green roofs, which help reduce heating and cooling costs.

Use awnings, blinds and shade screens to keep sun from warming the house. Open windows at night and close them during the day. If your heat is dry, hang wet laundry or sheets up in the house to reduce the temperature. Swamp coolers use less electricity than a/c. Just as insulation is the key to minimizing heat usage, it is also the key to cooling - just make sure you do it well and keep good air quality and ventilation in mind. Use common sense, and keep doors closed if one area gets more sun/heat than another.

Stay outside as much as you can, if outside has a breeze and the air quality isn't too horrible. Sleep there - this is what people did before air conditioning - they slept outside, if the house didn't cool down enough. City folks slept on balconies and even fire escapes (latter is not legal or safe and I'm not recommending it), others got out in their backyards. Certainly do all cooking outside, or if you must cook inside, cook everything that needs heating the night before or early in the morning and don't cook again. Part of our problem is that we are such an indoor people - both for acclimation and comfort, we need to recognize that life can be moved outside, to the porch, the yard, etc... when time requires.

Once, farm families had summer kitchens screened or outdoor cooking areas designed for dealing with summer and keeping the heat out of the house. A simple screen house could provide eating and sleeping shaded areas, while a nearby firepit, earth oven, grill or sun oven (and probably better yet a combination) provides food preparation. Others might move a wood cookstove outside, or get fancier with some permanent structure - the more summer you have, the more this might be wise - having a way to simply keep most activities outdoors seems to be a fairly basic strategy.

If you can, shift your work times - get up very early, stay up late, sleep or rest or work quietly during the hottest periods. Get a headlamp so you can do chores outside at night. Don't exercise much during the worst weather, if you can avoid it (many people have no choice).

What if the power comes on? For most people, air conditioning is a mixed blessing - as you become accustomed to heat, your body begins to adapt to it, to sweat more and handle the heat better. Air conditioning can provide a blessed relief, but too much time spent in air conditioning can also prevent your body from actually adapting to hot conditions, making you feel it more. And this gets people into the vicious circle of needing their a/c more and more - and then gets the whole of society into the vicious circle of brownouts, blackouts and more air pollution from the coal plants and dirty diesel backup generators. I realize there are places where this is not viable, but I encourage people who do not physically have to use air conditioning to avoid it whenever possible, and to air condition as small a space as they can tolerate.

Now we come to the fly in the ointment - air quality. While pure heat can be dealt with, there are many people who simply can't tolerate the air outside during the hottest weather. For those who are ill, or vulnerable to air quality (and while we vary in sensitivity, poor air quality affects everyone), and those who have to do strenuous stuff are screwed.

If there's power in your area, you can go to a/c shelters. If nothing else has power, your local hospital may, and might allow someone with severe health issues to sit in their lobby. If there is no a/c around, go near water - even a small lake will have slightly better air quality over it, as well as cooler temperatures. You can also soak a bandana, piece of muslin or cheesecloth and tie it over mouth and nose to reduce pollutants and cool the air into your lungs. For those who have to be working outside, move slowly, take it easy, and again, drink.

If you have a serious health problem that means that the air quality and temperatures in your area are intolerable to you during routine summer temperatures, you may have to think about relocation. The statement that no one needs to die from cold is not quite true for heat - that is, as long as we pollute air as heavily as we do, there are going to be people who suffer from that. If your life depends on adequate heat or cooling or air cleaning being provided by grid systems, I really don't like saying this, but you would be smart to seriously consider living in a place where you are not endangered - or less often endangered. Because fossil fuels may not be available, even if your life depends on it.

In the meantime, take it slow, keep cool, and enjoy the ripe things that love this weather!

Editorial Notes: Sharon is temporarily (perhaps permanently) back blogging at You can read about why here. -KS

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