Tips & tricks for keeping your home (and you) cool and efficient

Nina Winham

Summer is coming! We're catching some rays, getting into our favourite outdoor pursuits, and… phew… some days, wishing it was a bit cooler.

Depending on where you live in the province (and what kind of weather Mother Nature dishes up this year), keeping cool during the summer can be a challenge.

When you’re hot and bothered, it's tempting to flick on an air conditioner and bask in the refrigerated flow. Or, if you don’t have AC, heat-induced impatience may send you to the nearest big box to pick up a quick remedy — a self-installed window model that may be noisy and inefficient (ever hear of a “window-shaker”?) but at least takes the edge off the heat.

Trouble is, these remedies gobble energy — and worse, they rob you of the very thing we cherish about summer: breaking free from the housebound mentality of winter. Who wants to sit entombed in a sealed room with artificially processed air when we’ve done that for months already?

So this year, get strategic about getting cool. It may take a little patience and a bit of planning, but you’ll reap the benefits of keeping your power bill down, your "green" efforts headed in the right direction, and getting the most out of the short lovely season of summer. Here are some ideas — large and small — for keeping your cool.

How heat-proof is your home?

“The best way to keep your home cool,” says Greg Morandini, a Power Smart engineer at BC Hydro, “is to keep the heat out in the first place.”

Greg suggests painting your house a light colour and planting deciduous shade trees on the south and west sides to keep sun off. (Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the winter, conveniently letting the sun reach your house during the months when you do want its warmth.)

Planting vines that trap a blanket of cool air against your house helps too — consider fruiting or flowering plants to add a real dash of summer.

If you need a quicker fix than trees or vines can provide, shade your windows with awnings or bamboo screens outdoors, or curtains indoors. It's also a great time to get around to a task you may have ignored all winter — draftproofing your home. Heat creeps in through uninsulated cracks and crannies the same way it creeps out during the winter, so reducing the leaks helps keep you cool.

If you're thinking of major renos, make sure you install ENERGY STAR windows — they have a variety of features that help reduce heat exchange in both seasons. And a light coloured roof and good insulation to reduce the impact of the sun’s rays on your indoor temperature.

Use stove, bathroom fans to vent warm air outside; use ceiling fans to improve air flow 

“Once you’ve blocked the heat before it gets in, then the things you need to do inside have much smaller energy requirements [than air conditioning],” says Morandini.

He’s a fan of… well, fans. And not the big jobs that sit in the middle of the floor (though any moving air is a great way to both be cooler and feel cooler — we perceive less heat when the air is in motion.) Greg says the next strategic step is to draw warm air out of your house, particularly at the end of day when it’s cooling down outside. And you probably already have the equipment in place — in your bathroom and kitchen.

“I use the exhaust fan on my stove to vent warm air,” he says. “I open the sliding doors in the living area a few inches and the stove fan draws evening air from outdoors through the house and cools it.” He recommends installing ventilation fans that are ENERGY STAR certified  — they use less energy and they’re quieter than others.

Venting from an upstairs bathroom can be especially effective, since hot air rises. Ceiling fans are a great way to improve air flow. And consider running your furnace fan on low all summer — it pulls cool air from lower areas of the house and recycles it to upstairs rooms.

Limit inside cooking on hot days

One of the best ways to reduce heat in your home is to not generate it in the first place. So this is the time to experiment with changes in the most heat-intensive activity: cooking.

Cook foods in the evening or early morning and serve them chilled mid-day. Take the heat outdoors by barbecuing (in the shade, of course!) Or best of all: try a solar oven. These are cookers that use concentrated sunlight to cook your food — no heat in the house, and no charge for the energy! There are a variety of types to buy, or you can get creative and make one yourself.

Other ways to reduce heat in your home include cutting down on unnecessary lighting, turning off computer and television equipment, and avoiding running the dishwasher and dryer during the heat of day. Change to compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) instead of incandescents — they use less power and release less heat. And hang your clothes on the clothesline to keep cool and smell fresh.

Keep your body cooler

You can get wily about keeping cool in all sorts of creative ways — without air conditioning. Avoid the need to rush around at mid-day, and otherwise “act cool”. 

Shift your activities to lower floors in your house where it’s not as hot. Use a hand fan, eat spicy food (hot spices give you a cooling sweat), use peppermint lotion or try “heat snorkeling”  (honest, we didn't make that up).

Keep frozen watermelon and blueberries in the freezer for snacks. And if all else fails, draw the blinds and take an air bath (yes, that means dropping your duds and going natural).

Use air conditioning wisely

If you really need to use a little AC, make sure you keep it as energy-efficient as possible. Use an ENERGY STAR air conditioner and help it do its work well. Tips for air conditioning efficiency include:

  • Locate heat-producing equipment, such as computers or TVs, away from the AC so it is not running overtime;
  • Keep doors and windows closed so the air conditioner is not inundated with outdoor heat;
  • Keep air conditioner vents and fans clean so they don’t impede the flow of air.

Finally, one of the best ways to stay cool is to just… stay cool.

“Air conditioners take heat out of the environment and put it somewhere else. But moving heat takes a lot of energy,” says Morandini. “People want instant gratification, they want a bandaid solution to get rid of heat. But if you think about how to make yourself comfortable across the entire system of your home, you can achieve the same benefits — and save a lot of power. It’s cool, in more ways than one.”

Nina Winham is a Vancouver-based writer and sustainability consultant.

Source: BC Hydro News