Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July Frugal Action Item: Stay Cool Without Touching That Thermostat

Time for another monthly Frugal Action Item. I realize it's a little late in the year to address cooling issues for some of you out there. But here in the northeastern US, so far we've had a rather cool spring and early summer. Herewith are my suggestions for beating the heat on the cheap.

Get used to it. Slowly. Your body is designed to operate in a wide range of temperatures. It has multiple strategies for cooling itself down. But after a long winter of trying to keep you warm, it needs a little time to dust off the cooling system and get it running again like a finely tuned motor. Seriously. The adjustment takes about two or three weeks, and during that time you will be a little uncomfortable sometimes. The rest of the suggestions here will help. But if you give your body that time without confusing it by hanging around in AC all day, it will make the adjustment. Your blood vessels will distribute your body heat closer to the surface for better cooling. And your sweat glands will work more effectively. Eric Brende reports on this phenomenon in his book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.

Lose weight This is a perfect example of the anyway principle. If you're carrying around an extra 25 pounds, you know you should shed it for so many different reasons. Keeping cool ranks around #14 on the list of reasons to lose weight. But it will help you feel cooler, as I know from personal experience. Fatty tissue holds in body heat. Your body will be better able to cool itself when there's less insulation.

Cooling herbs and foods Don't discount the old-time wisdom of drinking mint tea or other cooling beverages. Many herbs and foods have long been held to cool the body. Cucumber and watermelon are famously cooling. There are many tasty and safe herbs that help cool our bodies. Mint, lemon, oats, and pomegranate are considered refrigerant plants. Okra, garlic and oregano are diaphoretic, meaning that they promote perspiration. Chamomile and sage are vasodilators, meaning they help your blood vessels widen. This both lowers blood pressure and facilitates cooling. Try adding some of these to your diet in the summer months.

Cool drinks A glass of ice water costs almost nothing, and can cool you down more effectively than just about anything, short of submerging yourself in cool water. Consciously schedule cold drinks into your daily routine. If you work outside in hot weather you should have a cool drink anytime you feel thirsty, or at least once every hour. Even if you don't do physical labor, you could trade up your morning dose of caffeine for a cold version: iced coffee or iced tea. Sun tea is particularly cheap to make, and once brewed can hang out in the fridge for a few days as you drink it down. No fussing with brewing it every single morning. Same goes with regular tap water. Keep some in the fridge so you don't need to run the tap until the water gets cold. However, beware water intoxication - the overloading of your body with far too much water. This can be fatal. Make sure some of your beverages include some electrolytes, and use common sense, and you'll be fine.

Ceiling fans go a long way to making you feel cooler than the air temperature would suggest. You can run a ceiling fan all day and not use up the same amount of electricity as you would running an air conditioner for one hour. If your fan has a switch to change the direction of the spin, be sure it's set to turn counterclockwise as you look up at it during the summer months. The clockwise spin forces warmer air downward, and so is intended for the winter season.

Put your feet in a basin of cold water. If you don't have your own pool and you don't want to pay for the privilege of using one, you can still cool off by submersion. A basin of water just big enough to fit your feet in will provide a surprising amount of cooling power. I've been told that this method can actually prevent heat stroke for those who lose power during a heat wave, though I haven't seen any formal studies on this claim. I have tried it myself and been very impressed by how much cooler I feel just by soaking my feet. Of course, if your neighbors have a pool and offer to let you use it, dive right in.

Get a summer haircut. You know you can lose a great deal of heat through your head, which is why your mother always told you to wear a hat during the winter. If you've worn your hair long for many years, even if you usually wear it up, you may be stunned at how much cooler a short haircut can be. Even if you typically save by cutting your own hair in a simple style, one short professional cut in late spring will probably let you slide well into late summer if you plan to just grow it out for winter. Guys, for you, buzz cuts are the way to go, and you can save by doing them at home.

Wear as little as possible.
If you're in the privacy of your own home, you can pretty much do whatever feels comfortable. Tank tops are my sartorial choice when at home in hot weather. Many women also swear by skirts made of light fabrics - cooler than any sort of pants or shorts, and these can be worn outside the home almost anywhere.

Hit the library for some free AC.
You pay for it through your taxes, so you might as well take advantage. If you're letting your body adapt to warmer temperatures though, be aware that this may set back any adjustment it's already made. You can let your body handle the early days of summer, and save the library for an hour or two during the most scorching days.

Sleep as low as possible. If you have a multilevel home, sleep downstairs if you can. The lower rooms of the house are naturally cooler, since hot air rises. Sleeping on an air mattress on the floor will also help a little bit if you have only one floor. An air mattress holds less of your body heat close to you than a conventional mattress will. So if you've got one of these for guests, consider breaking it out when the hottest weather strikes. If you cool your house for more than a couple of months per year, you might even break even on the purchase of a new air mattress the first year, providing you really do run the AC less often.

Install an attic fan. This is one of the most cost effective house cooling measures out there. Attic spaces can easily reach above 100 F on a day that is sunny but merely warmish. Removing that hot layer above the living space will dramatically lower the cooling needs for the rest of the house.

Cook outside, or not at all. Summer is a great time for salads and lighter fare that needs little or no cooking. So steer clear of the boiling vats of water for pasta dishes, or an hour-long oven run for casseroles. Raw foods won't heat you up, nor the house. When you want a cooked meal, think about what you can do with a grill or a solar oven. It may take a little planning to cook this way if you're not accustomed to it. But if you make it a habit, it'll become as routine as anything else in your life. Remember that grilling doesn't necessarily mean a plate full of meat. Eggplant, peppers, asparagus, summer squash, large mushroom caps, and corn on the cob all make fantastic grilled fare. If you have an outdoor electrical outlet on the porch, you can plug in a crockpot or a rice steamer outside. Or you could run an extension cord outside if there is no outdoor outlet. No sense in heating up your kitchen if you don't have to.

Unless you're in the southern hemisphere, there's really no Alternative Action Item this month. Wrong season for you? Check out Staying Warm with the Thermostat Set Low, which in many ways is a mirror post to this one. If you're in the midst of summer and all of these suggestions are already old hat to you, then your Alternative Action Item is to add a new cooling tip in the comments!

Stay cool, everyone.

New to these Frugal Action Items? More here:

January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
March: Rein In Entertainment Spending
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
June: Increase the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden


Tracy said...

Great post! :)

Chile said...

Getting your hair wet is also a way to cool off, especially if you are running the ceiling fans. I was miserably hot most of yesterday - house was 81 degrees and the weather was humid. I had to pull laundry off the line when it started to rain and got pretty soaked. Suddenly the house felt much cooler even though it was still 80 degrees inside.

Katie T said...

We don't have central AC, but I have to admit with the weather creeping up near 110 (and over 100 in the house) the last few days we've been turning on our window unit occasionally.

80-95ish I can handle perfectly fine without outside assistance, but over 100... It's tough.

Anonymous said...

Only one quibble - buzz cuts are not appropriate for anyone, anywhere, for any reason. I'll allow the military some latitude here since they won't listen to me anyway.

Karen said...

I wish I could test that theory of gradually working into using the a/c - it would work at home, but I work in an office and in the summer the a/c is on super high and I am always putting on a sweater.

Michelle @ Find Your Balance said...

Great ideas! Funny, it's still cold in Boston but I don't mind bc the AC bills are low. I noticed that when I cleaned up my diet I was better able to handle the heat anyway. Less meat, fewer processed foods, more veggies!

Kate said...

Tracy, thanks.

Chili, that's an excellent point. I meant to include swabbing down with a damp washcloth, but it was time to get this post out. So thank you for adding it.

Katie, over 100 in the house would be mighty difficult for me. We don't generally see those sorts of temperatures where I live. High 80s to high 90s happen regularly, but not for too many days in a row, and only for a few months of the year.

Anon, thanks for sharing your opinion.

Karen, yes, that's a problem for many people. Business places seem to think they're obligated to keep the temperature at refrigerator levels in the summer.

Michelle, I'm in the same boat. I don't mind the cooler temps this year as it's allowed me to go without turning on the AC at all so far. But my heat-loving garden plants are going to suffer without some really scorching days.

foodcreate said...

Thanks YOU / for the Tip!

Great posting!

Join and become part of our growing food cummunity!

Have a wonderful Day!

Steve said...

Here in Central CA we use a whole house fan. It is basically a big, very big, attic fan. In the evening when the outside temperature is lower than the inside temp you close most of your windows and turn on the fan. The fan pulls in the cooler air and pushes it into the attic and pushes the hot attic air out through vents. We run ours all night, though I have friends that wired theirs to a thermostat that turns off the fan in the middle of the night.

The effect is two-fold. Cool air comes into the house and the hot attic air is removed. The physical structure of the house is allowed to cool. We have a wood framed and sided house and on the days we don't run the fan the house is warmer in the morning.

A negative is the sound. It does give you the feeling of being in a wind tunnel. You need to put the fan away from bedrooms or other often used areas because of the noise. Our small house has the fan in the kitchen. Others have them in closets and other out of the way places. They have to prop the doors open as the fan will close doors with its power.

Sorry for the long lead up, but I never hear of East Coast talk of this type of fan. Is it unpractical for a reason I don't know?

Kate said...

Steve, I'm not sure why whole house fans aren't as popular here in the east as they seem to be out west. Could just be another instance of local variation, just as homes in the northeast typically have basements and oil heating, while these features are rare elsewhere. Attic fans are pretty well known here though. Sorry I can't be of more help.