Friday, July 19, 2013

We're havin' a heat wave

As you've no doubt heard, New Jersey is now entering day five of a prolonged heat wave. The various news outlets have spent a lot of time explaining that what makes a heat wave dangerous isn't the daytime temperatures, which, at least in our area, haven't actually topped 100. Rather, it's the fact that the heat doesn't let up much at night, so people never really get the chance to recover from the sweltering temperatures of the day. And the longer the heat wave goes on, the earlier the mercury starts to soar in the morning and the less it drops at night.

The heat wave is expected to break some time tomorrow, but until then, experts are advising people to stay indoors as much as possible—in air conditioning, if it's available. However, we don't have central AC at our house, just a couple of room-sized units: one in the living room and one in the window of my office. And being ecofrugal types, we try to use them as little as possible. So I've found myself looking on this heat wave as a challenge: to keep myself as cool as possible, as long as possible, without switching on the AC.

For the first few days, it wasn't too bad. The outdoor temperatures were peaking between 93 and 96 each day, but in our house, it didn't rise above 90 for most of the day, and I can manage to stay comfortable at that temperature while seated at my desk with a small fan trained on me. By 5pm the temperature might creep up past 90, but by that time it was usually cooler outdoors, so as soon as Brian got home from work he'd open up the windows, set up our big fan in the kitchen, and start blowing all the hot air out of the house. Even if it wasn't much cooler outside, the air movement made it feel cooler, and as the temperature dropped outdoors it would drop indoors as well. During meals we'd keep the ceiling fan going in the kitchen, and at night we'd use two fans in the bedroom: a window fan to draw in cooler air from outdoors and a table fan pointed at the bed to keep airflow going around our bodies. This is pretty much our usual routine during summer weather, and for the first part of this week it worked fine.

By Wednesday night, however, our usual remedies were starting to lose their effectiveness. Even with the range hood running, the kitchen got so hot from cooking dinner that we ended up taking our food downstairs to the basement living/dining room, which stays about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house, to eat it. By Thursday, I found that my little desk fan wasn't really keeping me cool even on the high setting. So I tried getting creative. Mr. Electricity's tips on cutting summer cooling costs mention the use of cold packs, so I started exploring the reviews on and found a product called the "Chill-Its Cooling Towel," which you soak in cold water and drape around your neck. Although many reviews described it as "amazing," one of the most detailed reviews noted that it didn't really work any better than an ordinary T-shirt used the same way. So I simply soaked one of our floursack towels, normally used for drying dishes, in cold water and wore it like a scarf. This, combined with the fan, managed to keep me at a tolerable temperature for most of the day. However, by 5pm the indoor temperature had climbed to 93, and I actually did relent at that point and switch on the office AC for a little while before dinner—which we ate downstairs again.

When we returned from our weekly dance practice on Thursday night, the temperature in the house was still close to 90. Even with the big fan going, we weren't able to drop it below the mid-80s by bedtime, and as soon as we lay down it became apparent that even our two-fan combo wasn't going to be enough to keep us cool. So we moved downstairs again to sleep on the futon in the living area. It was definitely cooler down there than upstairs, and we brought the table fan with us to help cool us, but we still didn't really manage to sleep comfortably. We also opened up the downstairs windows to try and get airflow going through the cooler basement and up into the main part of the house—but it was still 85 degrees upstairs by the time we got up this morning, and the downstairs didn't feel much cooler.

It's now a little after 10am, and the temperature is 91 degrees outside and 88 on the main floor of our house. Right now I'm feeling tolerably comfortable with the combination of my desk fan and my water-soaked towel (which I stuck in the fridge overnight to add a bit of extra chill), but I'm not sure how long I'll manage to stay that way. The temperature is expected to rise to 95 today, so if it only stays 3 degrees cooler indoors than it is outdoors, it should get up to around 92 in here. Retreating down to the basement, for the first time ever, doesn't seem to bring much relief; although the old-fashioned thermostat we've got down there claims that the temperature is below 80, it feels barely cooler down there than it does up here. And the rest of Mr. Electricity's list of tips hasn't given me any new, brilliant ideas. (I'd already tried his idea of wearing a wrung-out shirt while working on the patio project, and I found that while it may work great for him in Texas, in the New Jersey humidity it didn't help at all. No matter how thoroughly I wrung it out, it still clung to my body and impeded airflow.)

So I may in fact end up having to use air conditioning at some point today; indeed, we might even have to move in here tonight to sleep with it. Sure, I realize that turning on the air conditioner for one day in July, on the fifth day of a heat wave, when the temperature is over 90 indoors, isn't really enough to destroy my ecofrugal cred—but I can't deny feeling a bit disappointed all the same. Given that humans survived without air conditioning for thousands of years, it seems like there must be some way to stay tolerably cool without it, if I were only clever enough to think of it.

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