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How to Beat the Heat — and Stay Green

Smart, serious and delicious ways to keep your place (and yourself) cool and green in the summer.

How to Beat the Heat — and Stay Green How to Beat the Heat — and Stay Green

How do you get through the hot weather?

“Drink lots of water.”

“Central air conditioning!”

“Move v-e-r-y slowly.”

“I have thick thermal curtains that really work – it’s dark but it’s cool.”

“Lie still under a ceiling fan.”

 “We go to the movies.”

[Responses of members of a water aerobics class who were cooling off at the Flaherty pool.]

It has already been hot, and the dog days of August are still to come. And the climatologists say that we are heading toward summers with 30 to 60 days with temperatures over 90. That’s a different kind of summer, and we need to think ahead about how to live with it, especially if we are trying to live green. This month’s column has ideas about how we can make our lives more comfortable in as sustainable a manner as we can. And there is a recipe that will bring a cool and delicious moment to your summer.

  • Be proactive; keep the heat from getting into your house.   

You can plant trees so that your house is shaded in summer but gets sun in the winter when the leaves fall off (while you are waiting for the trees to get big enough, you  could  plant vines on a trellis to shade your house). It’s hard to beat the cooling effects of shade.

Insulate your attic. (Yup, the same thing you are supposed to do to keep your house warm in the winter.) If you call MassSave at 1-866-527-7283 for a free Home Energy Assessment, the folks who look at your home can outline what steps you need to take for better insulation and other energy-saving moves.  

Work with your windows so that they keep out the heat. Windows can be double-glazed to reduce the movement of heat into or out of your home – which will also help in the winter, when you don’t want the heat to move out!   Or windows can be tinted to reduce heat (not light). Some folks recommend using wallpaper to block skylights during the summer – it can be installed with painter’s tape so that it can be uninstalled come fall.

For insulation, you can hang multiple layers of shades/curtains at the windows (to create a dead air layer), or install wooden shutters (wood absorbs heat), hang a bright white roller shade behind the curtains -- next to the window (bright white to maximize reflection of light/heat), or line your drapes with a thermal fabric.

Another way to insulate against the heat (or the cold) is possible if you have a well-supported flat roof: you can plant a green roof to absorb the solar energy. (This is not a roof garden; it is a low layer of growing stuff that insulates the house.)

Asphalt paving around a house can produce a surprising amount of heat – continuing to radiate heat absorbed during the day even after the sun goes down – so removing it or planting trees to shade it can really help.

Ah, trees! Trees do really good things in hot weather; they can turn solar energy into cool air by means of evapotranspiration. More trees in your neighborhood not only add real estate value, they reduce the urban heat island effect (the fact that cities get warmer and stay much warmer than non-city areas) and make your part of the city more livable. You can request the city of Boston to plant street trees in your neighborhood (but once they are planted, you will need to be responsible about taking care of them).

You can cool the area right around your living space by wetting it down – hosing your deck or porch, watering the plants right under your windows, spraying water on the bricks of your patio or walls. This is especially useful when the sun goes down and you open your windows and use window fans to blow cool air in.  

A long-term suggestion might be to consider the color of the house; dark colors absorb more heat while white or light colors reflect heat.

  • Use fans in your home to create a cooling breeze.

Fans can make you feel comfortable by moving the air on your skin even if that air is still warm. Even if you have air conditioning, the air circulation provided by fans can make it possible to adjust the AC thermostat to a less cold (less energy intensive, less expensive) temperature.

Fans cool you, not the room, so there is no point in leaving a fan on when you leave the room.

JP’s older houses have high ceilings that are perfect for ceiling fans, the real secret to sleeping comfortably on hot nights. Using a ceiling fan in conjunction with an air conditioner allows you to set the airconditioner from 4 to 9 degrees F higher for the same cooling effect, allowing you to be cool using less energy.

  • If you have air conditioning, make sure you follow the three golden rules of AC: keep it clean and clear, program it sensibly, and turn it off when there is a break in the heat and humidity.

It really helps if your central air or window unit is shaded. However, make sure the air flow is not obstructed by shrubs, otherwise the machine can get overworked (and your energy bill can go up even further). Indoors, make sure there is nothing obstructing the flow of air and (if you have central air) that the cold air is not escaping through leaks in your air ducts.  Outdoor coils and indoor filters need to be checked and cleaned at least once a season. 

A Sierra Club website suggests setting the A/C at 80. Unless you are doing indoor calisthetics, you really don’t need to set it lower than 75. And think about it: how cold does your place need to be when you are not home (this is where programmable thermostats can be useful!).

  • Use heat-producing appliances with some care and planning.

Do the cooking for those delicious summer salads (potato salad, brown rice salad, bulgar salad, etc) the night before (or early in the morning) when the hot steam won’t bother anybody! If you have a dishwasher, turn it on before you go to bed, and let it heat up the night kitchen when no one is there to get sweaty.  (Some green folks like to turn the dishwasher off before it gets to the drying cycle, but that may work best in the winter, when you can open the dishwasher door and let more heat into the kitchen.)

Nighttime is also the right time for the clothes dryer. Or if you have the luxury of the outdoor space to string up a clothesline, take advantage of that free daytime heat to dry your clothes and give them the scent of fresh air.  

Your refrigerator motor produces a lot of heat. If you have a cat or some pet that sheds, clean off the refrigerator coils; the motor may run more efficiently and less often and produce less heat.

Use the microwave rather than the oven; the microwave heats the food rather than the air around it.

If someone in your house needs to have things ironed, tell him that wrinkles give things a soft, lived-in look.

Those old, pear-shaped incandescent light bulbs give off a lot of heat. Replace them with the curly energy-efficient CFL compact bulbs.

  • Keep your body cool – hey, that’s what you really care about!

Do use your refrigerator – no, not to just stand in front of with the door open, but to hold cold drinking water and water in a spritzer to mist your face and neck when you come in from outdoors, and to make refrigerator-brewed tea without heating up the kitchen, to chill lotions for your feet and ankles (oh my gosh, it feels so good!). Some people put their clean underwear in the fridge the night before; haven’t tried that yet.

Find your body’s quick cooling spots  – your neck (try a wet towel); just between your temple and your ear; your wrists and ankles; and the insides of your elbows, knees, thighs. Apply a wet towel or towel-wrapped ice. 

And if you have to wear a hat outside to keep off the sun, you probably already know that trick of putting some icy water in your hat and quickly inverting it on your head.

And, if you have been dripping sweat, you might want to add a pinch of salt to the tea or lemonade or whatever you’re drinking in the very hot weather.  I remember when I was the youngest in the family growing up on the farm and it was haying season.  Everyone else was out in the field tossing hay by the pitchfork load onto the slowly moving hay wagon, and it was my job to help my mother make the special haying-crew lemonade with a little salt in it and carry big containers of it clinking with ice out to the tall tree at the edge of the field. Nowadays I think they might call the salt in the lemonade a process of replacing lost electrolytes.

It goes without saying that during hot Boston summers you are eating as many no-cook foods as possible. There is a certain logic in the fact that watermelon is ripe in the summertime.  (My thin aunt always kept a bowl of pre-cut melon chunks in the refrigerator for easy snacking.)

Tepid baths and showers are just as refreshing as hot ones, and may leave you cooler (and will certainly leave your bathroom cooler).

You probably already know that hot weather clothes should be loose-fitting and preferably natural fibre (cotton, linen, silk, etc) and if you are spending time in the sun, light colored.

You need all the help you can get in the campaign to keep the house cool; the kids can become the energy police, turning off lights, the TV and computers, and also charging devices. Often the kids are the main culprits of the “stand there and look around in the refrigerator to see if there is something to eat,” with clouds of cold air billowing around them; if they are on the team, maybe it will reduce the refrigerator’s work.

If the kids are really committed to making a difference, you could introduce them to hanging out the laundry or washing the dishes. 

And the real secret to surviving the heat? Minted Melon Salad. It takes watermelon, cantaloupe, some coarse kosher salt or sea salt, slivers of pickled ginger, and chopped fresh mint leaves. Arrange the thin slices of melon, watermelon first, on a platter so that you don’t have to toss it – you just kind of build the salad up from there. Some people add feta and arugula and pine nuts or olives and other things, but for me just the melon and mint is pretty and refreshing enough; it almost makes the heat worthwhile.

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