Natural Cooling Methods: How to Keep Cool Without Air Conditioning

These natural ways to cool yourself and your home will help you save money on energy bills and rely less on air conditioning, even through scorching summer weather.

| August/September 2015

Cook Outdoors

Cook outdoors to keep from heating up your home, and eat in the cool evening breeze.

Photo by iStock/alle12

Fifty years ago, about nine out of 10 U.S. residents spent summertime in homes without air conditioning. Suggest turning off the AC in summer these days, however, and you’ll frequently encounter wide-eyed disbelief. Our society has come to regard refrigerant-based air conditioning as an indispensable technology, and has forgotten about plenty of other cheaper, simpler ways to beat the heat.

Come Out of the Cold

The central problem with our dependence on air conditioning is its voracious energy appetite. At current usage rates, air conditioning U.S. homes, businesses, schools and vehicles releases fossil carbon and fluorocarbon refrigerants that have a total annual global-warming impact equivalent to a half-billion tons of carbon dioxide. Eliminating these emissions from air conditioning would benefit the atmosphere as much as shutting down 140 typical coal-fired power plants would.

Air conditioning also eats a sizable chunk of our budgets. In the United States, I estimate that our collective annual electric bill for cooling our homes is about $30 billion. The yearly cost per household ranges from about $200 in the Northeast to more than $450 in the sweltering South.

So, how do we wean ourselves off of this energy-intensive habit? The range of natural ways to cool your home depends on where you live: in the North or South, on a forested hillside or in an urban heat island, in an apartment or a house. But whatever your situation, you can find natural cooling methods to stay comfortable without air conditioning — starting by adjusting your internal dial.

Your Inner Thermostat

Fifteen years ago, thermal comfort researchers Richard de Dear and Gail Brager — citing research that had examined thousands of human subjects in studies from around the world — pioneered the “adaptive model of comfort.” This principle shows that our bodies’ preferred indoor temperature isn’t fixed. Rather, our tolerance for hot air shifts depending on the temperatures we’ve recently experienced. Superfluous reliance on air conditioning thus hampers our ability to acclimate to higher temperatures. The more you expose yourself to higher temperatures, the more you’ll feel comfortable without switching on the AC.

In hot weather, we need help shedding the heat our bodies generate. Air conditioning does that, but only a small portion of the energy it consumes helps cool your body. A lot more of its energy goes into chilling concrete, brick, wood, metal and empty space. Many of the following alternative cooling practices are aimed more specifically at cooling people.

8/22/2017 4:44:50 PM

These are great tips! I've been using the ChiliPad (last tip here: It's also been saving on our cooling costs and lets us pick our sleep temp! It's amazing!

sonia walker
8/10/2017 8:52:23 PM

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7/3/2017 2:36:54 AM

Oh...also, there are cooling collars..IDK what else to call them. I got a few at BedBathBeyond. Wet the cloth, put it around the back of one's neck. Helps cool at places the blood circulates most, to help prevent heat-stroke. Works nicely!

7/3/2017 2:22:27 AM

We have been using roll-up sun shades, hung from the outer edges of the south-facing and west-facing eaves, to help keep the house cooler, for over 40 years. Stopping the heat entering the house, has been the most effective way to decrease cooling needs. The last couple years, we've been experimenting with low-tech geothermal air tempering: We splurged on over 60' of well-sealed, 8" metal ducting laid on the ground of the crawlspace, under the house. This system has an air-intake with room to put double filters [a washable one and a charcoal filter], and an 8" duct fan from one of the indoor garden centers. We put a rheostat on the fan, to be able to adjust it as needed. Outlets are [2] 4" tubes through decorative pillars, near one large doorway in a semi- open-concept tract house. This has proven effective enough, that we want to install more ducting and fan for other part of house. It seems to take a bit off both heating and cooling if some is good, more is better, for this. Also, we got panels of TwinWall Polycarbonate: cut to just fit inside the window frame, held in place using [2] upper and [2] lower spring-rods. We used painter's tape to seal the open ends, which also helps seal the airspace between those and the window. The spring-rods hold panels tight together. The panels overlap, creating a little privacy, much better insulation at windows, while still allowing light to get in, and some ability to see out, but nicely blocking most heat transmission. The panels easily slide sideways, allowing cleaning or accessing windows. We have one induction burner for most cooking, which doesn't heat the room; we use a toaster oven to bake small items or toast things. During really hot weather, we avoid using that until it cools off in evening, or in very early morning.

6/30/2017 3:43:28 PM

Use a solar oven to do your baking & cooking outside! It uses a free renewable resource (the sun), and doesn't heat your house!

6/30/2017 7:35:24 AM

On my south and west facing windows, I replaced the regular screens with Solar Screen. This has blocked a significant amount of heat that radiated through the glass. On the inside, I have blinds to further block the heat. In the winter when I want the light and heat, the screens can be removed and stored, and the blinds pulled up.

5/26/2016 4:27:04 PM

use a ceiling fan withe a reverse switch on the motor housing another way to be cool go naked

5/23/2016 10:50:13 PM

go naked it's a way to be cool i done that one summer i was 15 years old at the time it was hot that summer i felt a lot cooler

2/23/2016 2:36:24 PM

Science Pimp, I love the name! Not an engineer, so would you be so kind to elaborate on how your information can be used in layman's terms.

8/8/2015 12:36:17 PM

The note about a frozen salt water bottle is incorrect. To achieve maximum cooling you'd want water with maximum specific heat... fresh water:

7/15/2015 4:47:46 PM

I put corrugated cardboard in the "hot" windows and it does a really great job of cooling the inside of the house. I also use it in the winter to block out the cold. Works well for both. It also blocks the bright sunlight which also helps to cool the house.

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