Last winter, I wrote a post called “Cheap Ways to Stay Warm in Winter” and seeing that we have just experienced our first solid week of 90+ degree weather here in Tennessee, I thought it was an appropriate time to share the counterpart post of how to stay cool in the summer without breaking the bank.

The Primary Objective

There is one primary objective when trying to beat the heat without busting the budget, and that is to stay comfortable while using the air conditioning as little as possible. The reason is very simple. The AC is very costly to run and so the less we use it, the more crumbs we save.

Even though we live in the uncomfortably hot and humid South, we went THREE STRAIGHT MONTHS without using any heating or air conditioning. That’s right, from early March until a week ago, we did not turn on the heat or AC once. Needless to say, these three months have also been some of our lowest in energy costs because central heating and air accounts for the vast majority of home power usage. (Our electricity cost averaged $38.74 the past three months, considerably down from the $50 average for the full year.) Granted we did have what seemed like a longer and milder spring than usual, but if we are able to repeat this feat again this fall, we could potentially go half the year without using central climate control!

At Our House

If you were a fly on the wall in our house during the summer, you will see that our home thermostat is never set below 82 F (unless we have company). The air is off most of the day since we’re at work and all the shades are closed. When we get home, we change out of our work clothes into some shorts or other cooler clothing, and we turn on the fans in the rooms where we are. If the temperature gets above 82 F, we let the AC turn on, but it usually only needs to run for a short time since it’s starting to cool down outside. Before we go to bed, we open several windows on opposite sides of the house. In the morning when we wake up, we blow a fan out one of the windows during the coolest part of the day, which sucks cool air in through multiple windows on the opposite side of the house. By the time we leave for work, our house has cooled off considerably from the day before, so we close the windows and all the blinds to continue the cycle.

By doing this, we rarely need to run the AC for more than a few hours in the evening during the weekdays. When we’re home on the weekends, the AC runs a bit more. In the past 2 years of living in this house, the most we’ve ever spent on electricity in a summer month was $45.65.

The Key Principles

Underlying what we do are several key principles.

  1. Use the Environment. If the outside temperature has dropped to the 60’s while the inside is in the 80’s, don’t turn on the AC! Just open the windows! Conversely, reflect the sunshine out of the windows and out of the house by drawing the blinds and shades.
  2. Move the Air. An easy way to trick ourselves into feeling cooler is simply to move the air around. An 80 F room with no air movement will feel warmer than if it was 82 F with a fan blowing. The reason is because the moving air wicks the evaporating perspiration away from your skin faster, helping you to feel cooler.
  3. Heat Rises.  We all remember this from high school physics, right?  Put that knowledge to use by spending time downstairs where it’s cooler!  Basements are even cooler.  Even if there is no basement or the house is just one story, vent rooms with low ceilings out to rooms with higher ceilings.  If you are building your own place, you should consider installing ridge vents at the peaks of your roofline so the hot air can vent out of your attic.
  4. Fans before AC. Related to the previous point, fans (ceiling fans, floor fans, box fans, any of them) use far, FAR less energy than an AC unit. A 52” ceiling fan uses around 90 watts of power on high, while a central AC unit might be closer to 3500 watts. In my area, that’ll equate to $1.43/month for the fan versus $53/month for the AC if I run each for 5 hours/day. The difference in cost is so laughably huge that AC usage should only be permitted if your fans are running full blast and it still isn’t cool enough.  Even when the AC is on, keep the fans running so the thermostat can be set a few degrees higher.
  5. Invest in Home Energy Efficiency. Much of the heat transfer in a home occurs through the windows. Most attics turn into legitimate saunas in the summer. Non-weather sealed doors allow heat to sneak in. It’s going to be an uphill battle if your house is allowing heat to seep in like a leaky sieve. Plug up holes like these, and you’ll be saving your crumbs in both the summer heat and the winter cold.
  6. Learn to Adapt. This may seem like a cop-out answer, but it’s actually very important. If we can’t change the environment, we can learn to change ourselves. We can adapt to a much wider range of temperatures than we sometimes are led to believe. My parents grew up in tropical southeast Asia WITHOUT air-conditioning in their homes, and when we go back to visit family, the discomfort of the oppressive tropical heat bothers us for the first week or so, but soon we adapt.
  7. AC is a Last Resort. Air-conditioning should be a reward we give ourselves after we’ve exhausted all other options to stay cool. It’s not masochism; it’s simply the frame of mind to adopt in order to tap our ingenuity to come up with new ideas. If we just reach for the thermostat every time we start feeling uncomfortable, what incentive do we give ourselves to figure out other ways to save?   Moreover, it helps us appreciate just how INCREDIBLE it is to have the ability to control the “weather” in our house!  Tell folks just a few generations ago about this ability, and they’ll think it’s some sort of sorcery!

Quick Tips to Stay Cool

So here are some quick bullets on staying cool without turning on the AC, applying the broad principles above. I’m sure there are many other ways, but these are ones that we’ve had experience with ourselves.

  • Close all the blinds and shades during the day.
  • Wear less/cooler clothes at home.
  • Spend more time in the lower levels of the house.
  • Take cool showers. (This is a double crumb save, since you also reduce your hot water usage.)
  • Open windows at night for cross ventilation; stick a fan (we found that one like this works much better than the typical rattly box fan) in the window blowing OUT, this will draw air in the windows on the other side of the house. (This works best when there is at least a 10-degree difference in temperature from inside to outside and when there is a big enough disparity between daytime and nighttime temperatures.)
  • Using the same concept, install a whole-house fan that blows into the attic.
  • Install an attic fan that draws air out of the attic space through the roof.
  • Install reflective window film on the south and west facing windows (for the northern hemisphere), especially if the windows have no blinds. (Bear in mind, however, that this will reduce the solar heat gain you will receive from those windows in the winter so it may reduce some energy savings for the colder months.)
  • Use less light and/or invest in cooler lightbulbs.  Incandescent and halogen lights emit far more heat than light when they are on, so having a bunch of them on will only increase the heat in your house.  Replace them with LED bulbs and you’ll be using less energy and staying cooler.
  • Insulate the attic. This is a big benefit in both winter and summer, but in the summer it helps prevent the scorching heat of the attic to seep down into the living space.
  • Upgrade low-efficiency windows. Most heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer occur through the windows of the home. Upgrade to efficient windows and it’ll instantly save a bunch on the heating/cooling bill.
  • Turn off the AC (or at least turn it on a higher temperature) when you’re away for the day, and just turn it on right before you get home. Or you can use a programmable thermostat to set the temperatures to adjust automatically. (We use the Nest thermostat) Of course, you should turn the temperature way up if you are away for a long period of time.

So what other ways have you come up with to save while staying cool in the summer? Share with us below!

*I will say this though, and that is that you may need to run your AC more if you have humidity issues in the house that may lead to mold. Living in the muggy South, I can certainly sympathize if that is your situation.