11 ways to cool off, without cooking the planet

Air conditioning is the least environmentally friendly way to cool off, and way too many of us rely on it.

Air conditioning is the least environmentally friendly way to cool off, and way too many of us rely on it.

As someone who tends toward being cold, I spend every winter waiting for the three months between Memorial Day and Labor Day to bare my shoulders and thaw out. Now that I’ve taken a 9-to-5 office job in Philly I am noticing how very unrealistic that is. My summer morning routine involves stepping from an air-conditioned bus to my chilly office space where I pull on a thick sweater (over my sleeveless shirts), and attempt to warm myself with hot cups of coffee. At night, if my husband and I go anywhere--grocery shopping, a restaurant, the movies--frosty interiors await.

We’re cooking our planet while cooling ourselves.

Meanwhile, heat waves are scorching the earth, causing unprecedented temperature highs. Just last week southern France registered 115 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest ever recorded in its history. I bet air conditioning units were humming then! For many, the cool they generate can be a matter of survival. But what is the long-term effect of relying on a unit that pushes the hot air inside, outside? 

Air conditioning is more than an annoyance to those of us who prefer summer without sweaters. It happens to be the least eco-friendly way possible to chill out. Air conditioning works by pumping the hot air out of a building and cooling the inside using chemical compounds. This process requires a massive amount of energy (roughly 12 percent of our total home energy expenditure) and releases about 100 million tons of heat trapping carbon dioxide molecules into the air each year.

Air conditioners also rely on chemical coolants to function. When ozone depleting CFCs were banned back in the 1990’s, we replaced them with another chemical coolant, HFCs. These cooling compounds were intended to be a short-term fix while we sought out alternatives, but have since become widespread. The “fix”, these HFC compounds, trap thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide!

Offices are often very chilly, especially in the middle of summer. Air conditioning can raise the temperature of the air outdoors, and interfere with the productivity of workers indoors.

Offices are often very chilly, especially in the middle of summer. Air conditioning can raise the temperature of the air outdoors, and interfere with the productivity of workers indoors.

Finally, the hot air released outside creates a heat-island effect. When the heat that is expelled causes ambient urban temperatures to rise, we crank the AC even higher. Compounding all this is the fact that air conditioning is the most popular cooling method in the United States. Close to 90 percent of homes in this country are fitted with AC. 

In short, we’re cooling ourselves while cooking our planet.  

So what can we do about it? 

If you, like me, suffer from freezing conditions at work, start a conversation at the office. Armed with a recent study that chilly offices lower productivity in women, I’m starting conversations with my manager about raising the thermostat. He’s considering it. Here are a few other ways to beat the heat without doing further damage to the planet:

  • Change your cooling unit. Ceiling fans, box fans, and tower fans use much less electricity than air conditioning.  They also help to circulate the cooler air in the room and cool off the air that rises to the ceiling without using any greenhouse gases, like HFC/ CFC.

  • Consider an evaporative cooler. This type of fan blows air through water to lower the ambient temperature. The mechanism is similar to how your body cools off after climbing out of a pool. Because these fans don’t use coolants or have a compressor the way air conditioners do, they are much less eco-harmful. 

  • Use the earth to regulate temperature. A much more expensive but really *cool* method is a geothermal heat pump. It works by using liquid filled hoses buried in the earth beneath a building to either drain heat out or pull it in. Basically, it relies on the natural transfer of heat from places with higher temperatures to those with lower temperatures.

  • Raise your thermostat. Can’t wean yourself off AC? Raise your thermostat to 78 degrees when you’re home, and use the AC in tandem with fans. If you’re out for the day, push it to 85 degrees. Programmable or remote systems are excellent ways to monitor and control AC units. 

  • Alternate the AC with ventilation in your car. Or don’t drive. Your car is a running, chugging, heat machine, and sometimes turning on the AC is the only way to survive a scorching summer drive. So alternate car AC use with the interior ventilation system and, of course, use public transportation whenever possible.

Other eco-friendly ways to cool off in the heat:

  • Use cooling bed sheets. Special organic cotton bed sheets help keep you cool at night. So can microfiber-filled comforter, like this one, which keeps you cozy without the heat.

  • Wear cotton. Cotton is breathable and light, which makes it excellent material for summer clothing. Synthetic fabrics hold in the heat.

  • Hang curtains, shades, or blinds to limit the sunlight, and heat.

  • Close off unused rooms. Any heat from those rooms will move to fill in all the cool spots still left in your home. 

  • Paint your roof white. Those blacktop roofs absorb heat and raise ambient temperatures. The National Center for Atmospheric Research found that if every roof in large cities around the world were painted white, it would decrease the urban heat island effect by a third. 

  • Stay hydrated. When you lose water you limit your body’s ability to cool itself. So drink plenty of fluids. While we’re on the topic of water, store damp rags in the freezer to serve as cooling pads. Or how about this tip from a friend of mine: Mist your bedsheets and place them in the freezer. No more sweaty nights!

Heather D. Cohen Rametta is a News Fellow living in Philadelphia.