Surviving LA’s heat without AC

Frank Butterworth emailed me an interesting story. I asked if he could make it into a blog post, so here’s Frank…

If you think one can live (in Los Angeles or other semiarid places) without air conditioning, you’ve got to be crazy. Right? Actually, you can and we did.

I. The unplanned experiment

Our AC (air-conditioning) broke and it was 104F (40C). And the next day was also going to be 104. I figured we’d have to move to a motel or fry. But something miraculous happened. We opened the widows around 8 PM and with the help of fans, we sucked cool air into the house all night and early morning. [The outside temperature dropped to 68F (20C).] And when we arose at 6 AM, it was cool inside, about 75F (24C). We quickly shut the windows, pulled the drapes and closed the shutters. Voila — it stayed cool in the house until about noon when the temperature started creeping up to a max of about 82F (28C) at 4 PM in the warmest room — my office! On the first floor it was still cool even though it reached a high outside of 104. Not bad! I knew we could make it, and productivity would not suffer. There would be no motel, no misery. This cycle of opening and closing went on for 18 days (27 Jul to 13 Aug) with the average maximum temperature at 96F (36C).1 And we did not fry. We got our work done. And we did it without air conditioning. Yee hah! An ancient Mediterranean might say “meh,” but I was elated. 

Actually, we rediscovered our forebearer’s technology, using cold desert nights to cool the house to 68F/20C. With drapes (even see-through gauzy types) and shutters to block/reflect the daytime light and a few fans, the warmest parts of our house never went above 80 (even though the average, maximum external temp was 96 – three days in triple digits, three days at 99, and just a few 80 deg days gave that average). My office, the warmest room in the house, only once reached 90, when outside temps were in triple digits. (We probably did not open the house long enough at night or close it up soon enough in the morning.) On that day, we went out for an early dinner. Ha!

True, we suffered at night, sleeping under blankets, but this is nothing new vis-a-vis ancient Mediterranean technology. So I believe the modern world can save a lot of energy without fear.2 

Of course, folks living with high humidity may still have need fans and sweat, but my guess is that the night air can be harnessed to avoid suffering. I recall my life in miserable heat waves on the East Coast sleeping in a ‘pool of sweat’… yet the nights were cooler… people would sleep on the roof or on a back porch. We just have not yet figured out how to use night air to cool a house without massive amounts of electricity (see Greek anecdote below).

II. Several more points

  1. Not one of the few people I talked with was interested in my re-discovery. In fact, they were hostile. They were not going to let some academic nerd steal their comfort. I guess there would have to be huge incentives — or a catastrophe — for them to listen.
  2. ‘Ancient’ cooling technology is amazing and needs another look. My direct experience was in Greece, 40 years ago. Athens in July and August is hot and humid. Yet, when I went to an outdoor café in the shadow of a tall, fairly modern building on Syntagma Square, I was hit by a downdraft of cool air. No fans. No AC. It was the building’s structure, someone explained. Somehow, the coolness of the previous night was trapped somewhere… and it slowly escaped during the day.
  3. Before they proudly modernized to AC, the Greeks used the siesta to cope, eating a large meal at noon and napping until the air cooled. Then Athens became alive and a ‘second day’ began. The ‘new day’ meant a second shift of work and/or play in the cool, cool, cool of the evening. It was confusing to me at first because it seemed to give more time to life — plus another set of dreams. 🙂

III. A few caveats

  1. Knowing there would be no AC for the next day, extra alertness was required to open windows when the external temperature began to drop around 8 PM. A large portable fan was used in upstairs hallway to speed the process. Because the walls and roof had reached thermal equilibrium with the outside it was important to cool down the inside walls quickly. This could be a problem for those needing sleep in a noisy neighborhood.
  2. Also, wooden internal shutters, opaque drapes, and even gauzy window treatments prevented direct sunshine from entering the house and slowed  radiant heat transfer from windows where there was no direct sunshine. R factors lose their meaning (R1 for single pane and R2 for double pane glass). I think it applies to insulation from the cold, not heat. All our windows are double pane, but they still were warm to the touch. So, even a gauzy window treatment reflected light and slowed internal air convection.
  3. California construction codes (particularly those of 30 years ago, when our house was built) were not big on insulation. And California architecture of that time was big on windows. So, I was pleased and surprised by our experience. After the first day, I knew we were going to make it. And I knew this could be a viable solution to excess energy demand.

IV. A thought on individual energy savings

Our solar panels cut our annual energy use by about 2/3rds. That is, our annual electric bill two years ago was $1,500 without panels. Our bill for the past two years with panels was $500 per year. I know that when the AC is on during the peak sun, the panels’ electricity production is not enough, and we have to use electricity from the grid. So, it is likely that much of the $500 reflected the cost of AC.

Frank Butterworth, former professor of genetics and cell biology, is now a writer and author. His claim to fame was the discovery of the first pheromone (cis-vaccinyl acetate) in the fruit fly, which resulted in three papers in Science. Frank’s Twitter is @resource643.

1 Day-after-day for 18 days, the needed AC part was not available. But this made me so happy to use this inefficiency to do something I never would have planned.

2 In 2018, Los Angeles County used 67,850 GWh. The average California house used 7,000 kWh per year. [Note from David: We used 1,440 kWh in the past 12 months.] What proportion of that goes to AC? In Texas, peak loads reached 70,000 megawatts in July compared to 44,000 mw in April, so the difference (26,000 mw, or 37%) is probably used for AC.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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