We have our first frost forecast for later this week. We’ve already done one of these after our first winter, so as the crisp fall breeze chases away the brutal heat of summer, it’s time for us to reflect on how we and our little home survived our first summer at Longleaf Breeze.
If winter was a chip shot, summer was a 35-foot putt on a sideways incline, in a driving rain and a stiff wind. This summer was unusually brutal. There was no day when we hit a record temperature for that day, but we had many days in succession with high temperatures and high humidity. I particularly remember a stretch of a week or so during August when the National Weather Service each day extended by one more day its Excessive Heat Warning (heat index of at least 105 for three hours on two consecutive days or a heat index of 115 at any time). We wondered whether the brutal heat would ever end. The answer is yes, at least for this season.
I laid out our strategy for surviving the summer back in May. So how did we do, and what did we learn?
We learned that our initial plan of letting in the cool air at night and closing up our little home during the day worked fine for our comfort. It really did make the apartment quite livable even when the daytime temperature soared into the 90s. However, that cool air we trapped in the morning was brimming with humidity, so we were trapping all that humidity along with the temperature. Not right away, but over a period of a few weeks, we developed mildew on our furniture and clothing, resulting in a decree from the Farmer-in-Chief that THIS WILL NOT DO. Our hastily devised Plan B was to leave the apartment open all day and all night.
The insulation in the roof and walls that we believe is so critical for our comfort during the winter is more or less wasted during the summer. With the apartment wide open 24 hours each day, there’s little utility in insulation, designed as it is to preserve a temperature differential. The structural elements of the apartment that deliver the goods for us in the summer are (1) the light-colored metal roof (reflects the searing noonday sun), (2) the total separation of that roof from the living space by free-flowing air space, and (3) the placement of the windows and doors such that no direct sunlight enters the apartment in the summer until very late in the afternoon.
We may never be able to measure the usefulness of the stack window in the ceiling above the refrigerator. Intuitively, though, I have to think it made a significant difference by continuously exhausting the hottest air in the room to be replaced by the (sometimes only slightly) cooler air from outside.
The impact of the stack window may be subtle and unmeasurable, but not so the ceiling fan. Our Gossamer Windward III was a lifesaver on the hottest nights. It ran quietly even on high, and it created an artificial breeze that was so effective the heat never interfered with our good night’s sleep, not even during that murderous stretch of Excessive Heat Warnings. During the period of highest heat, we were never in the apartment for more than a minute or two without turning on the fan. I kept the remote control for it by the side of the bed, so we could go to sleep at night with the fan on high, and turn it down to medium or low as the nighttime cooling kicked in.
Perhaps the most effective strategy we implemented this summer was the simplest: we got used to it. As the summer wore on and we adjusted to the heat and humidity, we found ourselves recoiling from the need to spend time in air conditioned spaces. I particularly remember the need both of us felt to take an extra shirt along when eating out. This one is encouraging, because it’s a meaningful step that all of us can take. The less air conditioning the culture considers normal, the less air conditioning we will all need.
It was critical during the brutal heat that we stayed hydrated. As I have said many times before, we drink water differently. Amanda keeps water with her and sips constantly; I guzzle a quart or more at the time. Both approaches seem to work fine, as long as we keep doing it. We didn’t always feel thirsty even when our bodies needed hydration, so we developed a habit of reminding each other to drink more water.
It turned out to be impractical to stay out of the sun. Like it or not, it takes sun for things to grow, and out there where things are growing is where the work needs to happen. We retreated under the shade of the pole barn whenever we could, but we learned we have to work in the full sun for long hours during the summer, sometimes even in the heat of the day.
This next one is a surprise. I had always assumed we would do most of our work in the morning and retreat during the afternoon. Didn’t work that way. In Alabama in the summer, the sun is usually direct and forceful in the morning, because the skies are clear. It may be hotter in the afternoon, but it’s also more cloudy. We quickly learned that the heat we felt the most was not the ambient air temperature but the radiant heat of the direct sun. Because we got more of a break from that radiant heat during the cloudy afternoon, we were able to work more comfortably in the afternoon than in the morning. And in the afternoon, of course, every now and then we got one of those wonderful afternoon thundershowers that would plunge the temperature by 15 degrees or more within a few minutes.
Confession Time. We began this first summer at Longleaf Breeze with the intention to leave the air conditioner turned off all summer. We failed. Not only did we turn on the air conditioner occasionally for company; we also turned it on for several days when it was just the two of us. I am unashamed, however, and not even particularly troubled.
The air conditioner stayed off every night and most of the day. The only time we used it other than for company was during that brutal stretch of 10 days or so, for about an hour and a half in the middle of the day when we came inside for lunch and my nap. Each day during the hottest stretch, I showered before lunch (yes, during that time I had a two-shower-a-day habit), and we turned on the air conditioner and the dehumidifier. It ran while we ate our lunch and during my 30-minute nap, and I turned it off when I woke up. When we came in at the end of the day for supper, we threw open the windows and doors again and let the natural ventilation (and that wonderful ceiling fan) keep us cool for the rest of the night.
Our little window air conditioner draws about 700 watts when in full cooling mode, and the dehumidifier pulls 500 or so. So our indulgence cost us 1200 watts x 1.5 hours x 10 days = 18,000 watt-hours or 18 KwH, at a marginal cost of less than $2.00 at current rates. I fully expect the cost of electricity to soar and for the grid to become less reliable in the years to come, so there may be days in our future when the cost of our extravagance will triple or quadruple. But an extra $8 won’t break the bank. Yes, there may also be days in the future when we can’t run the air conditioner and the dehumidifier because the grid is down. When that happens, we’ll deal with it.
Additional Steps We Can Take. We haven’t yet varied our diet. I read now and then that a diet high in meat drives up body heat as our digestive systems work to break down the fat and protein and that a plant-based diet makes it easier for a person to feel comfortable in hot temperatures. We’ve always eaten a mostly plant-based diet, but we could eat even less meat without feeling deprived. We may find ourselves doing this naturally as more of our food comes from what we grow, but it’s also possible that we will eat less meat as a conscious strategy for staying comfortable in hot weather.
How This is Informing the Design of the Lodge. With the benefit of a full winter and a full summer in the pole barn, we know that the apartment handles winter like a champ and needs a little help to get through the summer. So even as we copy wholesale in the lodge what has worked well here in the barn, we will do a little tinkering. We will enhance the elements of the lodge that help it stay comfortable in hot weather and de-emphasize slightly the elements that help it stay comfortable in cold weather. I’ll get into this more as our plans take shape, but right now our intention is to increase the roof overhang by 4 inches or so on the south side, to increase the stack windows and ceiling fans, and to place windows on the north wall.