Can We Survive Summer in Alabama Without Air Conditioning?

It was easy making it through an Alabama winter in our new little home. Now the real work begins, as we see how it performs in the hot, sticky, humidity of an Alabama summer.


We have set out from the beginning of our design work to create a space that didn’t need power for heating and cooling. The winter was easier than we expected, first because Alabama winters are mild, second because our little 600 sq. ft. apartment in the pole barn is tightly constructed and absurdly well insulated, and third because the tiny wood stove we installed starts easily and produces more than enough heat to keep us comfortable on even the coldest night.

Staying cool in the summer will be a different challenge. There’s no “wood burning air conditioner,” so we will be depending on the design of our apartment and our own discipline to stay comfortable. And let’s get one thing out of the way now. Neither of us is into suffering. We don’t mind sweating profusely while we’re working, but we like to be able to get a shower and cool down at the end of the day, and we’re counting on our new little home to help us do that. If all else fails, we have a small window air conditioner that we can run if we are miserable. But we hope and frankly expect that on all but the hottest nights we will be able to live comfortably without using it.

Let’s review the ways we hope our home accomplishes its task. First, the roof. We used a light-colored galvalume roof to reflect as much heat as possible. There’s a thin layer of foil-backed insulation immediately below the roof, and then an open-air storage loft over decking whose height varies from a couple of feet close to the edge of the roof to about 10 feet at the peak. Then there’s 5 1/2 inches or more of foam insulation under the storage deck, and then the sheetrock ceiling. This structure separates the living space completely from the main source of summer heat in most homes, that coming in from the roof and the attic.

Our little apartment that drinks in so much sunlight in the winter rejects it in the summer. Because the sun is higher in the sky in the summer, no direct sunlight penetrates the east or south windows from mid-April through late August. We do have a little late afternoon sun that sneaks under the overhang of the porch into the daylight door on the southwest corner and the west window of the bathroom, but by then the sunlight is heavily filtered and doesn’t have much impact on the inside temperature.

We just opened the stack ceiling window Friday. Strategically positioned above the coils of the refrigerator, the stack vents the warmest air in the room and therefore pulls in cool air through the windows and screen doors. There’s nearly always a breeze at Longleaf Breeze, but when the stack window is open our little home ventilates naturally without a breeze.

We have one Gossamer Windward III ceiling fan positioned in the middle of the open room. We have used it sparingly so far, but we anticipate using it more often during the sticky heat of June through August. And we have five other ceiling fans distributed throughout the pole barn structure.

We are proud of the design elements we’ve incorporated to make our little home energy efficient, but those design elements are not enough by themselves. If we just went about our daily routine and did nothing else, we would be in for some miserable afternoons. The rest of the solution, we think, will be thoughtful changes in our routine that should make our home bearable even in the hot summertime. Here we are drawing from and shamelessly copying the techniques used by our friend Tony Adrian in Lousiana, who has pioneered this strategy.

Even when the temperature soars in the afternoon above 100, it gets down into the 70s at night. So at night, we will throw open the windows and doors so that we begin the day with the inside temperature more or less the same as that outside. When we get up in the morning, we will close all the windows and doors. As the outside temperature climbs, the temperature inside will climb more slowly. As it climbs the inside air will expand, lowering the humidity and keeping the inside space comfortable. We have already begun using this routine on hot days. Just like any prudent family in an air-conditioned home, we need to be careful to keep the windows and doors closed. When we do, we have already noticed that the apartment feels in the afternoon as if it’s air conditioned. Honest. It’s not as cold as some people like their indoor space, but we’ve never been comfortable with overpowering air conditioning in the hot summertime anyway, so we may be okay.

There are several things we will need to be careful about if we want this to work. First, we will need to be disciplined about closing the windows and doors and keeping them closed. I can already tell you that when we left a bathroom window open one day we “lost control of the envelope,” and the temperature inside climbed right along with the outside temperature.

Next, we will need to be disciplined about indoor showers. I never shower indoors, so it’s not an issue for me. Amanda can take an indoor shower in the late afternoon at the end of the day, because we’re heading into ventilation time anyway. Indoor morning showers are a bad idea, though. When she needs a morning shower in hot weather, she’ll need to take it outside.

We will need to be disciplined about when we run the dishwasher. Even though we never use the heated dry cycle, the dishwasher kicks out gargantuan quantities of heat and humidity; it would destroy the envelope if we ran it during the day. That means that if it’s getting “sort of” full in the evening but not quite full enough to run, we start it anyway when we go to bed. And if we neglected to do that and it’s full after breakfast, we resist the temptation to start it then and wait instead until ventilation time.

This doesn’t have much to do with the conditions inside the living space, but we will need to be disciplined about staying hydrated. Amanda sips water constantly as she works, and I tend to guzzle a quart or more at a time. Either approach is fine; we just need to be careful to keep doing it. As we found out last summer, it’s easy to forget sometimes, and we know now that on the hottest days it can be literally a matter of life and death.

We will also need to be disciplined about what work we do when and where. We have a large open porch under the metal roof, where we can work comfortably even when the temp hits the century mark. So we will focus those tasks that must be done in the sunshine on Veg Hill in the early morning and get under roof by the middle of the day.

There will be times in the middle of the day or at night when we just need to cool down. When that happens we’ll stop and take a cool shower. Adding an extra set of underwear or a t-shirt to the wash won’t be that big a deal, and we already know it can make a huge difference in our comfort level.

If you’re like most Americans, you’re reading this and reacting in one of two ways. Either you are knowingly smirking at our naivete, understanding as you do that it’s just a matter of time before we crank up that air conditioner. After all, everybody knows you’ve gotta have air conditioning in the summer, right? Or you are saying that may be acceptable for these two nuts, but there’s no way I would ever make all those changes in my lifestyle. Too complicated. I’ll just adjust the thermostat and keep that cold air blowing, thank you.

The problem is that most of us won’t be able to do that. For a variety of reasons no one wants to talk about these days, the cost of electricity will be soaring soon, perhaps to 3-4 times its present rate, and the grid will be less reliable. When that happens, running an energy-guzzling heat pump all day and all night will be increasingly hard to justify. Let me remind you of the statement I made above: neither Amanda nor I is into suffering. We’re making these changes now so we will be able to stay comfortable at an affordable cost even if electricity becomes much more costly.

2 thoughts on “Can We Survive Summer in Alabama Without Air Conditioning?”

  1. sounds like a great adventure. I remember when i first moved to Hawaii. sweating profusely just walking around . Noticed after about a year my body acclimatized and it stopped. Although the weather was pretty consistent over the long term. maybe wont have that time to acclimatize. good luck guys.
    regards
    jerry

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