First Report on Summer in Alabama Without Air Conditioning

I told you at the beginning of the summer how we planned to make it through without air conditioning. We’ve been successful so far, but only by changing our strategy.

Here’s the post from May 9 in which I described what we hoped to do. I thought it would be helpful to walk through each element and explain how it has (or hasn’t) worked.

Light colored metal roof. Working great. I can’t tell you how well statistically, but I can tell you that even on the hottest days you must hold your hand right up next to it to feel any heat.

Copious insulation. For reasons I will describe below, this insulation that makes such a huge difference as we work to stay warm during the winter is more or less wasted in the summer. It doesn’t make our job harder, though. It just sits there.

No summer sun penetration. Also working great. We enjoy the little bit of sun that peaks in through the southwest door and the west window as the afternoon gives way to dusk. By that time of day, it’s not enough to change the temperature significantly. We’ll begin seeing some penetration at the bottom of the south windows in the second week of August, but we know from experience that it won’t be enough to make much of a difference until the temperatures have cooled considerably in October.

Stack window. Again, no statistics for you. If I were a real man, perhaps I would pick two days with similar conditions and measure the temperature inside on both days, one day with the stack window open and the other with the stack window closed. I’m shameless about my failure, though, because I know it’s working well. The warmest air in the room is always vented to the outside, which pulls in cooler air. I’m confident the presence of the stack window lowers the indoor temperature enough to make a difference in how we feel.

Ceiling fan. We started using the fan in mid-June, and it’s a life-saver. I’m sure we could survive without it, but it sure is nice to have that air circulation. The Windward III is exceptionally quiet for the amount of air it’s moving, so on most nights it runs all night on the lowest speed. I usually turn it off when I get up in the morning, but when we come back inside later in the day, we turn it back on (often on high), and it’s generally running on low most of the evening. We make more occasional use of the other ceiling fans in the barn, but we’re grateful for them, and we don’t regret installing them.

Closing up the envelope. Dismal failure. As you remember, we planned to open our home up at night and enjoy the coolness of the night and early morning, then close it up in the morning to hold that cool air all day. The strategy worked great for Amanda and me. Even at 3:00 in the afternoon, with the outside temperature in the mid-90s, it still felt cool inside, almost like air conditioning. The problem was that we were not only holding cooler air inside; we were also holding in the high morning humidity. The problem didn’t show up right away, but within 2-3 weeks of beginning to close up the envelope during the day, we began to see signs of mildew on the wooden elements of the furniture, and Amanda noticed that most of the flaps on the envelopes she stored in a desk drawer were sticking. I married a strong woman who loves hard work and can flash a big smile while sweating like a mule, but she draws the line at mildew. She cleaned her furniture, we’ll work through those stuck envelopes, and we won’t try to close up the apartment windows to hold in the cool air in the summer.

Instead, we leave the windows open all day and all night. Yes, our little home becomes quite hot in the afternoon, although it tends to stay a tad cooler (and a tad more humid) than the outside air. Then at night, when the temperature drops outside, the air in our home cools too, although it never gets quite as cool (or quite as humid) as the outside air.

Outdoor showers. This has worked just fine, after a brief but painful struggle with horse flies. After a hard morning’s work, I prefer to peel off my sweat-drenched clothing and take a cool (but not cold) outdoor shower at mid-day; it makes me feel refreshed and human again. Then I typically take a second outdoor shower at the end of the day. Amanda rarely showers at mid-day but often showers in the morning and then again in the afternoon, depending on when she concentrates her outdoor work. I have never used the indoor shower; now that the horse flies are under control, Amanda isn’t using it much either during the summer.

Running the dishwasher only at night. This is working fine. We have developed an unspoken rhythm of checking the dishwasher at the end of the day; if it’s getting close to full, we turn it on when we go to bed. At sometime during the wee hours, whenever one of us gets up, we open the dishwasher door and pull out the racks to help the dishes dry, and I empty it first thing the next morning. Even if we missed it and had to run it in the middle of the day, it wouldn’t be a huge problem, because the envelope is wide open during the day now.

Staying hydrated. By and large, this is working well. Both of us are hard workers who tend to “keep our head down” when we’re task focused, so we’re careful to remind each other to drink water on those hot, humid afternoons. Fortunately, we’ve not yet had any repeat in 2010 of that scary episode last summer when I got disoriented from dehydration.

Working in the shade when possible. This isn’t working all that well. A healthy vegetable garden and shade don’t play well together, and most of Amanda’s work is on Veg Hill, so whether we like it or not, she tends to be out in the sun during the heat of the day. She retreats under cover to read, to keep records, and to eat lunch, but the better part of her day is lived out in the sun. As for me, during this year at least, my farm work has been focused heavily on the development of the irrigation system, most of which lies is direct sunlight. So it’s been hard for either of us to spend a great deal of time in the shade.

What we have learned, which is a surprise, is that we both can work more comfortably in the afternoon (when the skies in central Alabama are partly to mostly cloudy) than in the morning when the sun is bright and unfiltered. It’s a little hotter in the afternoon, but getting occasional relief from the clouds makes a huge difference in how we feel.

Dehumidifier. During the worst of the humidity crisis caused by closing up the envelope, we bought a dehumidifier that we left running during the day. It does indeed lower the humidity in the apartment, sometimes from nearly 90% to about 60%. And we know it’s working because it produces prodigious quantities of water in its reservoir! There are four things about the dehumidifier that make it unappealing to us:

  • it uses LOTS of electricity, more than 500 watts according to my Kill a Watt
  • the way it pulls humidity out of the air is by heating it. So we have drier air in the apartment but also warmer air, hardly a welcome development on a hot summer day
  • the dehumidifier uses electricity to do what God already does for free. Humidity levels are typically very high in the morning and drop dramatically by mid-afternoon. If we just leave the windows open, the humidity drops to about 60% on most afternoons without our needing to run any machines
  • the dehumidifier makes a lot of noise. Now increasingly accustomed to life on the farm, we’re getting spoiled about the quiet of the countryside and detest the drone of an electric motor.

Becoming acclimated. Perhaps the coping strategy that has made the most difference is the one that happens naturally: we’re getting used to it. One of the nice things about the seasons in Alabama is that we don’t go straight from the coolest to the hottest weather; there’s time built in for our bodies to become acclimated, and that’s what has happened for us. Temperatures that would have made us miserable in April are no big deal now.

We have turned on our little room air conditioner twice this summer, both times because we had company who were visibly wilting from the heat. One interesting by-product of our bodies’ acclimation is that we are less tolerant of the super-cooled air in restaurants and other public places, so we must be attentive to how we dress when we go out. Amanda sometimes needs to wear long sleeves or a sweater.

What we could still do. I am still overweight. My weight is easing down, but very slowly. One of the smartest things I could do, for all kinds of reasons, is to drop about 20 pounds of body weight. That would help me stay cooler in the summertime. It would also make me feel slightly colder in the winter, but we’ve learned that it’s easy for us to stay warm in our tiny home.

This is related, because it would help me lose weight, but we could eat less fat. Like most Americans, I eat too much meat. And the more meat I eat, the more heat my body produces trying to digest it. If our summer diet is higher in fresh fruits and vegetables and lower in meat and dairy (particularly butter!), we’ll feel cooler.

2 thoughts on “First Report on Summer in Alabama Without Air Conditioning”

  1. Very interesting observations.

    Here in South Louisiana it is clearer in the afternoon than in the morning. The switch over starts around 10:00AM to 11:00AM.

    I wonder if running the dishwasher during the day added to the humidity problem? I also wonder if maybe because your house is half the size of ours you experienced higher humidity.

    We are the same now RE:cold restaurants and such. The two deciding factors in where we go are is the place too cold? Does their water taste like a freshly chlorinated swimming pool.

  2. Hi Tony,

    Good to hear from you! I never would have guessed that your afternoons are clearer than your mornings. That’s helpful.

    The times when we struggled with humidity, we were EVER SO CAREFUL not to run the dishwasher or shower indoors while the envelope was closed up. And the humidity did drop during the day; it just stayed much higher than the levels outside.

    We haven’t experienced (or at least haven’t yet noticed) the problem with over-chlorinated drinking water. I wonder if that’s a result of your living so close to the bayou?

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