10 Ways to Cool a House Without Air Conditioning

Sleeping on the front porch after a hot summer day was a straight out necessity. The upstairs of the 1940’s farm house had turned into a sauna and sleeping in the upstairs bedrooms was not possible. Even after the sun went down, the upstairs seemed to get hotter. Let's look at some ways to cool a house without air conditioning?

Now that I spend time trying to figure out how a home can be more energy efficient, I think back to those hot summer days and wonder two things:

1. Where was the air conditioner?

I have seen several articles floating around that talk about air conditioning as being an unnecessary appliance. That people have gotten soft, and if people would just handle the heat like a caveman, they wouldn’t need those energy wasting air conditioners.

Growing up in that Northwest farm house, air conditioning was not expected. Sleeping on the front porch a few times a year was. The air conditioner was only for city folks that were not lucky enough to live on a farm.

Where was the air conditioner? It was still in the J.C. Penny catalog.

2. Why did the upstairs get so hot in the evening?

When you’re sleeping on the front porch and your 10 years old, you don’t really care why the upstairs is so hot. It’s not something you try to figure out before you find yourself sleeping on the porch again. You like sleeping on the porch.

If the upstairs is too hot for sleeping and you would rather not risk sleeping on the porch, or anywhere else outside, then considering why the upstairs and the whole house is so hot in the evening becomes an important issue to solve.

Air conditioners are fairly energy efficient appliances, but they’re not free to operate. With the constant grinding of the A/C and the power bill increasing by the hour, a person has a tendency to think about why the upstairs is so hot and ways to cool a house.

Years Later:

The old farm house was being moved to a new location and I had a chance to look in the attic while part of the roof was removed. Instead of the attic being the dark, spooky cave of my childhood, it was an inviting place to explore with plenty of natural light.

I was surprised to see that the attic had nothing in it. No old magazines, no old socks or toys, no old carcasses of rats or cats. Of course, there was no insulation either and I could look down the chimney chase from the attic clear to the basement. This is a good place to start to answer the question of ways to cool a house.

The roof had no attic ventilation at the roof peak or the eves. The only ventilation was provided by two gable vents, one at each end of the attic. The roof shingles were always a dark color.

I understand very well now why the upstairs of this old house was so darn hot after a hot summer day. The attic collected the heat all day and then shared it with the downstairs all evening.

How to keep the attic from overheating and ruining a good night sleep.

Here's 10 ways to cool a house before you add air conditioning. These will help your attempt to keep the home livable in the evenings - try these retrofits and improvements.

1. Solar powered attic fan

A solar powered attic fan works very well and is a one time investment in the amount of $450 to $800. When installed on your roof, the self-contained solar unit exhausts hot air from the attic whenever the sun hits the solar array with enough bright direct sunlight to operate the fan.

Best operation occurs when attic ventilation is added along the eve’s and the roof peak ventilation is limited.

2. Roof sprinkler system

Well, it works on flat commercial buildings, might work on homes too. Anything that will cool the roof surface will help keep heat from radiating into the attic space. Unfortunately, this may increase your water bill substantially. Sprinkler and hose, $20. Water bill around $300.

3. Really big trees

Shade the roof and you have a cooler attic and a cooler home. If you have a two story home and you’re just getting around to planting shade trees, this solution may take a while to materialize. One redwood tree 12 inches tall, $4.95. Expect shade in 40 years.

4. Air sealing the attic floor

Especially before adding insulation - don’t add insulation to the attic floor without air sealing the air holes and penetrations first. Best process, good drop light, knee pads, and a can of Great Stuff spray foam insulation. Material cost, $30.

5. Adding Additional roof ventilation

Ways to cool a house starts with attic ventilation. Most older homes simply do not have enough attic ventilation. Ventilation should allow air flow from the eve’s to the peak. Take out solid bird blocking and add screened vents at the eve’s. Add manufactured metal or plastic roof vents near the peak. During the installation of new roofing is the best time to add attic ventilation. Eve Soffit vents, $8.50. Roof peak vents about $12

6. Adding insulation

After air sealing, install insulation. Insulation will help slow the transfer of heat from the attic to the living space below. The more insulation the merrier. Building codes keep adding insulation, in some of the colder parts of the country, insulating to R-49 is code. That’s about 16 inches of insulation.

Don’t worry, this could be a do-it-yourself project. The big building supply stores have the material and the equipment you need to do the job.

Add insulation in the colder climates to keep warm, add insulation in the warmer climates to keep cool. Add 12 inches of blown fiberglass insulation for about $1.25 to $1.75 a square foot of attic floor space.

7. Sealing the knee wall floor connection.

Many older, two story homes have knee wall attic space. This is the space along the walls of an upstairs room that has reduced headroom along the sides of the room. You know, your standing upstairs and you must be careful to stand in the middle of the room to keep from bumping your head.

The problem is the knee wall attic is often open to the space between the floor of the upstairs room and the ceiling of the downstairs room. This means the hot air in the knee wall attic can travel right under the upstairs floor and help heat the whole house.

Stuff some insulation in a plastic bag and stuff a bag between every floor joist opening in the knee wall attic. This will keep the hot air from traveling between the floor and ceiling. Sealing these floor joist openings is important during the cooling season and the heating season. Plastic bags $.50, insulation, $1.00 a bag.

8. Sealing chimney chase

In older balloon framed homes, the chimney chase is often open and allows heat and cold transfer between all floors, clear from the attic to the basement. For effective cooling and heating, these chase corridors should be sealed off. Spray foam insulation, $7.00 a can.

9. Place Fans in Upstairs Windows

Place one or more big box fans in upstairs windows. Install them so they are blowing out the window. Close all other windows and exterior doors but leave the interior doors open all the way to the basement. Draw the cooler basement air up through the house and out the upstairs windows.

Basements are always cooler and can help cool the rest of the home. Hopefully, you don’t have a smelly tank of stove oil in the basement! A good box fan about $30.

10. Install solar panels

Usually when you install solar panels on a roof, the panels are placed on a racking system that holds the panels off the roof about 3 inches. The panels keep the suns rays from hitting the roof surface and slow heat transfer to the attic space.

One of the advantages of solar panels on a hot day is the shading they provide the roof. Maybe not as good for shade as a big redwood, but it’s still shade.

Most power companies will help you install solar panels. They know that when the weather gets hot and all those air conditioners start up, they need all the help they can get with ways to cool a house.

Wish I still had that old farmhouse with the big front porch and the big yard. I would have a few tricks ready for those hot summer evenings when the upstairs got so darn hot. After air sealing and insulating the attic, I would install a solar attic fan, mount some solar panels on the roof, place a couple box fans in the upstairs windows and roll out my sleeping bag on the front porch.

These are ways to cool a house, but you can still get a good night sleep on the front porch. Of course, these days it would take a better air mattress than it used to.

Thank you for stopping by detectenergy.com, hope you will stop by again real soon, but I won't leave a light on for you...

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Tags: a, air, conditioning, cool, house, sealing, to, ventilation, ways, weatherization

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Comment by Bob Blanchette on September 2, 2012 at 1:01pm

I like the ideas except for the solar attic fan. Sorry, they simply don't work as well as advertised. When I hear claims of 800CFM out of a 20Watt motor my BS detector goes off. Most of the airflow out of a solar fan is simply from hot air rising through the hole created by the fan.

Ridge vents, small static vents, none of the make much difference. The real difference comes large openings that the air can flow freely out of, something the size of an attic fan but w/o the motor. Attic turbines and large gable vents also work well. Hardwired attic fans work well, but the motors typically don't last more than 5 summers.

Trees are probably the most effective way to naturally cool the house, now if it wasn't for the 40yr wait time. If only builders would leave the trees when they cleared the lot to begin with...

Comment by Don Ames on August 23, 2012 at 6:41pm

Mary,  thank you for the kind words and support of my article. I keep trying to find new ways to share with the "non-choir", but it's hard to get their attention and their email address. Got any ideas how this might be accomplished?

Comment by Mary Beth Thakar on August 23, 2012 at 10:43am
Great ideas, Don. I think you should share your ideas with the non-choir! Thanks for your effort: good summation!

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