(2005; Contributed by OIlman2)

We got all the food dealt with, got to know our neighbors a little better perhaps, and figured out that working in our high-rise office was a non-starter. We also found out that batteries are very precious, and they don’t stay on store shelves long when there is even a HINT of electricity going out. We have noticed that while sleeping is easier after a long day of cooking, canning and storing food, it is not pleasant for us to wake up in a pool of sweat – it is HOT in the Sunbelt! But right now it is getting dark, and we need some light to finish grilling burgers.

Let’s take a look at some very simple economics – batteries versus candlepower. Batteries have a definite shelf life, which can be extended by refrigerating them, slowing their chemical decomposition. Oops – we have no electricity!  Batteries do not store well at the near 90 degree temperatures of the typical Sunbelt summer. If you place them in your garage, they will decay fairly rapidly, and after a few months their charge will drop to roughly 50% of their stated shelf life. And remember – we are looking at a few WEEKS without power. How many batteries is that going to require you to store?

Candles, outside of melting, will hold their potential forever. Candles made in the middle ages will still burn today. They cost little or nothing compared to standard batteries, and produce a much longer period of illumination. Granted, they produce more heat and less light. But our eyes can readily adapt to the lower light levels provided by candles. And we can always light 2 or 3 if we need more illumination.

Another alternative is the oil lamp. Until the advent of electricity around the turn of the century, the world utilized the oil lamp for exactly that – light. You can still find these in antique shops and even in some furniture stores as “knickknacks”. They will burn almost any type of oil, but kerosene seems to be the most efficient in terms of lighting.

A camping lamp, or Coleman lamp as we tend to call them, is basically a high tech equivalent. It uses air pressure and a special jet to create an optimum combustion for producing light. These are Walmart-available items, and can also be found at every sporting good store or sporting department.

So technically, light isn’t that hard to come by. Candles, oil lamps and Coleman lamps are readily available alternative light sources. The downside of each is that they also generate heat, and they do emit soot that will accumulate on the ceiling over time.

As a thinking man, it would behoove you to have something along the lines of candles and lamps handy in case of a power outage, right? And that also entails keeping a store of fuel for them. Two 5-gallon cans of kerosene do not take up much space, but they will certainly last quite a while if used judiciously, and in conjunction with candles. Need light in your yard? Use one of those citrus oil lamps for keeping mosquitoes at bay – which you want to do as well after dark.

A more high-tech option is to buy some solar-powered yard lights. While these are not stylish inside the home, they do work well, do not require anything but sunlight, and they do not give off heat. We have 6 of these sitting on a picnic table just for this reason – they can be used without any problem when the power goes off. If you are the least bit of a handyman, you can make these into something resembling a workable lamp with minimal fuss. They are not robust lights, but they are enough to navigate by.

Now we can assume we have the lighting issue solved, but should we? Our society has operated under artificial lighting for a hundred years – but this is predicated on lighting costs being relatively cheap. In other countries, where electricity is rare and expensive to the common people, their world revolves around the sun. Until the last hundred years, this was simply the way it was. And when faced with no power, it is the way it needs to be. Re-tool your thinking and your schedule. Get up when it is light, and go to bed when it is dark. In the Sunbelt, this is a long enough day.

Now we get to the sweaty issue – staying cool. And this is where the modern, energy efficient home is sorely lacking. The modern suburban home is actually designed around the central air system. Without electricity, this design is problematic at best. At worst, you have bought yourself an oven to slow-cook in each night.

There are a few basic types of homes seen in the Sunbelt: renovated construction built prior to 1955, tract homes built from the late 50’s to the 1980’s; recent tract homes and custom homes. All have their drawbacks, so let us talk in general terms.  I am in my late forties and I can speak to the differences in my home compared to the home my grandparents lived in. I am speaking of the Sunbelt, so please ignore my ramblings if they do not pertain to you in North Dakota.

My grandparents lived in a framed home, built on piers and beams with a crawl space. It had wooden floors. It had a floor-mounted furnace for heat. There were rugs in areas where they were wanted, but primarily the floor was wood. The ceilings were at least 10 feet high, and each bedroom had from 4 to 6 windows. Each exterior door also had a screen door, and there was a very nice covered porch around most of the house. There was also a covered space between the house and the garage called the “breezeway”. And there were valid reasons for each of these features when you consider that my grandparents did not have air conditioning until after 1970. My wife’s grandmother, who passed away 3 years ago, NEVER had any A/C and lived in SUBURBAN North Louisiana for 50 years in a home just like the one described above.

The crawl space is a unique feature of pier and beam construction, providing access to all the plumbing under the home. Ever wonder why dogs always went under the house when you were a kid? It is COOL under there! The house shades the soil from the sun, and the ambient ground temperature of around 68 degrees is normal under a pier and beam home. I remember laying on the cool floor when I was a kid – it was cool because the air under the house was cooler, and the wooden floor allowed that coolness into the house. Modern carpeted floors disallow this cooling, and function as an insulating barrier.

The high ceilings in older homes allowed warm air to go up near the ceiling, and kept the occupants cooler than a home with 8-foot ceilings. If you are 6-feet tall, then you are always breathing in the warmer air of any room, unless the central air fan is working. Old plantation homes in the Deep South often had 12-foot or 15-foot ceilings for this very reason – to keep the occupants cooler. There were even windows above the doors to allow this heat to leak out into an even higher hallway ceiling during the night.

Windows were more prevalent back then than today. We have basically been taught that windows are bad – they allow our nice, cool A/C to escape. Prior to A/C, windows were desired because you could create a draft across any corner room by simply opening opposing windows. Doorways were positioned so that the night breeze could flow in one bedroom, across the hallway and out another bedroom. Modern homes make no use of these simple things, relying on A/C and the central fan system for everything.

The old “screen door” was there so that doors could be left open to take advantage of a change in wind direction. A screen door today can allow you to AVOID USING your A/C system for an additional week or two every spring and fall. Houses were built with hallways running the length of the house for air flow. Opposing bedrooms were used for identical reasons.

Wrap around porches also offered additional cooling during the heat of the day, keeping the hot sun out of doorways and windows and providing shade just outside the house where people could work and socialize, taking advantage of every breeze coming by. In similar fashion, the “breezeway” functioned as another working, shaded space where any bit of wind passing through the shaded area helped cool things down. I have peeled many a potato and cleaned many a fish in the breezeway, and it was no sweat either.

Modern homes are not constructed with many of these features. Windows are positioned simply for aesthetics, not for functionality in ventilation. Most bedrooms only have a single window, and modern hallways are often winding or at least curved, which inhibits flow-through ventilation. Often the bedrooms are on the second floor, where they become untenable during the day in Sunbelt heat.

All floors are typically carpeted today, to keep feet from getting cold during the air conditioned night and for comfort. Most homes are cement slab construction, not pier and beam. Few suburban homes have any porch to speak of, and most do not have anything resembling a breezeway. A very few people have screen doors in addition to their standard doors. Storm doors are not the same – they only have a small screen opening, and are designed to protect from the elements not for flow-through cooling.

What’s Cool:

Another vital element to cooling prior to the advent of A/C was trees. In older suburbs, there are many large trees. Builders used to build based on receiving an order, not on speculation. When a house was built, the land owner told the builder which trees he wanted to keep, and even positioned or modified the home to retain large trees for shade. The importance of the shade and respiration of trees in mitigating Sunbelt heat cannot be overstated – there is a reason plantation homes were built with large trees surrounding them, even groves of large trees between the house and the fields. The respiration from the trees combined with their shade produced cooler air, which helped cool the home.

When builders began building “spec homes”, the trees caused problems in positioning the houses exactly where the developer wanted them. It was easier to just clear them all out than try to work around. And the more houses fit on an acre, the more profit for the developer. Trees were an inconvenience to developers, not a resource as they were to those without A/C.

So what can one do to stay cool in a modern, A/C designed home without electric power?

1) Get Some Air Moving – stand outside your home and feel the breeze. Which direction is it usually coming from? Now open favorable windows so this breeze can pass through your house. Get or build a screen doors if you need to. Add a window if you think it will help.

2) Maximize Shade – did you ever wonder what awnings were really for in the Sunbelt? They were built for the shade of passing customers while looking in a store window, and to keep the sun OUT of the store. Awnings are a relatively cheap and easy way to get some shade quickly over your windows. Plant some fast growing shade trees in the part of your yard where the prevailing winds come from.

3) Sleep Where It Is Cool – if you are sweltering, move to the coolest part of the house and sleep there. It may not look stylish, but sleeping well will always make you better the next day. It’s what houses were originally built for. Your grandparents probably weren’t building to be in the “Tour of Homes”.

4) Use Your Cool Cement Slab – in a concrete slab home, the cement slab will usually be cool if it is kept shaded. Pull the carpet and put in tile or paint the cement floor. This is coolness your feet can feel every day, and it will help things overall. We just did this in our house – it is noticeably cooler without A/C, and easier to cool with it.

5) Open the Attic – many homes rely on a roof ridge vent or power ventilators for cooling their attic space. Neither is as efficient as simply opening up and screening in the attic space. Air needs to move between your ceilings and the roof to get heat out from under the roof. If you have a hipped roof, then you can open your attic by building a cupola in the center to let the heat rise and give it a way out. Be sure and vent the soffets well if you do this. If you have a gable roof, just open up and then screen in the gable ends, to help get the heat out.

6) Fans – the 12V solar cell fans will not work at night unless you use the solar cells  to charge a battery. A single car battery, when fully charged, can run a decent sized 12V fan all night. If you cannot cool yourself any other way, then try using this method.

7) Cold Showers – a lot of the perception of heat is in the beholder. Take a shower in the evening, and a cool one at that (if you have electric water heater, it’s your only option anyway). Don’t dry off too well; the evaporation of the water from your skin will cool you. Now any breeze that flows over your skin will feel perceptibly “cooler” as it evaporates.

There are some other things I have seen in my travels that work extremely well. Have you ever seen a mobile home with a second roof built over it? Jeff Foxworthy jokes aside, I have been inside of one of these ungainly things, and the fact of it is this: it is a damned sight cooler than a standard mobile home. That second roof reflects the heat of the sun, and the space between the roofs allows the hot air to escape out and up, away from the primary roof.  Since “instant shade trees” are very rare, this might be a very viable option for the suburban home – and the tin required to build a second roof over your existing one is very cheap.

In my grandfather’s day, they used a “central attic fan”. This was a big fan; from 4 to 6 feet across (similar to the big circular work fans at Home Depot) and run by a large 110v motor. It was placed in a cupola above the roof, and screened on all four sides with a roof over it. This single fan was set to draw air INTO the house, and evacuate it outside and above the roof. In a shaded area, this single fan could adequately cool a 3000 square foot home. At night during summer, you could get cold sleeping too close to the windows!  While this is involved in terms of construction, the principal could still be used. A single 12V solar panel can run a fan all during the day. Several of these together, if positioned in an upstairs window, can lower the internal temperature of a home considerably just by getting rid of hot air in the house.

I have also seen a “reverse swamp cooler”. The traditional swamp cooler employs a pump to let water flow over cloth and then pull it into the home. I saw a similar setup where the strips of cloth were placed in a trough of water, and as the water was “wicked up” the cloth, the breeze coming across it was cooled. By using one of these in conjunction with the 12V solar-powered fans, the temperature could be lowered further.

Perhaps the granddaddy of passive cooling is the geothermal air system. Air is pulled from the bottom of a well (the same well you would draw your water from) using a large diameter (12-16”) duct. A fan sucks this cool air into the house from the well. As the ambient ground temperature in the Sunbelt is around 68 degrees, this is very cool air, more so due to the evaporation going on near the water level of the well. No well? Then you can bury 30-40’ of 12” PVC pipe or other type of large diameter hose and pull air through that. It will not be as efficient, but it will drop the temperature further. Be sure and bury it at least 3 feet deep and screen the end to keep varmints out.

The main keys to staying cool in the Sunbelt are shade, evaporation and wind. Make these things work to your advantage and you can stay cool even without electric power. I have done it, and your parents and/or grandparents did it as well. Rabid tree huggers might be nuts, but they aren’t totally wrong in the Sunbelt scheme of things. Trees = cooler. That’s a fact, so plant a few and take advantage. Even now, it can lower your electric bill.


WHAT IF… …the lights are off and YOU ARE home? — 1 Comment

  1. We have many kerosene lamps which can be bought in any hardware shop here. From experience, I can tell you that a candle throws out a lot more light than a lamp which has a very soft, yellow light. For reading, I would always choose a candle and have bought many candelabras (nowhere near as fancy as it sounds), one of which will light a whole room, especially placed in front of a mirror.

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