How to Keep an Old House Cool in the Summer

May 27, 2011

cooling, smart fixes, summer, thrift

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. before the 1970s malaise and even before the Industrial Revolution, most homeowners focused more on keeping their homes cool in the summer than warm in the winter. Back then, wood and coal were plenteous, and labor was cheap (not to mention that families had dozens of kids back then), so heating the house was relatively easy. Houses were built to release heat. High ceilings were the repositories of warmed air; thin glass windows– the bane of our modern homes– and drafty rooms kept the house well ventilated. I’d even heard that the reason for all the decorative gingerbread features in Victorian homes was not for aesthetic reasons, but to give the impression of icicles and therefore the illusion of coolness. I am not sure if this is 100% true, but it’s what I’ve heard.


That's the closest I'll ever get to gingerbread on this house...

At any rate, the world is turned upside down, now. Thanks to the energy crunch, we homeowners must seal every crack, plug every hole, lower ceilings, install thicker windows with better quality glass…. and while there’s great benefit, in hot or cold weather, to insulating walls and sealing every crack, it does make the interior of the house rather airless during summers. Airless homes are not healthy. Mold and mildew love homes with temperate, stale air. Toxins within the home, such as natural gas and small traces of carbon dioxide, reach poisonous proportions in tightly-sealed homes. And since we are in our homes more frequently than previous generations, ventilation is all the more important for our health and well-being.

Close Up

Our old wiring could never have supported the large electric load of an air conditioner.

I have lived in old homes all my life. Old homes aren’t really built for the power-sucking, window-filling air conditioning systems of today. My old homes had outdated electric, unable to withstand the kilowatt slurping window-installed air conditioner. And unless we gutted the walls or purchased new fangled cooling units, we couldn’t install central air, either. So I grew up learning the passive methods of keeping a house cool in the summer. I remember my mom waking up very early on summer mornings to “batten down the hatches” before a particularly sultry summer day dawned. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years:

1. Open the windows at night.
Summer nights are obviously cooler than summer days. I place fans in the windows, blowing cool night air in at night. I sleep better when it’s cool, too.

2. Close the windows before the sun rises.
After encouraging the cool summer night air to enter the house through open windows, I basically seal the cool air in for as long as possible by closing off the source of the heat– the summer day. All windows are closed and curtains are drawn. I may have one upstairs window open, with a fan blowing out.

3. Know the natural air flow of your home.

Every home has some kind of natural air flow to it. I have studied the flow of the drafts in my home, so I know what directions the air naturally travels downwind. If I work WITH instead of against the flow, I can save energy (and money). This helps me to position fans in the right areas, especially that upstairs “out” fan I mentioned in #2. There’s one room in the house upstairs where all the air goes into. I open the window in that room and point the fan out. The fan will blow the heated air that is rising up from the first floor out the window. This does two things: it removes the heated air, and provides a constant draft that makes the house feel cooler.

4. Hang heavy drapes.

Solar energy is a marvelous thing, but when it’s making you sweat buckets, it stinks. I close all windows and blinds during the hottest time of the day (from 11am to 5:30 pm). My current home is situated in the middle of a small business district, with large sections of heat-pumping asphalt all around me. Heavy drapes are my only barrier between comfort and that nasty, heat-belching asphalt.

Whew Exhaustion


5. Reduce heat-producing appliance use.
Obviously, the clothes dryer is a biggie here. If you have a laundry area right in the living quarters, it can get pretty hot, running that thing. Hang clothes or relocate your dryer to the basement. Don’t use the stove at ALL (you’ll really regret it!)– get a grill and cook outside. Computers generate a lot of heat, so turn off the ones you are not using. Lower your hot water tank thermostat. Use the “air dry” cycle on the dishwasher. Turn off lights. Regard anything that produces heat as an impediment to your goal.

6. Plant deciduous trees on the south and west sides of the house.
Deciduous trees will provide shade for your land during the hot summers. The nice about deciduous trees is that they will drop their leaves by winter, giving your home access to the warm sun that is welcome in the winter. Don’t plant them too closely to the house, or you may have roof and/or gutter problems when the leaves drop in the autumn.

7. Plant evergreen trees on the north side of the house.
Much like deciduous trees on the south, evergreens offer your home a little barrier. But while deciduous trees provide a barrier from the hot sun in the summer, evergreen trees provide a barrier from the cold north winds in the winter.

8. Install light colored roof shingles.
Black asphalt shingles retain heat and continue radiating it. Shingles in white, gray, or even red absorb less of the sun’s sweltering rays.

9. Insulate the attic.
And seal all holes and cracks from the attic to the living areas. In my old home, the insulation is both insufficient and disgusting. It’s the old cellulose crap– loaded with dust and it stinks like all get-out. Oh, how I hate cellulose insulation!


How I HATE this attic!


Well, anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, seal the holes! In my home, the roof heats up and the backyard heats up thanks to all that asphalt, and the heat builds up to epic proportions in the attic. And I know all about physics, but in my house the heat actually DROPS. Must be wacky airflow. But the house sometimes smells like the attic and the upstairs gets really hot. When we gut the upstairs, I’m going to seal that blasted attic.

10. Open the basement door.
Before we had our sneaky cat who is always trying to get outside, we would open the basement door and place a fan in the doorway. I really can’t believe how wonderfully cool the basement is. When the weather gets really oppressive, I sometimes go down there to cool back down to 98.6.

FTK 3.26No2

Of course, sitting in the refrigerator is a great way to cool off...

11. Install awnings over south-facing windows.
Believe me, this works. My new kitchen window at 4 feet by 5 feet is so wonderful, but it faces south and receives the full brunt of the hot summer sun and asphalt.

So there ARE ways to keep the house cool without busting your energy bill. After all, you’ll need to save every dollar you can for the winter’s heating bills!

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6 Responses to “How to Keep an Old House Cool in the Summer”

  1. Secondary Roads Says:

    #12 Adopt a cat. Cats are cool (see #10).

  2. Marg Says:

    Those are some good suggestions for stating cool but it is a lot hotter down here so we really do need the air conditioning especially in the afternoons. I did not realize that computers put off that much heat. I do turn mine off when I am not using it. Hope you have a wonderful week end.

  3. Mrs. Mecomber Says:

    Chuck– BWAHAHA!!!! You are so right!

  4. Mrs. Mecomber Says:

    Marg, I once went to Florida, in JULY. Oh my goodness, I don’t know how you guys do it with that heat down south. I nearly melted! Yeah, my post was written from a Northerner’s point of view. šŸ˜‰ We use our heat system like you guys use your air conditioning system.

  5. Rena Says:

    Thanks for the tips!!! I try to do most of those. I do need to get heavy drapes for the windows though. I also need to do research on the air flow in my house.

    I can’t stand humidity and I am very irritable when its humid. Therefore I have to find ways to stay cool so that I don’t drive everyone nuts with my miserableness.

  6. Dovey Says:

    Boy oh boy, THANKS FOR THE INFO! It’s 106 here in Central MO today, and my central air gave out early this morning. Happily, I live in an 1898 Queen Anne charmer of a cottage with high ceilings, tall windows, good placement at the top of a hill for prevailing breezes (such as they are…), big trees on the south and west exposures, a wash line, and mucho gusto fans for air circulation. I kept the windows and blinds closed all through the day and then threw windows open when the heat finally dropped below 90 outside around 11 PM. I’ll wake before dawn to batten down the hatches before the climatic furnace fires up again.

    Meanwhile, the mutties and I are sleeping under a crisp, cool sheet straight out of the freezer in a bed bathed in circulating air….and eating the best honeydew melon ever grown, right here in bed, juicey juice and all, with dogs munching away, too. Who knew pups dig melon?

    It’s about 86 degrees in the house now (midnight-ish) but feels much cooler. Actually, it’s sort of nice, a confirmation that our ancestors knew things about designing and building domestic dwellings that we’ve sadly forgotten and would do well to remember, in light of this era’s climate change, tanking economy, and energy supply problems.

    Though, admittedly, I won’t complain when the repairman shows up tomorrow! I’m no wuss, but even for a border state gal such as myself, 106 with Midwestern summer humidity levels is nothing to be cavalier about. That kind of heat can be dangerous to pets–and to people, too! I had to make a real effort to SLOW DOWN today, do less, do it slower, take more breaks, tank up on icey-cool beverages, carry a hanky around to mop my sweaty brow. I’m beginning to get why Southerners are so slow and serene when the weather turns “balmy” as my grandmother called it (she glowed), or what my generation would refer to as “FREAKIN’ HOT!” I most definitely do not glow…I SWEAT. There’s a cool shower in my immediate future.
    Especially with all this sticky juice running down my chin. Bleh. I don’t think my gracious Southern grandmother would go for the honeydew in bed agenda, and maybe she would have a point….