Wednesday, June 23, 2010

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

You know that scene near the end of The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy finally throws the bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the East and, dripping from head to toe in her drenched black garment, the villainess screams, "I'm melting! I'm melting!"

Well, that was me at 2:00 this morning.

Except that I'm not green, nor was I wearing a black cloak and gown and what I was drenched in was sweat, not plain water. Of course, this begs the question - did plain sweat not affect the Wicked Witch of the East? She had to have been hot in that get-up...maybe the saltiness of sweat rendered it ineffective, or maybe her evil castle lair was air conditioned?

Anyway...we had been doing pretty well with no air conditioning in the Rational Living household the past few weeks. The formula was simple: run the attic fan in the early morning to pull in the cool overnight air, then shut the windows. By the time the house was heating up into the uncomfortable range (mid-80's) it was nighttime and we could once again run the attic fan before bed to cool the house down and start the cycle all over again.

But the last few days have been absolutely miserable. Nighttime temperatures have been hovering around 80 degrees - hardly cool enough to make the house bearable. Several days of this in a row and the house was downright tortuous.

To make matters worse, we've been very short on sleep lately, due to near-nightly storms (with lots of blinding lightning and deafening thunder) and the hot, hot weather. While what we've been experiencing is nothing like the countless night raid sirens civilians in the UK had to endure during WWII (sometimes multiple times in an evening), I do have to say I feel a little connection to the sleep deprived, is-this-ever-gonna-stop exhaustion expressed by the family on The 1940's House.

All of this combined lead to my 2:00am outburst of "I'm melting!" last night. According to the thermostat on the main floor the house temperature was 87 degrees at that time; considering the upstairs is significantly warmer, the bedrooms were most likely around 90 degrees. At 2:00am (which is a painful time to be awake, mind you) it was 83 degrees outside which, combined with the 70% humidity created a heat index of 89 degrees.

This implied that the heat index in the bedrooms was probably close to 95 degrees.

Running the attic fan would do no good. The girls were only barely asleep, their poor little bodies sweating away the night. We were all sleep deprived.

And so TMOTH and I agreed to turn on the air conditioner, but to set the thermostat at 85 degrees. I have to admit I was afraid it wouldn't come on, the result of some sort of Murphy's Law affect on our 30 year old air conditioner.

Oh, but it DID come on...and even though the temperature did not drop dramatically the humidity was sucked out of the house.

And it was wonderful.

Going forward, we've agreed to use the air conditioner when we are not able to get/maintain the inside temperature of the house at or below 85 degrees. The self-imposed "no air-conditioning" rule for the rationing year has bit the dust.

Still feeling a pain of guilt (and secretly wondering if we're all a bunch of wusses) I e-mailed a friend today, seeking clarification. Ms. Hyldi was born at the beginning of the Great Depression and so was a young teen during WWII. I know she regularly uses her attic fan and sets her air conditioning thermostat at 85 degrees (that's where we got our compromise number). I asked her how folks during the 1940s kept cool, and this was her response:

"...[T]he climate was different — just out of the dust bowl days, the humidity was quite low.

We moved from one house to another in 1942; in both homes, I slept in a large upstairs room with windows on all four sides, so all the breeze possible came through. The 2nd house had large trees shading it, and that helped some, too. I spent time in the porch swing — swinging made a breeze.

During those years, our family had two oscillating fans — one large and one small. The small one was moved to wherever it was most needed. The large one was part of our evaporative water cooler — a contraption built by my dad. It consisted of a thick layer of excelsior (the packing material) between two panels of chicken wire in a wooden frame and installed in a south window. Along the top was a trough with numerous drain holes. We hooked the garden hose to it and turned it on to a drizzle. The water trickled through the excelsior and with the south wind and the help of the large fan inside, cooler air came through into the house. Lots of people had them — if they couldn't build them, they could buy commercially built ones at hardware stores. But they were ineffective once the climate became more humid. We always turned it off and night. I imagine my parents used the small fan in their bedroom, but I don't remember.

We, and hundreds of others, often slept outdoors. We'd take a rug or blanket and put it on the grass and sleep until the sun came up. People who didn't have a yard slept in the parks, something you'd have to be out of your mind to do now. We also often carried around wet washcloths. Sometimes we'd wrap them around ice, and apply them to our faces and necks.

When I was little, I spent most of the summer months in Western Kansas on my grandparents' farm. The days were blistering hot, but mostly, the nights were cool because the sandy soil didn't hold the heat. In 1936 (I think it's still considered the hottest Kansas summer ever), I remember going with my grandmother to a women's meeting in a home, and we were greeted at the door by the hostess who handed each of us a wet towel. There was one night that summer when there was absolutely no breeze and we all woke up hot. My grandfather went down to the milk house and turned on the windmill to get us some cool water to drink — the only source of anything cool on a farm with no electricity. There wasn't enough wind to even turn the windmill! The slightest movement of air would turn it, so that was incredible!"

I really appreciated her response - it made me realize that people were driven to extremes by the heat back then, just as they can be today. It also taught me that the use of swamp coolers was more widespread than I ever realized, which made me feel slightly less guilty about using our air conditioner if it is set at 85 degrees.

Tonight after I walked home from work in weather with a heat index of 96 degrees I entered a house cooled to 85 degrees...and it really feels quite wonderful. Before the rationing year we would typically set the air conditioning thermostat at 78 degrees, but now I realize that 85 degrees might be a better compromise between our physical/mental well-being and our desire to live more responsibly. This might just be a change that sticks around.

In the meantime there is a cold(ish) front moving through tonight that is supposed to bring us nighttime low temperatures back in the upper 60s/lower 70s for the next several days, so I'm hoping we can avoid using the air conditioner again until the weekend.

How about you, dear reader? How are you managing the heat?

--Rational Mama


  1. I think too, that it is more difficult for us as we spend most of our time now in climate controlled environments.
    I spent a couple of summers working in my grandfathers furniture store downtown that had no air conditioning. That first summer nearly did me in, but the second acclimation happened more easily. I would park myself in front of a fan with an icy drink. We were also just down the street from G's which helped too! Ice cream does wonders for heat induced crankiness.
    I applaud you for going as long as you have. The night would do me in. I HATE being hot when I am trying to sleep. I struggle nightly to keep from turning down the AC to my preferred sleeping temperature. (Which is about 62 degrees. Easy to come by in the winter) In my opinion your compromise on the AC is pretty good, as I am sure I would whine about 85 degrees at night. The learning and experience is still there, which is very much the spirit of this venutre I think!

  2. Ok I had to laugh at my security word for my last entry, it was COLDALAT. How appropriate!

  3. As a kid, I grew up in a house that had no air conditioning. In fact, it still doesn't. It's just north of Topeka. I remember sleeping outside a number of times there as a child. Or sweating up a storm all night long inside. Since we were home all summer and outside most of the day we were a little more used to it but not much.

  4. Justin installed a window unit in our bedroom today... last night was a last straw for us too.

  5. I admit it: I scurry from one A/C'd place to another. I wear tank tops in 78 degree weather I am a total wimp. In my defense, I have a problem with fainting in the heat, and that is totally not fun. Conking your head on the asphalt is so embarrassing! I think your decision is a "rational" compromise.

  6. Wow! People wonder how we manage winters up here, but you can always put up more insulation, put on another layer, or even get moving and keep warm. There's only so much you can do to cool off, though.

    When we have nights that are over 68F, a heat alert warning is issued. Unfortunately, those are becoming increasingly common.

  7. I know I'm commenting on a 2 year old post here, but hey, if I'm reading through your whole blog now, surely others are too.

    Anyways, growing up in Chicago, we didn't have A/C and would sleep in the basement during hot summers. It was deliciously cool.

    Of course, we now live in Houston, and there's no living down here without A/C. Its always 95%+ humidity and 100+ temps every summer. And that 100+ doesn't even count the heat index.

    I spent a few years in Atlanta. I didn't even have A/C, and after living in Houston, I didn't even need it.

  8. I’m glad that your conscience was eased about using your AC. Times then were different. The environment was a lot less harsh. I think a compromise temperature that’s a little higher than 85 degrees wouldn’t exactly be remiss, considering how much hotter it is these days than back then. As long as your house is not cooler than necessary, then I think using your air conditioner in your circumstances is just fine.