Surviving the summer swelter

There are things you can do to cool your home besides just cranking the air conditioner

How can you beat the summer heat?

How can you beat the summer heat?

Photo by Larry Dalton

Soon it will hit you, if it hasn’t already. You’ll hit the employee parking lot one afternoon just before 5 o’clock and realize you’ve walked out into a hellish mockery of the cool green world you inhabited just yesterday.

That’s the way summer works around here. One day it’s the Garden of Eden, the next day it’s a hostile, alien world unfit for human life. You get in the car where the superheated air inside stuns you into semi-consciousness, and the palms of your hands immediately heat-graft themselves to the steering wheel.

Somehow you make it home, although you’re pretty sure you blacked out a couple of times before the air conditioning kicked in. You make your way to the front door through the shimmery heat-mirage glare of 100-plus degrees.

Closing your front door behind you, it quickly becomes obvious that the inferno inside is a lot like the one outside, but with furniture. Summer nights can be hell for the unprepared.

If you had loads of cash, which you probably don’t, you’d have a new central heating and air conditioning unit installed, new airtight windows and reflective roofing materials—the whole nine yards. Or you’d just splurge for a few months and head to Alaska to watch the caribou frolic. Everybody’s got their priorities.

But it seems you’re stuck. So your first temptation will of course be to crank that window air conditioner up and run it all day and all night. That’s a fine strategy, but one you will probably need to rethink once you get your electricity bill. And your conscience is vaguely telling you that, even if you could afford it, it’s not nice to hog up so much energy. After all, do you really think blackouts are a thing of the past? And think of the caribou. Will there be any left when the energy companies tear up their frolicking grounds?

Luckily, if you can scrape together a few bucks, or even if you can’t, there are a lot of things you can do to make your home habitable, and somewhat easier on the environment, during the coming season in hell.

Now, what follows is by no means an exhaustive list of summer cooling strategies. There simply wouldn’t be room. But the most important thing to remember is that there are a lot of options once you start using a little common sense. Energy expert Hugh Fowler, SMUD’s director of Residential Energy Programs, says, “With any conservation effort, what seems to work best is a lot of little things.”

He suggests you call or visit SMUD online to complete your own home energy audit and find out which conservation strategies will work best for you.

As a general rule, your first line of defense is to keep the heat that’s outside your house from getting into your house. Start by planting some trees. It’s not going to help you this year, but you’ll be glad you did in a year or two. SMUD offers their customers free shade trees, and will even plant them for you.

It is possible, however, to grow some cooling cover on short notice. Vines grown on trellises on the east- and west-facing walls grow quickly and provide good shade cover. Keep the shades drawn during the day. Outside shades and awnings hanging over the windows that get a lot of sun exposure will do a far better job keeping the house cool than your regular inside shades.

The next trick to keeping the AC to a minimum is to get the hot air out of your house as soon as the outside temperature begins to dip. The hottest air, of course, is always in the attic, just under the roof that has been absorbing the sun’s rays all day. Sacramento attics in the summer can get up to 140 degrees.

Purchasing a “whole house fan” for as little as $150 is a good way to keep cool air circulating. At a minimum, make sure the attic has at least two openings to vent, so that a cross breeze will move out some of that stagnant superheated air.

If your attic isn’t properly insulated, you could be losing a lot of energy and getting a lot of heat radiating down into your house. Fowler said that if you’re going to spend a little money, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by replacing the insulation.

Speaking of insulation, you may be losing more energy than you realize in little leaks throughout the house. In the typical older house, all the little cracks and spaces under doors, in window frames and other spots usually add up to one big hole the size of a basketball, said Fowler. A little bit of caulk and a few hours of work can cut out a lot of waste.

Finally, you should look at heat sources inside your home. You may not think about it, but household appliances are often heating your house and using energy at peak times of day. Don’t start the dishwasher or washer and dryer until after the air outside cools down.

Your refrigerator is also heating your house. You probably can’t turn your refrigerator off, unless it’s an extra one in the garage that you don’t really need. But you can cut down on the heat and save energy by making sure the coils on the back of the fridge—you know, where all those dust bunnies are—are kept clean.

Up to 70 percent of the energy used by an incandescent light bulb is actually wasted in heat. Keep lights you’re not using off, and replace them with compact fluorescent lights where possible. Replacing a few light bulbs won’t make a noticeable difference, but it all adds up.

Of course, if you do have a lot of money to spend, there’s almost no end to the things you can do to make your home more energy efficient and comfortable. Check with SMUD to get more information about the wide array of energy-efficient appliances and home improvements.

We also suggest you think a little outside the box and consider two cutting-edge technologies that can not only keep your house cooler, but could actually bring down the temperature in your whole neighborhood. These are “cool roofs” and “green roofs.”

Cool roofs are made of reflective roofing materials, usually light in color, that reflect much of the sunlight normally absorbed by conventional roofing materials. The beauty of cool roofs is that it will not only help cool your house, but in a small way will help lessen the “urban heat island effect” that makes areas like Sacramento a few degrees warmer in the early evening than outlying rural areas. Cool roofs are relatively new and expensive, but some rebates are available through both SMUD and the Sacramento Tree Foundation. See for more information.

Even more intriguing is the growing interest in “green roofs,” mostly in Canada but making its way to the States. These are fairly sophisticated systems for growing plants or grass on your roof to create new green space. The green roof not only provides a cooling benefit, but can also be a boon for local birds and other animal species. Find out more at

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