Simple Tips for Keeping a House Cool in Summer

Here in Denver, August 2011 proved to be a hot one – it has just been certified by the National Weather Service as the hottest August on record, narrowly edging out August 1937 for the highest average temperature for the month, 77 degrees this August versus 76.8 back in the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

Yes, September is here and Autumn and cooler weather is on the way, but the Summer of 2011 has a lot of people wondering how best to keep a house cool when the thermometer continually rises above the comfort zone. It’s not only just a comfort issue, of course: people with air conditioning or swamp cooler units know all too well that energy bills for this summer season also hit record highs, and they are looking for a little cost relief as well.

At Chase Custom Homes we build custom homes for clients throughout the year, but anytime a project is started one of the key questions that arises in the design phase is how to build a dream home that will stay cool each and every summer, keeping that dream comfortable for the people inside and their pocketbooks.

The good news is that Denver isn’t Oklahoma City or Atlanta or Cincinnati or any number of American locales where the locals are fond of saying “if it isn’t the heat, it’s the humidity.” Colorado, of course, enjoys relatively low humidity, so while 98 degrees is indeed hot in these parts, it doesn’t compare with the sweltering degrees-plus-high-humidity you’ll find in many other places. Still, keeping house temperatures low in summer is a high priority. And, many of the techniques to keep the house cool also work well, with some alterations, at keeping it warm in winter and keeping heating costs low.

There was a time, of course, before there was air conditioning or even electrics fans, and architects, builders and city planners of the day put a lot of effort into making a house palatable for weather extremes. For city planning, consider this: Denver is laid out on a north/south grid so that most of the housing faces east or west, limiting the southern, hotter exposure and the northern, colder exposure. Then all those beautiful deciduous trees that line the parkways and rights-of-way between the street and sidewalk where added for much more than the aesthetics, but also for the shade that offers relief from the summer sun (and with the leaves gone in winter, sunlight warmth comes through).

Builders of the day made sure that homes were constructed with ample windows that provided cross ventilation, and with porches that further provided shade, particularly for the front and back windows and entrances. The ceilings were high to allow heat to rise, as well. Ask anyone who lives in a home that’s a century old or more and they will invariably note how cool the house stays, particularly in the downstairs, even on the hottest days. This was no accident.

Like everything else we humans did over the last century when technology and modern conveniences were looked at to overcome any challenge, we somehow lost the art of homebuilding blending in with the environment, and relied instead on air conditioning and modern heating sources to do the job. Only with rising energy costs and a heightened concern for our impact on the environment have we begun to think of the simple measures our great grandparents knew as common sense. 

There are, of course, lessons in this, and we at Chase Custom Homes, as homebuilders, put a lot of thought into the art of homebuilding. We think of site acclimation, shade sources, workable windows, window size in conjunction with exposure, lighter-colored roofs and paved surfaces that reflect more heat, and building materials for the foundations and walls that eschew heat build-up and also support inside temperatures – warm and cool – with less outside influence when necessary. We also take a close look at window coverings that are versatile for both reflecting heat and retaining warmth depending on the season, porches and patio coverings that enhance comfort, ceiling fans that add beauty and boost both cooling and heating, and we go the extra mile in the design of HVAC systems that promote both cooling and heating at the highest efficiencies possible.

Of course, if it’s a new home under consideration we can design in both the age-old techniques in the art of homebuilding, as well as the modern conveniences of life, and get just the right combination for modern living. But any homeowner can look at a few Simple Tips for Keeping a House Cool in Summer, not to mention more efficiently warm in the winter, to add to their comfort and financial well-being.

• Shade. It can’t be stressed too much. Plant trees and bushes, add awnings or porch roofs: anything that can block as much direct sunlight from hitting the windows, doors and roofs of a house will go a long way in keeping the house cool and reducing cooling costs.
• Great windows. Old windows that don’t insulate as well or don’t open anymore aren’t helping the cooling or heating situation. Replacing windows will, particularly those in strategic locations for cross-ventilation or in high-use rooms. And get windows that OPEN – open windows can add comfort in Spring, Summer and Fall. 
• Window coverings. You know where the sun hits your home throughout the day, especially in the late afternoon when the heat index is at its highest, so get curtains or blinds that block as much of the sun’s rays as possible.
• Close the house tight during the day. In Colorado, the evening and night gets relatively cool even on the hottest days, and the house will also cool off. By keeping the house sealed up tight during day, the amount of heat and humidity that enters the structure will be minimized. While you’re at it, check all the seals around windows and doors to block indoor/outdoor air exchange (also good for winter).
• Ventilate, particularly at night. Open windows at night, particularly to create cross-ventilation, and this can be enhanced with the use of electric fans placed in the windows to draw the cooler air in (just be sure to close the windows and turn off the fan during the day when the opposite will occur). Also, keep interior doors open to facilitate air flow.
• Ceiling fans. Ceiling fans really help to keep indoor air temperatures down in the summer (and up in winter) by circulating the air.
• Limit the use of hot appliances. Try as much as possible not to use the oven, stove, dishwasher, or laundry, or at best limit their use as they each add a ton of unwanted heat in living spaces. Run the dishwasher or laundry overnight.
• Lights add heat. As anyone with a Depression-era father already knows, turning off lights saves money – and it also reduces heat. Use as few lights as possible in the home to reduce heat, and where possible use fluorescent lights or the new spiraled CFC light bulbs, both of which give off less heat and use less energy. 

Air conditioning and swamp coolers add to the comfort of any home, but there are several issues related to them that homeowners should be aware of to enhance comfort and save money.

• Get a new unit. If you’re swamp cooler or air conditioning unit are more than 7 years old, consider getting a new one. The newer ones, and especially those rated EnergyStar, are much more efficient, putting out more cool air and costing less that units new just a few years ago.
• Clean filters. Clogged filters rob these units of efficiencies, and cleaning out the filters every two weeks or so will keep them working as they were designed.
• Shade the units. Whether it’s an A/C unit outside off the side of the house or a swamp cooler up on the roof, the more the sun beats down on it the harder it will have to work. Cover them, plant trees to block the sun, build a structured roof (several feet above the unit) to block direct sun, move the units to a more shady spot (like on the north side of the house.
• Close of rooms. Back to that Depression-era father: “I’m not cooling off the neighborhood!” Shut the vents or the doors in unoccupied rooms and cool only the spaces that you will be spending time in.
• Use ceiling fans. Once again, air circulation will enhance the efficiency of any cooling unit.
• Get a programmable thermostat. This also work well for winter, but a relatively inexpensive programmable thermostat helps manage indoor temperatures much more. It will minimize the use of appliances when people are working or at school, and can be programmed to cool down or heat up just in time for the arrival home. Many of the newer ones can even be operated remotely on a computer or smart phone, so alte5rations – like an unexpected dinner out – can be taken into consideration easily.

As has been noted, most of these techniques will also help with improving comfort and boosting energy efficiencies throughout the year, so while you may be contemplating the winter don’t forget that another summer will be just around the corner.