Coping With a Broken Air Conditioning System In The Summer

ByMarc Silberberg


The present generation is in awe and wonder at how previous generations lived in the sweltering heat without air conditioning. Stories of sleeping on fire escapes (if the Generation X even knows what they are) sound so homey and original. Sweating during the night without any covers was common and solutions ranged from those lucky enough to have country residences or rentals to those who frequented the beaches daily. I have fond memories of waking up every summer morning getting straight into my bathing suit and robe and walking the two blocks to the beach with my mom and sisters. There, we spend the bulk of the day, mom chatting with her friends on their beach chairs and the children playing in the sand and cooling off in the ocean.

The word, “day camp” was not even in my vocabulary because summer was the time of relaxing and not holding to any particular schedule. Lunch was a simple sandwich that my mom put together before we left our house and yes there might have been a grain or two of sand that blew into our food but that was the way it was. A trek to the ice cream vendor on the beach with the reward of a cone or pop was a real treat that we relished.

In other words, relief from the heat was finding a place outdoors to cool off, whether on the fire escape at night for those city apartment dwellers, a two-month vacation stay in the country, or spending the day at the beach for those fortunate to live close to the ocean. In later years when portable air conditioners became popular and available, families would huddle close to the machine and/or sleep together in the one room that had the air conditioner, usually the parents’ bedroom. The time period that we have described took place from the 1950’s through the sixties but what about hundreds of years prior to those years? Was the weather that much cooler than today since we have what many environmentalists call, global warming? Not necessarily.

Rock Hall Museum

Last week, I took a short trip to a small neighborhood museum with my eight-year-old grandson while the temperature climbed into the nineties. The operator at the Rock Hall Museum advised us to visit in the morning and we made a ten thirty AM tour appointment. Surprisingly, as we walked into the old house, (it was built in the 1700’s) I was surprised that the temperature was bearable. The tour guide explained to us that homes at the time were built to tackle the cold in the winter and the summer heat. Of course, each room had its own fireplace to keep it warm in the winter, but what about the summer? How did the occupants survive without air conditioning?

Matthew, our tour guide pointed out several reasons. Firstly, the high ceilings were instrumental in preserving the cool air that circulated through the cross ventilation of the air from the large windows on all sides of the house. At the time the house was built, there were no other homes blocking the shore breeze so that helped keep the people cool. We actually were able to experience the ventilation that was present due to the high ceilings and large windows. Trees around the house keep out the sun and there is no cooking kitchen in the home at all! Yes, that is true and no they did order Grubhub or some other local restaurant food. As we descended the stairway to the basement, we felt the coolness increase and we were shown an historical kitchen with utensils and other cooking equipment, and we did not even notice the absence of cooking elements if Mathew had not pointed this fact out to us explicitly. To prevent fires, all the cooking was done outside, especially in the summer. (I neglected to ask what happened in the winter and would guess that either fire was not so prevalent when the kitchen was cold, or the servants actually had to cook outside in the winter as well.)

We all know today that we live in a completely different society and way of life. Most of us keep our windows closed and our ceilings are not that high unless our homes are custom built. Yet, air conditioners and HVACs are not fool proof and even the mighty Titanic sunk. So how can we best live without our AC as we wait impatiently for it to be reinstated?

Tips for Survival Until the Repairman Arrives

1) Unless you have a home with good cross ventilation and high ceilings, don’t open your windows if the day is extremely hot. You will end up letting more heat into your home and make things worse. Instead, draw the shades and curtains (this is what they were meant for besides decorations.)

2) If possible, leave your home while you wait for the AC technician to appear. In the olden days before cell phones this would not be possible but thank goodness, you’re technician can text, WhatsApp and even phone you when he is on his way to your house giving you ample time to meet him. You can frequent the mall or supermarket even if you don’t end up buying a thing or chill out at a family or friend’s house whom you never take the time to visit. Maybe, grandma would love a visit from the grandkids, and you can tag along. If you are fortunate enough to be alone and the kids are safely in camp, then why not treat yourself to an iced latte at Starbucks and do your work or Netflix on your phone or iPad?

3) If you must stay home make sure not to use any heat generating machines. Turn off all lights that you don’t need and try to be without the ones you usually use. No dryer turning at all and incidentally, it is much better to use your dryer at night when power usage is less. Take advantage of your outdoor grill for dinner or make a salad and sandwich so that you will not have to turn on your oven and stove.

4) Have you ever seen a person walking outside in the heat with a wet shirt on their head? You can try the same thing at home while waiting for the repairman to show up. To stay comfortable simply wrap a cloth that was soaked in cold water around your head and walk around holding ice packs when your hands are free.

Should You Hire the Technician Who Can Come the Quickest?

This all depends on your quality of life and the standard of living that you are used to. A few months after we purchased our first house the central air broke down. Since we bought the house in the winter and had moved in early in the spring, we did not have the opportunity to check the central air. Suddenly we were living in a ranch house with no air conditioning. It was truly unbearable, and we had to fork out money that we really did not have and call a strange company because we could not live even a day without our house being cool. Yes, it was fixed promptly but at an expense that we did not have a chance to compare with any other company. If you can take the heat or have an alternate place to live temporarily it definitely pays to wait for your own AC company to come. Hopefully, you will have a service contract and will not have to pay dearly for a sudden breakdown of your AC. In addition, it is prudent to have your AC checked prior to the summer for any adjustments that need to be attended to as well as changing your filters often. Don’t try to fix your system by yourself; it could be both dangerous and costly.

Final Words

The experience at the Rock Hall Museum can help us to understand the underlying conditions that make certain homes more manageable during an AC breakdown. If you are fortunate to have the opportunity to design and construct your own home or are doing major renovations, then try to have climate friendly additions to keep your home naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Trees and shrubbery are so important not only for aesthetic reasons but for climate control. Try not to cut down trees when you are getting a property ready for building. Yes, it’s true that you can always plant new ones, but they take time to grow tall enough to give proper shade. Windows that are placed in proper cross ventilation spots will give you the opportunity to open them in the spring and fall making AC unnecessary during those seasons. Determining where the sun is and when can make all the difference between a comfortable home in the summer and the sun beating down from a skylight.

Cooking outdoors in the summer is always practical both for cleanup purposes and heat protection even when the AC is working. It will save you money so that your AC will not be working overtime from the heat produced from a hot kitchen. So yes, we are living in convenient times when it comes to the once luxury and now necessity of central air conditioning. Yet, we can still learn some lessons of how people lived in the olden times.

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