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Now here's a hot idea: Keeping cool


About this time of year, when summer's checked in for a long stay, the "hottest" projects on most homeowners' lists of things to do involve keeping cool.

If you're fortunate enough to have central air conditioning, that may be an easy task: Just sit back and relax. But a lot of us don't have central air. Folks who live in old houses often don't have that particular modern convenience, but that doesn't mean we can't be cool, too. There are a number of ways to keep your house comfortable when the mercury soars.

A reader in Baltimore wrote asking for "the best way to keep a house without air conditioning as cool as possible during hot summer days."

The trick is to keep the air moving -- that is, to keep hot air escaping from the higher points of the house and cooler air coming in at lower levels. Even something as simple as opening a window on the second floor can help, as it will give rising hot air a place to escape. And it's especially effective if the open window is just above a stairwell.

The reader doesn't say how old her house is, but if it dates to the turn of the century or before, it may have built-in features designed to keep the air moving and let the heat out. High ceilings, transom windows above doors, central air shafts, ventilated skylights and shutters with louvers can all help with air management. (If you're planning to rehab an old house, it's worthwhile identifying these features and designing a plan that preserves them.)

An attic fan can help considerably in cooling off any house. If you don't have one, install a powerful window fan in an upstairs room, or in a room on the hottest side of the house. It can help expel hot air and pull in air from cooler parts of the house.

Keeping shades or curtains closed over windows on the hottest side of the house (usually the south side) can help as well.

Ceiling fans are an old-fashioned convenience that keep air moving across your skin, making you feel cooler. It wouldn't hurt to have some kind of fan in every room, so hot air doesn't get trapped. Or you may want to shut off rooms that don't get much use.

Outside awnings can help keep hot air away from windows; trees that shed their leaves in winter but provide a lot of shade in summer can also help. Can't wait for a tree to grow? How about using a trellis or arbor and some fast-growing vines?

If you're not home during the day, consider leaving shades drawn and curtains closed. If the house is reasonably well-insulated, you can conserve a surprising amount of cooler nighttime air.

Installing central air-conditioning is expensive and can be difficult to do in an old house without destroying some of the character. But a couple of window air-conditioning units can make a considerable difference in the comfort level of the house. Even with just one unit, installed in a central spot, you can use fans to pull the cooler air into other places in the house. And keeping the hot air moving out with an exhaust fan will make the unit more efficient.

The best places for window units are in sleeping rooms and in some central room where the family congregates. Having pools of cold air to step into will make the hottest house more bearable.

It may take some experimentation to figure out what combination of window units, open windows, closed shades, and fans exhausting hot air will keep your house coolest.

While you're looking for ways to cool off, don't forget your own internal cooling: tea, soda, or mineral water with lots of ice will make you feel better and prevent problems from dehydration. It's important to get enough liquid, even if you're sedentary. And it's especially important if you're working around the house.

It might also help to think about last winter: Remember trying to break ice off the steps with a hammer? Wearing golf shoes to get from the house to the car? Remember the sleet storms and the frigid winds? That should be enough to give anyone a chill.

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column.

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