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Home Cooling Systems: Cut Your Cooling Costs In Half, Even Eliminate Them

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Course Summary: Home Cooling

The most important thing you need to take away from this lesson is…

You can cut your home cooling costs in half easily, even eliminate them. Cooling  your house can be accomplished easily with proper planning.

Although your first thought for home cooling may be air conditioning, there are many alternatives that provide cooling with less energy use. A combination of proper insulation, energy-efficient windows and doors, daylighting, shading, and ventilation will usually keep homes cool with a low amount of energy use in all but the hottest climates.

Ventilation Systems

Ventilation is the least expensive and most energy-efficient way to cool buildings. Ventilation works best when combined with methods to avoid heat buildup in your home. In some cases, natural ventilation will suffice for cooling, although it usually needs to be supplemented with spot ventilation, ceiling fans and window fans. For large homes, homeowners might want to investigate whole house fans.

passive cooling

Ventilation is ineffective in hot, humid climates where temperature swings between day and night are small. In these climates, attic ventilation can help to reduce your use of air conditioning. Ventilating your attic greatly reduces the amount of accumulated heat, which eventually works its way into the main part of your house.

Ventilated attics are about 30°F (16°C) cooler than unventilated attics. Properly sized and placed louvers and roof vents help prevent moisture buildup and overheating in your attic.

Natural Ventilation

Natural ventilation relies on the wind and the "chimney effect" to keep a home cool. Natural ventilation works best in climates with cool nights and regular breezes.

The wind will naturally ventilate your home by entering or leaving windows, depending on their orientation to the wind. When wind blows against your home, air is forced into your windows on the side facing into the wind, while a natural vacuum effect tends to draw air out of windows on the leeward (downwind) side.

wind flow

In coastal climates, many seaside buildings are designed with large ocean-facing windows to take advantage of cooling sea breezes. For drier climates, natural ventilation involves avoiding heat buildup during the day and ventilating at night.

The chimney effect relies on convection and occurs when cool air enters a home on the first floor or basement, absorbs heat in the room, rises, and exits through upstairs windows.

This creates a partial vacuum, which pulls more air in through lower-level windows. The effect works best in open-air designs with cathedral ceilings and windows located near the top of the house, in clerestories, or in operable skylights.

Passive solar homes are often designed to take advantage of convection to distribute heat evenly through the home. These homes are often amenable to natural ventilation by ventilating them near the top.

Natural ventilation can be enhanced or diminished through landscaping. Depending on the house design and wind direction, a windbreak—like a fence, hedge, or row of trees that blocks the wind—can force air either into or away from nearby windows.

Ceiling Fans and Other Circulating Fans for home cooling
ceiling fans

Circulating fans include ceiling fans, table fans, floor fans, and fans mounted to poles or walls. These fans create a wind chill effect that will make you more comfortable in your home, even if it's also cooled by natural ventilation or air conditioning.

Ceiling fans are considered the most effective of these types of fans, since they effectively circulate the air in a room to create a draft throughout the room.

If you use air conditioning, a ceiling fan will allow you to raise the thermostat setting about 4°F with no reduction in comfort. In temperate climates, or during moderately hot weather, ceiling fans may allow you to avoid using your air conditioner altogether. Install a fan in each room that needs to be cooled during hot weather.

Ceiling fans are only appropriate in rooms with ceilings at least eight feet high. Fans work best when the blades are 7–9 feet above the floor and 10–12 inches below the ceiling. Fans should be installed so their blades are no closer than 8 inches from the ceiling and 18 inches from the walls.

Larger ceiling fans can move more air than smaller fans. A 36- or 44-inch diameter fan will cool rooms up to 225 square feet, while fans that are 52 inches or more should be used in larger rooms. Multiple fans work best in rooms longer than 18 feet. Small- and medium-sized fans will provide efficient cooling in a 4- to 6-foot diameter area, while larger fans are effective up to 10 feet.

Evaporative Coolers

In this example of an evaporative cooler, a small motor (top) drives a large fan (center) which blows air out the bottom and into your home. The fan sucks air in through the louvers around the box, which are covered with water-saturated absorbent material.

evaporative cooler

In low-humidity areas, evaporating water into the air provides a natural and energy-efficient means of cooling.

Evaporative coolers, also called swamp coolers, rely on this principal, cooling outdoor air by passing it over water-saturated pads, causing the water to evaporate into it. The 15°–40°F-cooler air is then directed into the home, and pushes warmer air out through windows.

When operating an evaporative cooler, windows are opened part way to allow warm indoor air to escape as it is replaced by cooled air. Unlike central air conditioning systems that recirculate the same air, evaporative coolers provide a steady stream of fresh air into the house.

Evaporative home cooling cost about one-half as much to install as central air conditioners and use about one-quarter as much energy. However, they require more frequent maintenance than refrigerated air conditioners and they're suitable only for areas with low humidity.

  • In general, evaporative cooling can be used where:
    • 1. temperatures are high;
    • 2. humidity is low;
    • 3. water can be spared for this use; and
    • 4. air movement is available (from wind or electric fans).


An evaporative cooler should have at least two speeds and a vent-only option. During vent-only operation, the water pump does not operate and the outdoor air is not humidified. This lets you use the evaporative cooler as a whole-house fan during mild weather.

how evaporative cooling works

Control the cooler's air movement through the house by adjusting window openings. Open the windows or vents on the leeward side of the house to provide 1–2 square feet of opening for each 1,000 cfm of home cooling capacity.

Experiment to find the right windows to open and the correct amount to open them. If the windows are open too far, hot air will enter. If the windows are not open far enough, humidity will build up in the home.

You can regulate both temperature and humidity by opening windows in the areas you want to cool, and closing windows in unoccupied areas.

Where open windows create a security issue, install up-ducts in the ceiling. Up-ducts open to exhaust warm air into the attic as cooler air comes in from the evaporative cooler. Evaporative coolers installed with up-ducts will need additional attic ventilation.

Optional filters remove most of the dust from incoming air—an attractive option for homeowners concerned about allergies. Filters can also reduce the tendency of some coolers to pull water droplets from the pads into the blades of the fan. Most evaporative coolers do not have air filters as original equipment, but they can be fitted to the cooler during or after installation.

Two-Stage Evaporative Coolers

Two-stage evaporative coolers are newer and even more efficient. They use a pre-cooler, more effective pads, and more efficient motors, and don't add as much humidity to the home as single-stage evaporative coolers. Because of their added expense, they are most often used in areas where daytime temperatures frequently exceed 100°F.

Drawbacks of Evaporative Coolers

Evaporative home cooling should not be used in humid climates because they add humidity. Also, they cool your house down to a higher temperature than an air conditioner would. They require maintenance (albeit easy) about once a month. If the cooler is installed on the roof, there is some roof deterioration caused by routine maintenance trips. A sunlit rooftop cooler will be about 1°F less effective than a shaded cooler. Rooftop maintenance also requires using a ladder, which may be an inconvenience.

By their nature, evaporative coolers also continually use water. In areas with limited water supplies, homeowners may be concerned about the water-use impact of adding an evaporative cooler.

Absorption Home Cooling

In the more tropical portions of the Southern U.S., where air temperatures peak above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the day, humidity is high, and overall low night time temperatures remain above 80 degrees, a solar-powered “absorption chiller” can be used to reduce air temperature and humidity in the interior living quarters down as low as any human could possibly desire.

absortion system

The absorption chiller concept is unfamiliar to most homebuyers, architects and builders today. They are skeptical about everything that they do not understand.

In the 1920’s, this reliable, low-cost, noiseless, phase-change, absorption cooling technology was used extensively in “gas refrigerators”, especially in urban-and-rural homes that had no electricity.

Many modern designers are not familiar with the characteristics or economics of absorption home cooling. It revived for use in Recreation vehicles.

A water-based absorption chiller can inexpensively drop the temperature down to 40 degrees. Other non-water versions can go well below freezing for making ice, etc.

When powered by concentrated solar energy (instead of 1920’s natural gas), absorption chillers cost almost nothing to operate, and have essentially nothing in them to wear out (as do today’s noisy, expensive, electromechanical freon-compressor-based air conditioners and refrigerators, which have to be replaced at high cost every few years). The heat source causes circulation, fluid/gas phase change, and cooling.

Absorption home cooling is essentially an air conditioner driven not by electricity, but by a heat source such as natural gas, propane, solar-heated water, or geothermal-heated water. Because natural gas is the most common heat source for absorption cooling, it is also referred to as gas-fired cooling. Although mainly used in industrial or commercial settings, absorption coolers are now commercially available for large residential homes.

Absorption home cooling usually only makes sense in homes without an electricity source, but may also be employed to make use of renewable energy. Absorption cooling is essentially a heat pump technology; absorption coolers are absorption heat pumps that are not set up to allow their use as a heating device.

What You Can Do Starting Today

Almost anyone can determine the way the wind predominately blows during the summertime. Using this simple natural system, you can easily figure out which windows to open. Add window fans to these windows, pulling cooler air into the room, and blowing it out will almost always result in a cooler, more comfortable, room.

Now try this; locate the hottest rooms, and open those windows too, only this time, face the fans in the opposite direction. That is, reverse the fans so they are blowing OUT. This will create a natural convection.

You can take this concept one step further by adding small “vent” windows at the top of the ceiling. This is not hard, or expensive to do. An easy week-end job. What you’ll do in effect is put small 6” x 18” vents in the top of the room.

You could also put the same at the bottom of wall on the “cool” side of the house. This can be easily accomplished by adding them to the top and bottoms of existing windows.

north wind

What this will do is create a natural “Breeze” though-out your house. Try it! You’ll be surprised. In some climates, this is all that is necessary to adequately cool your house, even in the depths of summer. You won’t need air conditioning. In most places in the US, this can be sufficient.

That, of course, is only the beginning. Look at ways, depending on your climate, of permanently reducing and/or eliminating the need for air conditioning. I’ve presented solutions here for all climates.

Take it a step at a time. Determine your climate, your needs, and your comfort zone. Don’t assume because you live in a humid, coastal area, or the desert there aren’t solutions available…there are. People lived for 1000’s of years without home cooling. They made the best of their environments and you can too.

With a little planning, forethought, and research you can design a low cost alternative. Maybe you’ll find convection is all that is needed. Maybe you’ll need to add a attic fan, or ceiling fans to get even better cooling.

Maybe you’ll decide an evaporative home cooling will work for you. All of these ideas are more cost effective than the solution (air conditioners, central air) you are using now.

As always assess the situation, plan a replacement, take action.

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