Heat

The local weather forecasters are predicting we’ll hit 100F temperatures this weekend. While I’m not expecting rolling blackouts or anything, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we have brownouts popping up here or there, along with some highway pavement.

Here in Minnesota, when it comes to post-carbon shelter issues, winter heating is usually seen as the number one priority, especially by commentators that live elsewhere. One of the glories of living in the middle of the continent, though, is that we get to deal with a massive swing in temperatures and humidity levels as the seasons turn, and the houses many of us live in are poorly equipped to handle either extreme heat or extreme cold without a healthy input of electricity and/or natural gas.

My previous dwelling, for example, was constructed in the last 6 years and met Minnesota’s rather strict energy-efficiency regulations. However, we had two episodes where our furnace died in the middle of winter, and in the space of a few hours the inside temps dropped from 70F to around 50F and would have gone lower had not the cavalry (in the form of Xcel Energy Service) ridden to the rescue. Likewise, when we lost power in the middle of the hottest days of summer last year for a day, the inside temps quickly climbed into the 80’s and would have gone higher.

In the good old days, people designed their houses for decent air flow in the summer, and used nature’s air condioners, a.k.a. trees to help shield their houses from the pounding sunlight that can turn any place into a convection oven in the middle of August. Nowdays, central air conditioning has allowed home designers to focues much more on the look of the house, with internal layouts that may be aesthetically pleasing, but have no natural pathways for breezes to make their way through the house.

Another popular option these days in the burbs is for the wall of glass along the living area in the back of the house. I pass by many such houses daily, and many of them have these walls facing either south or west, and are unshielded by any trees larger than 15 feet tall (if there are any trees at all). While this would allow a great deal of solar heat into the house in the winter, in the summer, that same wall of windows will turn the house into a blast furnace when the owners either cannot afford to pay for air conditioning, or they simply can’t get the power at all.

Without the benefit of mature trees to protect them from the ravages of the summer, many of these vinyl-clad, black-roofed boxes will be very unpleasant to dwell in once power becomes too dear to afford. People will still need to live in them, because they probably won’t be able to afford to leave thanks to a crushing mortage. So, what will they do?

One thought I have had is to prepare a ‘cold room’ in your basement, if you’ve got one. My house has a walkout in the back, but due to siting angles and a handy screen porch, the majority of the basement takes no direct sunlight until late in the day. The temps in the basement are always 10 degrees or more cooler than they are on the main floor, and probably 15 degrees cooler than our upstairs. If you’ve got a full basement, odds are good it can get even cooler down there. Most people have their bedrooms in the uppermost floor of their dwelling. This makes good sense in the winter time, but in the summer, you’re just subjecting yourself to more heat. Why not make arrangements to have a place in the basement you can live and sleep in during the summer if necessary?

This obviously won’t be a popular option for most people right now while energy costs are still reasonable, but in the coming years it may be something to consider. I’ll have the poker table and beer fridge down there already, so I’m pretty much set.

Stay cool, if you can.

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