Air Conditioning: A Minimalist Approach

Living with less air conditioning can save you money and hassles. And it can prove that you’re more adaptable than you think.

I told you recently that you’re probably an expert on more things than you think. I just realized I’m an expert on living with minimal air conditioning. And I live in Texas, by the way.

Several years ago, the central air conditioning in our home started to fail. The type of unit we had couldn’t handle the amount of dust and humidity in our location, so excess water would run from the cooling coils into the electrical circuits below, shorting out various parts.

We had three choices: We could have the coils cleaned and the damage repaired in an effort to make the poorly-designed system work.

Or we could replace the entire system at a cost of thousands of dollars. Either way, we would have to put the work on a credit card — and replacing the system would also require remodeling the area where the unit lives inside the house to accommodate a side-by-side unit rather than the problematic arrangement of having the coils above the heater and blower.

Or we could abandon the central heat and air and try something else.

For at least four years now, we’ve been managing with electric heaters (with every imaginable safety feature in place) and room air conditioners.

The portable air conditioner near my office and the window unit in the bedroom don’t keep the house at an optimal temperate all the time, but we get by just fine. And surprisingly, we’re saving money every month. Even with the built-in inefficiencies of small air conditioners, we’re paying less for electricity than we did before — and, of course, we saved thousands upfront by not replacing the damaged system.

Even if your air works fine, you can save by turning it up or off. From personal experience, here are some tips for keeping cool with minimal air conditioning.

1. Dress for it. Don’t dress for a dinner party — including shoes, socks and long sleeves — to hang around the house. Wear shorts and don’t cover your head or feet.

2. Adjust your bedding. Remove the blanket from your bed. We sleep covered with a sheet and sometimes a comforter. A blanket (or two) returns in winter.

3. Use what you have to full advantage. Arrange whatever portable or window air conditioners you have so that they blow on you when your in your most frequently used locations.

4. Use fans. Experts say fans don’t work when no one is in the room to feel them, but they can help pull air from a small air conditioner one or two rooms away. And most people feel cooler with air blowing on them.

5. Get rid of humidity. Do everything you can to reduce indoor humidity and that will make it feel cooler. If you have a dehumidifier or portable air conditioner with a dehumidify setting, use it. When it is hottest, don’t run a dishwasher, which blows hot, humid air from its vents into your kitchen. Poorly vented dryers do that, too, and washing machines generate some humidity. A hot shower generates humidity, too.

6. Don’t work against yourself. Some portable air conditioners work by blowing air across wet pads, adding cool, moist air to your home. Others work by using a compressor to condense away humidity so they can blow cool, dry air. Use one system or the other — and in most climates, that should be one that dries.

7. Don’t let the kitchen make you and the house hot. We don’t use our oven in the summer at all. There’s no reason to heat a box that vents inside your home to over 400 degrees when you’re trying to cool the place. Limit boiling and other cooking processes that release hot steam also. And try eat something cool and refreshing, like pasta salad, rather than stews or casseroles.

8. Close off rooms. Shut up the rooms you don’t use, if you have any. There’s no reason to cool rooms you won’t be using. Put something under the door or over any vents in the door, too. Your cool air is precious.

9. Cover windows. Simple $6 fanfold paper blinds behind your curtains or mini-blinds can stop light and sun from coming in and warming your house. They block the views, of course, but you have to make some tradeoffs. Blackout curtains or tacky-but-practical aluminum foil work for this, too.

10. Or use your windows. We don’t open our windows, but at some times of year, an outdoor breeze is nicer than air conditioning. Around here, amazing amounts of dust and temperatures that often stay around 80 at night make windows almost useless.

11. Use your ventilation. If you have vent fans in your bathrooms, over your cooktop or in your utility room, let them help you clear out hot, stale air. Take full advantage of any ventilation you have.

12. Adapt. You’ll probably find you don’t need it as cool as you think. Remember, people lived without air conditioning until recent decades — even in Texas, and even when temperatures rose over 100 degrees.

Two caveats: Don’t put yourself in danger to save money. If you’re desperately hot and have air conditioning available, use it. Save another way.

And second, consider your pets. Dogs can’t tolerate heat very well, but our cats prefer it much warmer than we do. They avoid fans and cool air, instead seeking out places where it stays warm. They all need plenty of water — and so do you.

If you live without air conditioning or with very little of it, I hope you’ll add your tips in the comments below.

Part of living a simple, deliberate life is considering what you really need to be comfortable.


  1. Great tips Gip for keeping the house cooler.

    We use the paper shades you spoke of and they work very well at keeping the hot sun out. We just raise and lower around the house as the sun moves across it.

    Doors are shut to rooms we don’t use. I also adjust the vents in other rooms to blow less in those we aren’t regularly in but can’t close off the area.

    I personally love the heat and when home alone keep the A/C off completely. When Dave comes home and sees that it is at 89 degrees in the house he turns the air back on, blah. So mostly it runs at night around here.

    Oven certainly stays off as much as possible. And I put my rice/veggie steamer out in the garage as I don’t want that hot steam blowing back into the house and seeing that I use it for hours at a time it produces a ton of heat.

  2. Good list, Gip. I only have one portable window AC unit at my apartment, which I try to use as little as possible. I use a couple fans, and close doors to certain rooms like you mentioned.

    I also will frequently splash some cold water on my face when I’m feeling too warm. Cooler showers help too.

  3. Thanks for commenting Jan and Dave.

    Jan, I don’t like heat at all, but I have found that I’ve adapted. That’s also useful when I visit other people or stores. I used to always think everywhere was too hot. Now, I’m often cold if the air is on.

    Dave, our water comes from a well, and it’s sometimes hard to get cold water in the summer! It seems to come preheated unless I run it a long time, creating another type of waste. So I don’t do much splashing…


  4. My friend Bob, who lives in a big house in a nice neighborhood, posted the following comment about this post on Facebook:

    “People laugh when they see the window AC unit in the bedroom and ask ‘Isn’t your central AC working?’ Why, yes it does, but cooling a whole house at night when only one bedroom has occupants makes no sense. Then I laugh when I see the electric bill savings of about $100 a month keeping just one room cool at night.”

    He’s got the right idea.

  5. I know something about minimal air conditioning too. I lived in Corpus CHristi for roughly 20 years and had no air conditioning by choice. I lived in the upstairs half of a duplex. I had lots of windows and for those few hot humid days with no wind, I had ceiling fans.

  6. Good for you Gip. The problem we usually run into in the summer is our second story. It is easily 10 – 15 degrees warmer than the first level of our home. And of course, we all sleep upstairs! We have three bedrooms occupied at night, and actually our Home Owners Association prohibits the use of window air conditioners (although some neighbors down the street have had one for years).

    I wonder if the savings would be worth it if we had three window units running at a time? If I thought the kids would sleep (instead of giggling all night) in the basement with us, that would be option too. Although I worry about safety down there because of the small windows. They’re not exactly ideal for firefighters to slip in and out of. Not to mention our basement is unfinished and certainly not cozy!

    This is definitely something to think about as summer looms in the near future.

  7. Our summers are uncomfortably hot for only 3 to 4 weeks so most people in our region do not have air conditioning, although most public places do. We have tabletop fans for each bedroom, the kitchen, living room, and ceiling fans in the den where we are most likely to spend time. Eating cool foods and drinking enough water, as Gip says, are important.

    Tips for cooking if you find you have to, for example those cool pasta salads Gip mentioned. You don’t need to boil pasta for the full cooking time, just bring to a boil, cover, turn off heat and let sit for the regular cooking time. Works best in a heavy pot that will retain the heat. Cook in the coolest part of the day or night and refrigerate for later.

    I get overheated easily and feel sick when I do, so it’s a good thing we don’t have to deal with it for very long each year. If we had window air conditioners it would certainly add to the electric bill.

  8. My dad does heating and air conditioning for a living, and the times that really drive the business is when it gets hot and stays hot all through the evening.

    If that’s not the case however (and it isn’t much of the time – nights can be very reasonable during the summer), blocking curtains during the day and open windows in the evening to let cooler, nighttime air circulate through the house can do wonders to keep a place cool!

    1. That’s exactly what we do robert: batten down the hatches during the day and then open everything up at night. we have to, because our brick duplex with a flat roof seems to get hotter in the evenings after it’s soaked in the hot sun all day.

      We have one window unit (no central air) that we run periodically for about an hour at a time with fans to push the cold air through. When we sleep, we just have a fan blowing on us all night, no A/C.

      We also keep doors shut when we run the air to avoid cooling rooms we don’t hang out in. It’s such a ritual every summer, but at least I like the heat better than the cold!

      1. I’ll take cold over heat anytime. Our house is too open to effectively close off very many rooms. If I were buying again, I’d look for doors to close off every room — and I’d get even fewer rooms (and smaller ones!). Our house is very modest, but it has what I consider some design flaws.


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