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Published on July 9th, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans

Eco Air Conditioning Ideas

Before there was air conditioning, human beings lived differently.  In hot climates, in hot seasons, and at hot times of day, we changed our habits.  We slowed down.  We sat under trees or verandahs with fans and cool drinks.  We took siestas and we slept out on our screen porches.  We soaked our bandanas and wore them around our necks.  But no longer…

With the advent of ubiquitous central air conditioning, we are now able to live in inhospitable climates like the low deserts of the Sun Belt.  We dash from our cold homes to our cold cars and drive to our cold offices to work, all while the sun beats down relentlessly around us.

Many people enjoy living in sunny climates if they don’t have to experience their actual temperature, and they are willing to pay high electricity bills to do so.  Like so many technological advances, the benefits are obvious, the drawbacks, less so.

The Hidden Costs

Ecological Costs

Air conditioning functions by means of hydrofluorocarbons, which are still, slowly, being phased out because they destroy the ozone layer of our planet.  Air conditioning is powered by electricity produced predominantly by burning fossil fuels.  The spectacle of people turning up their air conditioners to protect themselves from the global warming which those very air conditioners in part are causing is more than a parody of shortsightedness—it’s a tragedy coming true.

A recently published study in Geophysical Research Letters predicts such a response of energy use to global warming.  As the Southwest and Southeast summers get ever-hotter, carbon emissions for cooling down the booming cities there will spike, unless some radical shift in understanding develops very soon.  Even today, at least half of a typical U.S. household’s summer energy bill is devoted to air conditioning.


Health Costs

Reduced air exchange with the outdoors can substantially increase the level of mold spores and off-gassed chemicals that you breathe.  Air conditioning has been shown to aggravate arthritis, neuritis, and sinus problems.  People who live and work in constantly air-conditioned environments are more susceptible to upper-respiratory illnesses, in part due to the significant stress a body experiences when moving through extremes of temperature rapidly and to the air-borne virus circulation that an air conditioner promotes.

When our bodies become accustomed to, and dependent upon, artificial cooling, they have a much harder time coping with real summer temperatures than they would have otherwise.  We become more reluctant to go outside, and avoid outdoor activity and exercise—a vicious cycle.


Social Costs

These are less measurable but nonetheless real.  If no one walks anywhere because it is cooler to drive, if everyone lives sealed behind glass, our sense of community correspondingly suffers.  Viewing the world outside of our air conditioned spaces as essentially “unlivable” creates a truly unhealthy relationship to the planet that sustains us.

Green Alternatives

To successfully create comfortable indoor environments with few or no electric inputs, it’s important to understand how heating and cooling work, both in your house and on your skin.  So, here’s a little bit of physics.  Heat is transferred via three different processes:

  • Conduction is the passage of heat through a solid, such as your home’s roof, walls, and windows.
  • Radiation is heat traveling in the form of light, both visible-spectrum sunlight and invisible, low-wavelength infrared.
  • Convection is heat being carried in the air as it naturally rises and circulates.

Keeping the sun’s heat out of your home by, for example, insulating your roof, is controlling conducted heat.  Putting up awnings so that direct sunlight doesn’t shine in your windows is an example of controlling radiated heat.  Installing attic vents and fans so that heat rises and leaves your house through the roof is a way of controlling convected heat.

You can look at it from the opposite side too.  You are cooled by convection when air moves over your skin as the warmer air rises and is replaced by cooler air from below.  Good ventilation creates convection currents: the faster this air moves, the more refreshing it is.

If your surroundings are cooler than you are, you will radiate your own heat to them, cooling yourself.  The cooler your environment, the more heat you will radiate.

For more tips and strategies about keeping cool, visit:

High Tech and Future Visions

Because air conditioning is such a large ecological problem, there are plenty of proposals for better ways to cool interior air.  Some of these are already used in commercial buildings, and a few are even available for residential use.

Hydronic Cooling

Hydronic cooling, also called radiant hydronic cooling, is cooling by means of chilled water pipes rather than chilled air.  It’s “radiant” because (back to the physics lesson) the heat emitted by the people in the room is absorbed by the cool water.

The most common residential delivery systems are via aluminum panels carrying concealed tubing mounted on the ceiling.  If there is an existing hydronic heating system of tubes embedded in the floor, the same tubes can be used for both heating and cooling.  The water is mixed with glycol and cooled by a heat pump, a cooling tower (in commercial buildings), or sometimes by means of well water or by passing underground.

Hydronic cooling can be difficult in humid climates, as the interior air must be fairly dry in order to prevent condensation problems.  In some areas, combining them with an auxilliary air conditioning system (which dehumidifies) is a good solution.

Dehumidifying Advancements

New ways of dehumidifying are generating intense interest because most of the air conditioning energy used to cool buildings in humid climates is used to simply dehumidify them.  Technology using desiccants, improved condensers and compressors, and even electrostatically-induced precipitation of water vapor are in development and trial phases.

Green roofs cool buildings (among their many other advantages), both by insulating from the sun and by evaporative cooling via plants giving off water.

These ideas are exciting, but the truth is, most of our home cooling needs can be addressed by simple, non high-tech changes in the way we build houses and live in them, and a bit of adjustment to the expectations we have for our personal comfort.  With a bit of creativity, we can live without relying on air conditioning!

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  • You’ve vocalized many concerns about air conditioning that I’ve been ruminating on a fair amount this summer. It’s helpful to be reminded of the social impacts of hiding in our homes as well. Thank you for that.

    Still, tt amazes me that based on how we control our indoor environments, we forget that heat is energy. Why have we not yet found a way to harvest this heat for domestic water heating and other applications? As in some martial arts, ‘harness the strength and momentum of your opponent’.

    For now let’s embrace the non-technical solutions above that don’t consume even more energy to kick heat out of the house.

  • Hydronic cooling of a building with a heat pump is a positive step towards cooling a building sustainably, however these systems are limited in what they can actually achieve.
    There are two types of radiant hydronic cooling that are used in projects today.

    Passive cooling
    With passive cooling, the low temperature of the groundwater or that of the upper earth crust is transferred to the heating system via a heat exchanger. The heat pump compressor will not be started, i.e. the heat pump remains “passive”.

    Active cooling
    During active cooling, the cooling output of the heat pump (cold side) is transferred to the heating system. The heat pump compressor will be started, i.e. the heat pump becomes “active”.

    I could bore all day with technicalities however my point is there are solutions out there that can be implemented to greatly reduce the amount of energy consumed to cool a building and without the need for nasty refrigerants. The use of co2 as a refrigerant is starting to become available in heat pumps, eliminating the need to use ozone depletive refrigerants.

  • a simple solution to all of this chemical talk is cooling the heat exchange. It reduces how many times the compresser has to kick on, all while reduceing the amp draw. Its like running your a/c during the winter, its sucking in cold air form the get go… or for instance cooling a peice of red hot aluminum; it will cool by air,but add water and it cools 1000 times faster. check it out …arcticbreezemist.com,.,. under the a/c pre- cooling tab

  • The overwhelming presence of air conditioning in our homes and businesses is clear evidence that people like the comfort it brings them, So we should be sure that our HVAC systems are properly maintained and as energy-efficient as possible. Most people spend more time indoors than out, and studies show that HVAC systems are in many cases, the primary factor determining the quality of our indoor air.

  • Du

    This is good info

  • amod kr. singh

    this is good info.

  • Tayler

    Has anyone thought about putting a rather large air tank with a water or oil filled radiator system under water (Pond or Lake) and passing air through it. I know it has been thought of but has anyone tried it? If so what is this called? When I was a kid I always wondered if it could be done and if it could also be done cheaply.

  • Banalea Atcretchi

    Hydrofluorocarbons do not actually deplete the ozone layer; they are in fact an alternative to chemicals which do, such as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and other such substances.

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  • John Mark

    The best and least expensive basement ventilation system on the market is Breeze. It replaces a dehumidifier and costs about $12 per year (continuous use) to run. It expels moist, toxic air (and Radon) from the basement and replaces it with dry, fresh air from the home’s living quarters. Other systems (like Humidex, EZ Breathe, Wave Ventilation) sell for over $1,500 and work on the same principle. The Breeze does the same thing and costs only $299. Check it out at BreezeSystemsInternatioanl.com Ebay, or Amazon.

  • Great and informative article on the subject. I’m reading a book just now called Losing Our Cool by Stan Cox. It has opened my eyes to the damage we are doing with a/c and we need to look for alternative technology and ways of thinking like those outlined above. There are some more ideas on cutting ac costs at http://acpulse.com/easy-ways-to-keep-cool-and-cut-air-conditioner-costs/ this is more aimed at reducing the use of your current a/c system rather than designing a new one, but still has some actionable steps in the mean time.

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