As Temperatures Spike, Here's How You Can Beat the Heat Wave

Here are some tips for staying cool in the heat.

Image of people sitting outside in a heat wave.
In Liverpool, it's too hot to stay inside.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Heat waves are scorching many regions across the world serving as a brutal reminder that they could be the new normal. In Spain and Portugal, where temperatures spiked to 117 degrees Fahrenheit this month, there have been at least 748 heat-related deaths. Today, Britain broke its record for the highest temperature ever registered: 104.4 degrees F at Heathrow Airport. Temperatures are high even in Canada, where it was in the mid-90s in Winnipeg, located just 70 miles north of North Dakota.

I recently spoke to the Canadian Broadcasting Company's (CBC) radio network about how to deal with heat, with a focus on New Brunswick on Canada's east coast through Prince Rupert on the nation's west. Some of my answers will be familiar to Treehugger readers from our previous coverage.

CBC: What can we do to keep cool if we don't have air conditioning?

Learn from people who live in hotter countries: People in hotter nations often have exterior shutters and blinds to keep the heat out. Treehugger recently covered a study from the west coast that found doing a "night flush" with all the windows and doors open at night and then closing it up in the daytime really did keep the interior much cooler. While exterior blinds worked best, interior blinds also reflected out the heat and worked well. Architect Michael Eliason recently wrote about the effectiveness of exterior shutters and blinds.

Turn everything off that you don't need: Every motor generates heat, as does every light bulb—even LEDs put out a bit of heat. Don't use the stove, oven, or dryer if you can help it.

Use a fan: Our bodies keep cool naturally by evaporation of perspiration, which is increased with air movement; that is why fans can be so effective. An Australian study found fans can keep you comfortable at a temperature between 5 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than you would be otherwise. But remember fans cool your body and not the air, so don't leave them on when you leave the room; then their motor is just adding heat to the room. See Physicist Allison Bailes' good advice regarding fans, including the shocker that "a ceiling fan can decapitate you."

Hydrate: The advice in this thread from an Australian doctor is to hydrate hydrate hydrate. Ellie M. Roberts tweets: "Don't drink too much coffee, and don't drink too much booze. Neither of those things are going to do you the world of good. But do drink plenty of fluids." That is the water you need for evaporation. She also suggests soaking towels, wringing out most of the water, and freezing them. She has good advice for pets as well: Get a spray bottle or mister.

Plan your life around the heat: As author Barbara Flanagan wrote, keep cool with culture, not contraptions. She notes that in Barcelona, people order their lives around the temperature: "They plan their seasonal vacations, daily routines, food, drinks and wardrobes for maximum cooling." So dress in loose clothing, eat cool food, late and outside.

I also rather like the suggestions from Extinction Rebellion:

CBC: How bad is air conditioning for the environment?

It depends where you live. If you are in Quebec, Canada or Washington state in the U.S., where the electricity is mostly from water power and is carbon-free and the distribution system is robust, you can enjoy the cooling without adding carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere.

However, even with low carbon electricity supplies, everyone running their air conditioners may well create loads that can overload the electrical system. In some places, like Ontario, Canada, or New York City, they have gas-fired "peaker plants" that are fired up when the electrical load gets too big for the nukes and Niagara to handle, so it is a good idea to look at your electrical bill and see when the off-peak hours are with lower rates—that's when the system is running on cleaner baseload power. You will save money too.

Treehugger Tip

Curious to know what temperatures and heat index values trigger heat warnings for a particular city? Locate the National Weather Service forecast office that serves your region, then navigate their extreme heat page.

Where electricity is generated with fossil fuels, using the air conditioner is increasing demand, which means more CO2 emissions, which means more climate change and thus, more heat waves. So people who have AC should do everything they can to minimize its use. Bailes wrote in his blog Energy Vanguard with simple steps to improve air conditioning performance. I expanded on this in 12 tips for getting more out of your air conditioner.

The refrigerants in air conditioners can be serious greenhouse gases when they leak—not if they leak; most do eventually. If you are buying one to beat the heat, make sure that it is filled with R-32, the least damaging hydrofluorocarbon, or coming soon, R-290, another name for propane.

CBC: What can we do to make our cities cooler?

Plant trees and lots of them. Get rid of parking spaces to make room for more trees. As former municipal councilor John Burke notes, they are natural air conditioners that also happen to absorb CO2.

Demand white roofs to reflect heat or green roofs to absorb it.

streetcar tracks in paris
Tear up the roads and put in grassy streetcar routes.

Lloyd Alter

Ban gasoline-powered cars in cities. According to the Department of Energy, 68-72% of the energy from the fossil fuels you put in the tank is wasted as heat through the radiator and the exhaust. We are not only heating the planet indirectly through the car's CO2 emissions but directly by burning fuel. In fact, we might have to ban cars from cities altogether because they run on square miles of black asphalt that creates urban heat islands. If we are serious about fixing this climate and making our cities habitable, then changes of this magnitude are inevitable.

CBC: What should we do about our houses and apartments?

A passivhaus design in the Mediterranean
A Passivhaus design in the Mediterranean.

Praxis Resilient Buildings

We should expect it is going to keep getting warmer and we are going to have these events more often. We should be designing for thermal resilience on the assumption that our power supplies are not going to be dependable and that our homes should keep us warm or cool without air conditioning if required. University of Toronto Professor Ted Kesik wrote in his Thermal Resilience Design Guide that we should learn from the past:

"Since the beginning of human history, passive habitability has driven the design of buildings. It is only since the Industrial Revolution that widespread access to plentiful and affordable energy caused architecture to put passive habitability on the back burner. Climate change is influencing building designers to rethink building reliance on active systems that became dominant during the 20th century."

Those techniques included careful shading of windows which are placed carefully to control solar gain, design for natural cross-ventilation, and a reconsideration of thermal mass. I have written often that insulation is far more important, but Kesik noted that "highly insulated and thermally lightweight buildings can rapidly overheat in the absence of effective solar shading, and if they are relatively airtight tend to cool down slowly unless they are adequately ventilated."

Architect Oliver Style builds Passivhaus homes in hot climates and explained to Treehugger: "Thermal inertia is not enough anymore, and people are suffering from sleep deprivation, tiredness, stress, and are on edge." He sells the idea of Passivhaus on the basis of comfort: There are no hot spots on the walls, the windows don't let in much heat, and even if the windows are closed to keep out the hot air, there is still fresh air from the ventilation system which is separate from the cooling system.

Small buildings in Munich
Small Buildings with Single Stairs in Munich.

Lloyd Alter

For multifamily buildings, we have to stop building glass towers. As engineer John Straube has noted, "Glass and aluminum are great for cookware but not for buildings." Glass buildings can turn into ovens and become uninhabitable.

I always go back to my favorite ones in Munich; we should be building smaller buildings to the Passivhaus standard to retain or reject heat as required, low enough that most people can take the stairs in a pinch, and squarish plans around open central stairs so that there can be cross-ventilation across corner units.

View Article Sources
  1. Rempel, Alexandra R., et al. "Improving The Passive Survivability Of Residential Buildings During Extreme Heat Events In The Pacific Northwest." Applied Energy, vol. 321, 2022, p. 119323., doi:10.1016/j.apenergy.2022.119323

  2. Malik, Arunima, et al. "The Potential for Indoor Fans to Change Air Conditioning Use While Maintaining Human Thermal Comfort During Hot Weather: An Analysis of Energy Demand and Associated Greenhouse Gas Emissions." The Lancet Planetary Health, vol. 6, no. 4, 2022, pp. e301-e309., doi:10.1016/s2542-5196(22)00042-0

  3. "12-30% of Energy Put into a Conventional Car is Used to Move the Car Down the Road." Department of Energy.