As a cub reporter for The Associated Press in Milwaukee, I spent my days (July 11-27, 1995) helping to record a heart-breaking toll: 85 heat-related deaths in Milwaukee, another 465 in Chicago. My nights were a desperate attempt to keep cool in my dumpy, oven-like, top-floor apartment as regional temperatures rose as high as 106.
Unlike the victims of the heat, I was lucky enough to have easy access to air conditioning with family, friends and work. But when I was forced to stay in my AC-less apartment, I took cold showers, swayed Zombie-like in my open fridge (not good for the power bill) and even embraced a previously neglected bag of frozen vegetables from my freezer.
Even if you have an air conditioner, there are ways to avoid blasting it 24/7. I could have used these tips to stay cool without breaking the bank:
*Keep the blinds/curtains closed during the day to prevent the sun from roasting your home. In the cooler evenings, turn off the AC and open windows on opposite sides of the house to create a cross breeze. Put a box fan in an open window, blowing outside to push out the hot air from your home. The same goes for the stove fan (on the ventilator hood): It’s not just for when you cook. Turn it on to help cool off your house after a long hot day.
*Use a spray bottle filled with cold water to take the edge off a hot afternoon. Soak your feet in cool water. Place ice cubes, wrapped in a wet fabric, on your “pulse points,” where the blood vessels are close to the skin: wrists, neck, the insides of your elbows, your inner thighs and knees, the tops of your feet and the inside of the ankles.
*Take a wet washcloth to your arms and face, and then stand in front of a fan. You can do the same under a ceiling fan. Just make sure it’s turning counter-clockwise (from your position looking up at it), to create a cooling downdraft. (To save power, turn it off when you leave the room, since fans only cool people, not rooms.)
*Don’t just soak in water, drink plenty of it too. Sip about four to eight glasses of fluids a day, but avoid alcohol and caffeine, which promote dehydration.
*Hot air rises, which means your basement can be the coolest part of your home in a heatwave. Create a comfortable place to hang out. If the basement is a mess (like mine), or you don’t have one, consider other cool places of refuge: a movie theater, public library or shopping mall.
*Turn off and unplug extra appliances that just produce more heat and make your home hotter (TV, computers, laptops, lights, and gadgets like your phone charger). This is good for your comfort, not to mention your electric bill.
*Sit in the path of a fan aimed at an open cooler, or an ice-filled pan. My colleague, Megan Carlson, found this clever homemade air conditioner, using a fan, a cheap cooler and some frozen bottles of water.
*If you’re really desperate, try this little trick: Seal your bed sheets and pillow case in an airtight plastic bag and throw them in the fridge or freezer for a few hours before bedtime. This won’t be lasting relief, but it may be just enough to help you get to sleep.