An Eastlaker shares a few lessons-learned from the last heat wave

I am not one to be vocal about energy consumption or self-righteous about my carbon footprint. For one, I’m not good at conserving energy. I’ll occasionally have the radio and computer on at home as background noise, during my showers that can last almost as long as an episode of Breaking Bad.  However, the heatwave in June gave me pause, and so I took some time to reflect on what changes I could make in my own self-interest when the temp outside reached “fry-my-bacon degrees,” and I really needed, more than anybody else I’m sure, to get a little cooler. Also I was desperate to cool off my 7 1/2 month pregnant wife.

Here are a few lessons I learned during the heatwave:

Lesson number one:  How low can you go?!

For those not blessed with AC in Seattle, it can be a challenge to get cool. My wife and I live in a one-ish bedroom apartment in Eastlake that was originally billed as two studios before they mashed them together to get one awkward looking unit that boasts two conical shaped vintage 60’s fireplaces, two sliding glass doors, one on each side of the apartment separated by a narrow breezeway. The space is a little awkward. Although, for me the scenario of an eclectic shaped vintage apartment and extreme heat presented an opportunity.

Anticipating the hot weekend, I set up two box fans (one on top of the other) to blow the hot air out of one of the sliding glass doors. I had read somewhere that this will work to draw in cooler air from the other side of the apartment. Just when I was feeling confident in my airflow solution, my wife pointed out to me that I’m just drawing in equally hot air from outside and it was doing nothing but giving us all supremely blown dry hair. Damn it! It was time to buy an air conditioner.

I’m not a fan of air conditioners. I don’t like the recycled air, they’re noisy, and any of the portable versions require one of those hoses that turn your house into Heavy Metal fan art. Not knowing for sure what I needed, I went ahead and bought the second to last portable AC unit at Best Buy at the low price of five hundred bucks?!

The other thing I’m not crazy about these units is they take up a ton of juice.  They’re basically like having a second refrigerator. However, after running it a couple of times in our back bedroom, I noticed a couple of things that would save me some energy. One, is that they don’t need to be on all the time. The moment that you turn this baby off, the room would get stifling hot again. Conversely, when you turned it back on, it wouldn’t take more than five minutes for the room to get cold again. 

The other thing I observed was that the exhaust hose needs a little help. The exhaust hose, (albeit not all exhaust hoses are created equal), on my unit needed some extra duct tape to create a tight seal against the unit and on the outlet port. Also, the hose gets hot, which is a waste of energy. If I wanted to get fancy, I could have wrapped the hose with some insulation to help the heat from escaping, which in turn would help the unit to be more effective and conserve energy (next heatwave). 

After getting over being a little indignant at having to buy the unit, I had to admit, the AC did make it cool enough for us to sleep during the 108-degree heat and having the reassurance of a comfortable, cool night’s sleep was well worth the money.

Lesson number two:  Turn it on, turn it off

I know that I’ve heard it all my life: “turn off the light if you leave the room!” and “use only what you need!” It’s just that I never cared. Who cares?!  Now crank the heat up 40 degrees. I change my tune.

The excess heat made me keen on what lights I needed and didn’t need on. I noticed that some lights get a lot hotter than others, for example the halogen track lights. They get frickin’ hot!  After only a few short minutes they get too hot to touch and I can only imagine what effect they have on an already hot room. I know that LED style lights use less energy and put out less heat, but I wasn’t going to change my light fixtures right away. For the time being, I needed to come up with a strategy to use the lights only when I needed the light.

I am fortunate to have decent windows and a sliding glass door in my kitchen dining area. Pulling back the curtains and using some natural light was all I needed to find my way around the house during the day. During all other times I found that I could turn the light on to perform the intended action, and then turn them back off again when mission accomplished. Simple. Turn it on, turn it off.

Lesson number three:  Photo-hydro-sympathize my brother?!

When I first caught wind of the heat wave, I listened intently to the radio to hear everything I could that may save me from suffering things like fainting from heat hysteria, or dry cuticles. While I did hear inspiring stories of opening “cool zones” for Seattle’s homeless, and AC donation drives for the elderly, what really stuck out for me was what the radio people had to say about using too much water. That’s not something you want to hear during a heatwave! I want to take cool showers and make sure my hydrangea doesn’t wither and die!

So, I live next to a lake. It is easy to take for granted. I usually take it in as a nice backdrop to the Seattle city skyline. Lake Union also happens to stay cool during our summer months and is a great respite for the AC inferior. A nice swim and a quick rinse off before bed is a great way to manage the heat.

Also, when it gets so hot, ninety plus hot, plants that are not built to be in the desert, cease to photosynthesize in the hot direct sun and wilt, and die. You know, the thin plastic stakes they put in potted plants that you get from the nursery that say things like, “partial shade,” or “full sun”? I thought I would challenge that advice and put some of my potted plants in the direct sun (I forgot to move them). My zucchini got nuked! What it needed was shade, and contrary to thinking, not more water. If the plant is getting uncomfortable amounts of heat and more sunlight than it was designed to take, it won’t photosynthesize, and as a result, won’t absorb the excess water that you give it.

To remedy the direct 108-degree heat, I strung up some white tarps to shade the plants and gave them just enough water in the cooler morning hours to survive the meltdown.  The tarps worked great to keep my plants from dying and in addition kept direct sunlight from hitting our sliding glass door which lets in a generous amount of heat.

Lesson number four: to heed, or not to heed?

Extreme heat in the Northwest is not something that is going away and most likely will increase in the coming years. When I think back on hot summer days, traveling with my family on desert road trips, or hiking to a high mountain lake, it’s hard to judge what that heat was like compared to now. Science tells us that the earth’s temperatures are growing, and that we should do things to limit our carbon footprint.  Maybe what I need is a thin plastic stake that says, “some sun, mostly shade, and plenty of clean water.”  It sounds better than standing in the direct sun and ignoring all the signs.    

The author’s wife, Hattie M. Wallace, staying cool under shading tarps.

Feature photo: The author, Eugene Callahan, drinking coffee.

Written by Eugene Callahan

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