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HOWTO not melt - keeping cool at midsummer

Over the next few weekdays, I'll post some tips here based on how I've been keeping cool in Lynn this year. Last summer, my office overheated and two pieces of hardware failed. Not long after, I had a bit of a daft problem in one corner of my house (now totally cured). Both of these were symptoms of the same problem: I simply didn't know how to control the heating.

Sorry to those in the southern hemisphere who are currently freezing their bits off - bookmark this for six months time - and sorry to those in the north who have already been frazzled - I didn't predict the problem. I'm just reacting to it.

This summer, I've been noticing more and more people who I know or read complaining about the heat, and some have said they've gone out and bought a new air conditioner. I think air conditioners are mostly evil, for reasons I'll describe later. They also only solve one symptom, not the problem.

How can you keep cool without them? Time to learn from science, nature and some old tricks.


  1. Switch off instead;
  2. Understand your building;
  3. Section your building;
  4. Vent at night;
  5. Close against the sun;
  6. Use plants and fans;
  7. Water the pavement and hang out the washing;
  8. Don't use air-con.

If you can read French and would like to learn more, try Fraîcheur sans clim' by Salomon and Aubert from Terre Vivante.

Good luck not melting this summer!

Switch off instead

Nearly all of our electronic appliances convert voltages down to a lower level and generate some waste heat while doing so. It's been fairly well-publicised that appliances still consume quite a lot of power when on standby (see this from the European Commission or a BBC report) and this usually means they're still producing heat. Switching off appliances which aren't in use will reduce both your electricity bill and the heat production and it can be noticeable.

Find out which of your appliances have real on-off switches and which need to be switched off at the wall. If you want, you can measure it with meters that either plug in between the appliance and the wall socket, or clamp onto the power lead. (The newspaper last weekend liked the Wattson from DIY Kyoto but it's not in full production yet.)

If an appliance like a VCR doesn't like being switched off completely, look at its standby consumption and decide whether to replace it with an energy- efficient model. Learn what the different appliance labels mean and choose the best you can. We need to reverse the predicted upwards trend [BBC].

Laptop computers generally have lower power consumptions and lower heat production than desktops, so think about which one you'll use more often. Computers are one type of appliance that you can put onto a sort of standby safely. If you suspend to disk, they can be safely switched off at the wall until you need them again, and then they'll have a fairly fast start-up. I recommend using a display locker like xlock or similar, so that your data still has some protection.

You may find help with suspend in the Linux Ecology HOWTO [ LDP mirror] along with many other tips on how to reduce environmental damage from your computer.

I've read articles that warn against powering down and up too often. They say that more frequent heating/cooling causing parts to fail, but I find the fans fail most often - which brings a different heating failure problem! I prefer to save some fan spin instead.

Understand your building

In gardening, the ideas about each garden having its own unique microclimate have had a lot of press recently. Well, every building is different, too. Spend some time walking around your building at different times and noticing the conditions in different parts. It's not good to sit in one place too long anyway.

Try to figure out how the heating system works, as this can give you a lot of clues about which parts retain heat and which parts cool quickly. Of course, you're interested for almost the opposite reasons to the heating engineer - you want to keep cool.

It seems obvious, but my current home is very different to my childhood home and its TRV+combi boiler system behaves differently to a tank and central thermostat. I didn't understand this system until I read some explanations of how it works and how to use it. Sadly, I've no links for this yet, as all my stuff is on paper. Any suggestions? Email mjr at

Section your building

Once you understand which parts of your building are warm and which are cool, think about where they are and where the doors and windows are. Remember heat rises and think about whether you can keep some doors open and other doors shut and direct the heat to places where no-one will be very much.

For example, the main part of my home is fairly well-insulated for a house of its type, but the rear wing doesn't have any insulation (as far as I kknow). It has the boiler in it, which helps keep it warm in winter, but in summer, the boiler firing for hot water and the sun beating down on the uninsulated slate roof often makes it warmer than outdoors. The wall which gets most sun is painted white to reflect it, but doesn't seem to save it in the height of summer.

In summer, I close the door to it and abandon it to the sun. It does have a large full-opening window which helps, but if the connecting door was left open, it would quickly overheat the upper floor of the main part.

Vent at night

At night, the outdoor temperature usually drops to a sane level. If the skies are clear, it may even get quite cool. Take advantage of this by opening the windows at night and filling the building with cold air to prepare it for the day ahead. If you leave the windows open in empty rooms, take care to fit grilles or similar in the gap to keep out large things like birds (and chasing a bat around a room is not fun and probably unhealthy for both of you).

Of course, take care not to make your building insecure in the dark, but modern security systems should be able to cope with vented windows.

Close against the sun

Once your building is full of cold, fresh night air, close the windows when the sun appears. Modern glazing not only helps you keep warm in winter, it can help you keep cool in summer. Most people seem not to realise this and react to a warm day outside by throwing the windows open as soon as they enter a room, before they've noticed whether or not it's cooler inside. Older glazing can be improved by adding a reflective coating, but I've not tried it.

Have you noticed how your hand gets hot in strong sun, even if it's behind a good window? The same thing is happening to all the air in the sunlight, so close your blinds or curtains on the side of your building that is in full sun. On a bright summer day, you should still get more than enough light if you've other windows. If not, leave the blinds open a little.

I've read that external blinds or shutters are best, but they're not very easy to get in England, so I've never tried them.

Use plants and fans

I think this idea is a bit of a mindbender and each time that I try to explain it in detail, I have to go and reread the books because I don't understand biology, so I'm just going to give the basic bit that I do understand: changing water from liquid to vapour takes energy. You can take that energy from the air and so cool the air. It's transpiration and we do it naturally.

Even better, you can get some help removing the energy from our little green friends: plants. If you keep some green plants around and supplied with water, they will help to cool the air around them, as long as the air can support more vapour, which hotter air generally can.

Finally, you can replace the vapour-filled air with more air by stirring it with a fan. Take care to use a lightweight one which won't produce a lot of heat from its motor. Both you and your plants will cool more efficiently with more air moving across your skin. Best of all are ceiling-mounted fans, but a oscillating fan angled upwards will do a pretty good job. (A small fan blowing over scented oil can hide the smell of sweating^Wtranspiring co-workers too...)

Water the pavement and dry the washing

Other ways of getting more water into the air include hanging washing out to dry (maybe not appropriate for your workplace!) and sprinkling stored grey water (rainwater and so on) onto any paved areas next to your building. When you think about how those pavements and patios often act as giant storage heaters in summer, it seems amazing that more people don't deliberately try to cool them down in this simple way.

Don't use air-con

Air conditioners are doing huge harm to our environment by sucking electricity, which is often generated by releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

Even worse, many people are using them stupidly. For example, I used to use one shop with a one-piece air conditioner sat almost in the middle of one wall, with its air hose running along the floor to just outside the front door. That hose acted like a room-length radiator, even hotter than the surrounding air, then all the customers got a blast of heat before they walk in and the prevailing wind blew the hot air straight back into the shop anyway. It was warm in there anyway, with several aging open-front chiller units running. Unsurprisingly, the air-con helped it get hotter than Hades and I visit the competing shop across the street instead now. I don't like to see food packets going misty inside, even if I don't buy them.

The best air conditioners seem to be the two-part type with an insulated coolant hose between. The cool part is put inside and the hose carries the heat to the cooling unit outside, which should be sited as far away and above windows as reasonable. The cool part should have a thermostat which cuts nearly all power to the device when it's not needed. Set the temperature reasonably - don't try to keep the room artificially low just because you can.

After following the other tips in this series, I hope you won't need air-con any more, but if you do, please use it sensibly.


  • 18 July 2006: Three diverse footnotes: one reply mentioned about leaving lights on being better than switching them off then on, but that's no longer true according to the Energy Saving Trust's FAQ; someone else pointed me to athcool as a way to lower power consumption (and heat output) of some Athlon-based PCs and reported a 36 quid a year saving from it; finally, I'm not sure if this suggestion is serious and I doubt it works in England yet: "Grow a grapevine over your conservatory. It gives you lovely green shade during the hot weather, plus (given a bit more global warming) a chance to enjoy your very own wine!"
  • 6 July 2006: We were a bit cooler for most of the day, but the evening sun is starting to raise the temperature again. Updated part one with a link to a recent BBC report of the Energy Saving Trust predicting an upwards trend. An interesting comparison from Monday: two bottles of frozen water, one stood in the house (temperature controlled with these tips) and one in an office (not controlled like this): the office one was all water by noon and the house one still part-ice at 4pm. Finally, had a nice email from some friends that said they're enjoying this series and "we moved our freezer out of the (light and warm) kitchen into the (cool and dark) garage, where we hope it'll use less power (cooler environment) and it won't be churning out heat somewhere that's hot enough already." I remember the freezer at my childhood home being in the garage: are we just rediscovering old ways?
  • 4 July 2006: Well, the temperature is soaring here again and a few people have expressed interest in this. I've also had some interesting side discussions. Simon Richter emailed me notes about the different types of disk - which I don't really understand so I've asked him to publish them himself - the gist seemed to be server disks don't like being power cycled repeatedly and yanking the power is very harmful to desktop disks. Ted Harding sent a "Medical Tip of the Day" to ALUG Main: "I assert that caffeine is a good preventative of DVT in computer users."

To be continued... If you're joining part-way through, return to the start. Comment by email please.

Shaping the Future - Business Travel Survey

I was disappointed to receive at work a survey from Norfolk County Council which seemed to essentially ask me to support expansion of Norwich airport. Within the questions asked, there was no way to answer the survey to ask for the airport to be kept under control. The survey said it was a "Shaping the Future Business Travel Survey", but it was very aviation-centric. Maybe not "Shaping the Future" but definitely "Shaping the Answers".

It's important that we support the development of other forms of travel such as the Dutch Flyer (currently very difficult from King's Lynn, as I understand it) and our rail and road routes. Even if the airport does expand, it must first be connected better to our transport network: it seems easier to travel by mass transport to the London airports than Norwich airport from King's Lynn.

As you may know, our area has a Green Tourism Strategy (PDF, see p110) and a Biodiversity Action Plan, among other environmentally-responsible policies. Why is Norfolk County Council undoing that good work on the environment by promoting premature airport expansion?

Have you seen this survey and will you be acting on it? Email me.

St Nicholas Tree Felling

Update: 27 April - I received a confusing letter saying that a faculty for pollarding has been granted. It refers to other letters I've never seen, so I've replied by email to request clarification.

"The Council has applied to the Diocese of Norwich for permission to remove six trees to the north of St Nicholas Chapel." -- BCKLWN Press Release

I've fought other fellings, but I'm not sure how I feel about this one. I know there's a new generation of trees waiting to take this line's place, the threatened trees are close to a wall and other buildings and I think they're far away from general public access, but it still worries me that trees are being killed off before their lives end naturally. To say that a tree may fall is like saying that a man may die: it can happen, but how healthy are they today?

The main thing that's making me suspicious is the plans are on public view at Mintlyn. That's a few miles away from the chapel, out past the edge-of- town hospital and over the bypass. The main council offices are about 100m away from the trees and are the usual place for plans to be put on public deposit, so it looks rather like they'd use the the legendary locked filing cabinet in a disused basement lavatory for this one if they could. Why?

Update: The plans were put online along with the press release so I thought I didn't need to ride out to Mintlyn. Annoyingly, the first page (the notice which describes the work) seems to be missing and the last page is mangled. To add to the difficulty, the printed copy of the notice at the chapel has spent most of the time hidden behind roadworks and it's too small to read from the path anyway, so you need to climb between fence and noticeboard.

Is this a consultation or an obstacle course? I've written to Norwich Diocese to ask they request a reasonable consultation instead.

Robin Hood Reversed: Council Tax 2006-07

I authorised payment of my local tax bill this week (2006-03-16) and it angered me. The borough council has been promoting its 3% tax cut again and again. So, it's shocked quite a few townspeople that their local tax bills show nearly a 5% rise.

Much of it is explained by the local tax bills being a combination of local councils and police authority taxes. The county council is over three-quarters of the tax and has increased its tax by 5%. The police authority is about an eighth of the tax and has increased its tax by nearly 6%.

But the scandal is the 31% increase in the Lynn town expenses. This town still has no town council (thanks in part to the ruling borough councillors), so we pay that 2% of the tax direct to the borough council, as well as their main 8% share. According to a councillor, nearly a quarter of the borough does this.

A 2.4% tax increase in what Lynn households pay to the borough council is the result of combining the 31% town increase with the 3% cut on the borough-wide tax. The ruling councillors are from the villages and seem to justify their stealth town tax increase as things like lighting the town - as if villagers don't come into town after dark! It's left to an Honorary Alderman to speak out for the townspeople. If the old arrangement was unfair, the case should have been made to the townspeople and then it should have been rebalanced gradually: not a sudden 31% tax rise.

I'm not against paying a bit more tax if it's needed, but I feel borough service levels are falling and that's justified by the 3% tax cut. This is Robin Hood in reverse, with the mostly-richer villagers getting a tax cut at the expense of the mostly-poorer townspeople. Why has this happened in a pre- election year, do you think? Are Conservative councillors worried for their village votes?

I hope we don't have another cut next year, else we'll probably pay more and have no services: welcome to the Banana Republic of West Norfolk, where a tax cut can give you a bigger tax bill.

Cambridge Arts Picturehouse to lose a screen?

The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, writes about

planned licensing changes to The Regal pub situated below us [...] music playing in the pub, which will be heard in one of our auditoriums [...] join us in our fight by objecting to any licence changes [...] [...] by Friday 3rd February 2006.

I think that cinema is my most frequent reason for visiting Cambridge (45ish minutes by train from Lynn). I've written. If you're near Cambridge and want film diversity, have you?

Update 1: More info on

Update 2: More info on indymedia UK

Update 3: Apparently, the licence was granted with conditions about sound suppression.

Other local matters

To index.

This is copyright 2006 MJ Ray. See fuller notice on front page.