How to keep an old house cool?

Hi everyone, we've moved into an old 100-150 year old two-story house. We're up in Eastern Canada, where the winters used to be colder than they are now, and the summers cooler as well, so this house has lower (7 foot) ceilings upstairs than the usual 8 feet.

As summer approaches, it's going to get hot upstairs. The windows are nicely spaced for natural airflow, but I'm wondering what other ways there are to cool the upstairs. The ceilings are too low for ceiling fans, but maybe a few well placed tabletop fans? What other tricks can we explore? We don't want air conditioning, because in Green Wizards style, we're trying to reduce our energy usage. I suppose fans use energy, too, but not nearly as much as air conditioners, I would guess.

Thanks in advance!

Sweet Tatorman's picture

If the design of the house permits it, i.e., has an attic with access to it, a whole house attic fan is worth considering. If not or if this is a rental that would preclude this, then upstairs window fan would be the way to go. Window fans will provide more cooling for your energy buck than table top fans though those can be useful for localized personal cooling.

Thanks for your reply! We own the house, but the attic doesn't have windows or vents, which we should look into anyway, and I will look into an attic fan.

A large attic fan with all windows slightly open is a fabulous cooler. It is loud, though. A quieter, constantly running solar powered window fan and/or solar powered attic-vent fan could reduce electric grid usage without sacrificing too much of your quietness.

If you do not have tree shade, wide porches or window awnings, then you could shade the areas near your sunniest windows with one of those triangular sail-cloth-looking thingies.

If your humidity is fairly low, you can place bowls of ice on a tabletop and/or hang wet sheets at the windows (or dry your clothes indoors) to reduce indoor temps. Doesn’t work in humid days/climes.

In the Old South Delta country, people built cabins with two rooms on either side of a long roofed-over but otherwise open passage that permitted the prevailing winds to pass through, creating a tunnel effect breeze. It was called a ‘dog trot’ style of house. You could create a similar effect with a toolshed or garden shed fairly close to the house and wide overhanging eaves on both house and shed

In a humid summer, having a dehydrator inside is almost as good as having A/C, which acts as a dehydrator /condensor. Keeping one room drier in summer is like keeping one room warmer in winter.
It gives a place to hang out when the muggy buggles are getting to you. Or install an A/C window unit in just one room and run it intermittently to provide a heat relief refuge.

Digging out a root cellar beneath the house can be another option. A hangout in summer, a food storage and canned goods pantry all winter, and a defense against cold snaps in spring for germinating plant starts.

Leaving the windows open at night so cooler air comes in, then closing windows during the morning hours to keep the cool air in, and reopening them in the afternoon to let hot air flow out (cf. Teresa’s post on ‘the window dance’) helps regulate indoor temps. Heat reflective thermal shades are good for keeping out winter cold and summer heat.

Old-time farmhouse dairies used to be situated on the North side of the barn or house, and oriented with airflow from low in the Southeast to higher in the Northwest, not letting much (if any) sunshine in from East and West. Then they installed an unglazed tile floor and same halfway up the walls. You damp these down in the cool of the morning and force air flow across the wet room. As it dries out, it cools down to keep the milk fresh. You might could find old timey floor plans and building designs for dairies in historical societies that could help you do something like.

Cooking outside on a barbecue brick pit or grill instead of the range and stovetop can help prevent heating up the interior.

These are great tips, thank you! We have a room in the basement which we can use as a root cellar, so we can get some respite there if it's really hot. And cooking outside in the summer is a great idea, too. I'm learning about the window dance, too! Interesting point about the dehydrator (is that the same as a dehumidifier?).

I spend a LOT of time thinking about cooling a house naturally.
First: do you own?
Second: are you staying put?

This determines what you can do.
I've written extensively on the subject ( but here are the basics.

If you own, figure out your sun arc over the house. It will take a full year to learn the details of the sun's path overhead. In general though, plant evergreens along the north side of the property to shield you from winter winds. Next, plant deciduous trees on the other three sides. Size of tree is determined by how much space you've got. Don't plant trees that grow to 100 feet at maturity near powerlines or in tight spaces where the tree can't spread. This is a long-term project. You won't see results for years but they WILL show up.

Install white window shades or blinds (room darkening is best) to block direct solar gain when it's hot. Close the shade or blinds and you reflect sunlight back outside. Open and close as needed to air out the house. Shades and blinds do double-duty in trapping heat in the winter.

Fans do work (moving air) but they're best for catching cooler, night air. Leave windows open at night with fans blowing IN on the ground floor and OUT on the upper floor, forcing natural air movement. Close up in the morning, close your drapes and trap your coolness. Look for other drafting possibilities: fireplace vents, attic accesses, basement windows and such. You have to open these vents when it's cool and close them when it gets hot otherwise your house will get hotter than ever.

Ceiling fans can work even with very low ceilings. We have 7 and 1/2 foot ceilings and have a ceiling fan in each room. Look for low-profile fans. You may be able to find ones that will work. You may have to special order them. At a minimum, you can install this type of fan in two places where it really matters AND you won't walk into the fan: over the dining room table and over a bed. Fans should always be as close to the center of the room as possible but if it's a choice between no fan and a fan over the bed or the table, take the fan. Get the biggest blades that will fit in the room. Bigger blades move more air. A ceiling fan makes it feel cooler than it is and you aren't cooling empty rooms.

The goal is always to keep the heat out! More insulation in your attic will go a long way to keeping you more comfortable in winter and summer. Add ridge vents to your roof when you reroof and get the lightest roof color possible. A cooler attic makes for a cooler house. It's much easier to trap heat than to repel it.

Awnings can be great. Vines growing up the screens on the side of porches. More grass or planted areas close to the house and less asphalt. White houses repel heat; black painted houses suck it up so choose a light house color.

The drawback is it takes time and effort and paying attention. Someone has to do the window dance twice a day. But it is doable. It will make you more comfortable, save you money, and keep you in better tune with your house.

Thank you very much for this. We own the house, and we're staying put. We are going to look into properly insulating our attic. The home inspector mentioned it wasn't up to scratch, and it doesn't have vents or windows, so we'll see how much it costs, if it's even possible, to put some in. And I'll look for low profile ceiling fans, too, good idea to use locations where you don't normally stand. And I will try the window dance, too. We have some very hot (for here) weather coming early next week, so at least I can try the window shades if I can get some before then.

We are still working on a plan for what we'll plant around the house, so thanks for those tips about the trees as well.

I posted this comment in the wrong place, it was meant to be a reply to Teresa.

The best venting for your roof that I know about are ridge vents and soffit vents.
They are both passive and work together to keep your attic at the same temperature as the outside air so your shingles don't bake or get ice dams.

A ridge vent goes along the top ridgeline of the roof. Ideally, you have a ridge vent on EVERY ridgeline, even the short ones. That may not be possible. The ridge vent should open on BOTH sides. The contractor saws off the top two inches of your roof and installs the vent which runs the length of the ridgeline. It gets covered over with shingles so no rain blows in. I haven't seen any evidence of leaks in ours. The wind comes into the unfinished attic and helps push the hot air out (hot air rises) through the highest point on the roof.

Soffit vents are in the eaves at the bottom and likewise encourage air flow and heat escaping up top.

We had to install both of them in our roof. We also installed the lightest color shingle the roofer had. The result was our attic summer temperature dropped from about 150 degrees to about 110 degrees or so. Bill tripled up on the insulation in the attic so we don't heat the attic with the house. We also don't need to fight the mass of hot air over top of us in the summer.

Ridge and soffit vents are much commoner the more south you get as are light colored shingles. The idea, as I understand it, is to gain as much heat as possible in the winter and don't worry about the summer heat. However, it's a lot easier to keep a house at a livable, don't-let-the-pipes freeze temperature than it is to cool it off. Heavy insulation in your attic means you don't need solar heating via your black shingles in the winter. You'll also be a lot less likely to get ice dams.

You're far enough north that not every roofer will be familiar with the benefits of ridge and soffit vents. Ask around.

Thanks again for all the info. We're certainly going to look into it. We found out that here in Canada, the federal government are giving $5000 grants for people to make their homes more energy efficient, and we are trying to get one of their home energy assessors to come out to have a look. We may be able to get some of the costs covered through this grant, particularly for attic insulation and vents.

If your attic is accessible, you can install attic insulation yourself IF you can reach and you're meticulous. Any gap in insulation damages the magic.

Don't insulate in the summer. It's too darn hot and you'll fry.
Pick a cool, cloudy day and put on your coverall or boiler suit. Wear gloves. Clean out the bays of crap and install the insulation batts like the directions tell you. Don't block any vents. Then install layer number two crosswise. You can add a third layer if you like.
One oddity of our house was the second floor addition which did NOT cover the entire first floor. That is, it's a room atop part of the first floor. There was a few inches of rock wool in our bays under randomly thrown-about batts (the previous owners had zero understanding of insulation and heated the attic via heating the house and warm air rising). Bill removed the dead, unusable batts. He then, with a hoe, shoved the rock wool under the second-floor addition, assuming that no insulation had been installed between the two floors when it was added. Some bays had more space than others but all the rock wool went under the addition. It seemed to help.

The main issue with insulating your attic yourself is time and being meticulous. It's a tedious, hot, sweaty, unpleasant job. However, if you can reach an area, you can insulate it. Bill's done two houses now, here and in South Carolina.

You do NOT want to block any vents to avoid moisture damage.

Point taken! I'm hoping we can get the attic insulated as part of the grant I mentioned above, or at least the materials so that we can do it ourselves (on a cool, cloudy day!).

I would like to add that you consider creating a summer kitchen of some sort. I just got mine set up under a roof of shade cloth that is anchored to the north side of my house stretched over an old garage tent frame then staked to the other side with guy ropes. I have a Camp Chef stove set up in the shade and we cook on it all summer as well as do a lot of canning on this stove. It is propane fueled, so you have to keep yourself supplied, but that isn't too hard. One of the beauties of propane is that it burns hotter then natural gas, so things heat up quicker and you can cook faster and use less propane. We got this setup just in time as we had our first 100 degree day of the summer. Looks to be another long and hot one.

Summer kitchens are a very traditional solution. They can be elaborate too.

The gardening and home porn magazines show off gorgeous summer kitchens, complete with stone countertops (all-weather!), built-in pizza ovens, and grills.

I can see how you'd never cook inside when it's not raining with one of those kitchens.

I'll have to look at my yard again. We can't afford anything like one of those, but we can afford to use the gas grill we already own more often.

Thanks for the reminder!

I could not afford that kind of a fancy setup either. I definitely built my summer kitchen out of stuff that we had and had used in other ways in the past (SCA camping mostly). Water is the biggest problem in mine, but the garden hose does well at filling the canner or the blanching pot and most of the surfaces can be hosed off when you have had a messy tomato day. Otherwise a big bowl of water helps when needed. Canning or cooking outside is the only humane way to go when you rely only on fans and open windows to cool your house.

We have replaced the stove once, but that was after many years of use. Tables were ones we had used for other purposes. I did pick up a deep shelf unit to hold canning gear of the side of the road during a neighborhood clean up event.

Good luck

ClareBroommaker's picture

Yeah, but how many owners of such kitchens even use them? I was just thinking again today about how, around here, "everybody" has chairs on their front porches, but rarely do you see anyone using those chairs. Front porch chairs seem to be symbolic of a desire to be welcoming and leisurely. Then stuff like work, school, weather, and mosquitos intervene; people stay indoors....I think those deluxe outdoor kitchens might be similar, yet geared to a higher income than us folks with plastic chairs on the front porch. They feed the dream without anyone living the dream.

That said, keeping cooking heat out of the house helps a lot. I do not cook outdoors as much as I could.

(Kay, this was not a comment on your outdoor kitchen. I don't always understand where my comments are going to post. Was a comment on magazine kitchens.)

I haven't figured out how this site applies the replies either. My outdoor kitchen is not magazine ready. ;-D

Thanks, a summer kitchen outdoors is a great idea! We do have to consider our outdoor plans, and that gives us further food for thought.

So the last couple of days have been 32 degrees celsius (89-90 fahrenheit), which is very hot for this area. I have been doing the window dance, with some degree of success, but it was still 29 celsius upstairs even with windows closed and drapes drawn. It's cooled off today, and I'm looking into that attic insulation. I noticed a couple things:

- If you insulate your house more, I suppose that would mean it gets hotter much more slowly after consistent hot weather, but it also takes much longer to cool down after temperatures drop. I guess that's why I need those attic vents and fans.

- Our house has a staircase in the middle of the house that joins the upstairs and downstairs (of course), but it is the only channel in the inside of the house that connects the two levels. So it can get very hot upstairs but still be relatively comfortable downstairs. Is there some way to better move air between both levels?

- Silly question: when you try to move air out of the upper level at night with fans, do you put the fan right next to the window pointing out? Or further back in the room pointing at the window?

Thanks again!

I like to put my fans right in the windows, one blowing into the house and one blowing out of the house. Since your house is a multi-level one, it may be you would want a couple of fans blow out on the upper level and a couple blowing in on the lower. Of course you may have to experiment with a few different arrangements to find the best solution for your house. Some thing to vent the attic and more insulation would certainly keep your upper level cooler I would think.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

As per Kay's comment, the fans should be mounted directly in the window. Upstairs blowing out, open windows downstairs to admit air. I personally would not install fans downstairs blowing inwards. Get the largest fan(s) that will fit into the window. It is more energy efficient to have a large fan running at a slower speed than a smaller fan running at a higher speed if both are moving the same amount of air. The only air path at the window with the fan should be through the fan itself, i.e., solid barrier around the fan itself as mounted in the window frame.

Have your first floor fans blowing in, with the fan in the window up against the screen. Second floor fans blow out, again with the fan placed in the window frame.

You'll discover over time which windows work best. If you've got a strong, prevailing breeze on one side, you may not need a fan there and you sure don't want to try to blow out into a stiff breeze.

The insulation will effect how swiftly the house cools down and heats up. That's why you need those vents, to bleed off heat in the summer.

Thanks Kay, Sweet Tatorman, and Teresa. I may need to get a couple more fans to do this properly, I'm on it. And I'm trying to get that attic looked at pronto, before the next spell of hot weather.

Your are welcome Jbucks.

An additional note on the summer kitchen if it is constructed under any kind of tent frame. Be sure you anchor it VERY securely with sturdy stakes and ropes to the ground or other solid object. I recommend 1/2 inch rebar for stakes and at least 1/4 inch rope of the kind that will withstand the sunlight. I have seen many a pop-up tent blow over and bend into a pretzel with even a mild wind because the users tried to anchor it with those silly little pins that come with these tents. Most craft fairs where the the EZ up tents are used for booths require 40 to 50 pounds of weight on each corner of your tent and you can't always pound stakes into the ground to secure your tent.

I spent yesterday morning reinforcing mine as we had a very strong north wind trying to blow it into my house. Shade cloth, even though it isn't solidly woven, is still a very worthy sail and that wind was trying to blow it into my house. Take care everyone.

We do craft shows in our local area (to sell books) and by far, wind is worse than rain.

We use the big weight bags that Kay describes.

If you use weight bags to secure a fly or canopy, put the gravel into quart-size doubled-up Ziplock bags first. That way, if the weight bags get soaked, the gravel stays clean and dry. It doesn't get moldy nor does the water hang around forever.

Sweet Tatorman's picture

Having slept on the matter I have concluded that my earlier statement " I personally would not install fans downstairs blowing inwards" was too understated. I should have said that if you have multiple fans *do not* deploy them blowing in opposite directions. There are sound engineering/physics reasons why this is so. The reasons are many and some would be a bit difficult to explain to non-technical folks. If you have two identical fans you will always be able to produce greater airflow and thus cooling if they are both blowing in the same direction either both out upstairs or both in downstairs provided that there are sufficient windows that can be opened. There are a couple of reasons to prefer the both blowing out even though both blowing in will produce the same airflow if all else is equal.

Fan placement takes time to learn. It varies with each house because each house is built a bit differently, sited not optimally with the prevailing winds, the other houses and trees get in the way, and it's a personal preference.

Which is to say, you have to experiment. As Sweet Tatorman man says, don't have fans working against each other.

I like fans on the first floor blowing in and fans on the second floor blowing out because it works with the natural way hot air wants to flow anyway: up.

I don't like a fan in my bedroom (even though it would help with cooling the house overall due to the window layout) because it lets too much light through from the street lighting! The light bothers me enough that it's difficult to sleep.

Experiment and keep records and you'll learn what works best.

Will do. We may have some more hot weather coming next week, so time to recalibrate the fans!

lathechuck's picture

I always set the fans to draw air out of the house, because the fan motor itself generates some heat, so you might as well blow it outdoors on-the-spot. It seems obvious to me, but I've explained it several times to friends at church, that a fan running in a closed room makes the room warmer overall, even if it makes you feel a little cooler when you're in its breeze. So never leave it running when you're not in the room!

David Trammel's picture

It got above 95F this past week, and I finally got out my own fans. Up until now, the natural sump of cooler air in the house has kept things if not comfortable, at least tolerable in the late afternoon. I've also been out at the new place working until 5pm everyday, so I could come home, take a cold shower and crash for a nap.

I put a fan in the kitchen door last night at about 10pm for a few hours to pull in cool evening air, and vent some of the heat out the front door. This morning while I had coffee, I turned it back on. I'll close up the doors when I leave. I expect that should pull the temperature down 5-10 degrees when I get home today.

Even a lazy application like mine can have good affects on your situation.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Humidity is under 30% so far today, thank goodness. We've been using fans for weeks already. Yesterday I soaked my hair to the scalp with water twice while outside, thinking, though, that my now grey hair helps deflect a bit of sun.

The indoor parallel of head-soaking, jbucks, is to completely dampen a sheet to cover as you sleep. A fan pointed at you can really cool you off. When really hot, you might have to re-wet the sheet two or three times during the night. If you try it and like the effect, I recommend having a nearby sink, dish tub, or large bucket prefilled with water so that you don't have to disrupt your sleep too much .

I also soaked my house yesterday. It is brick and when sprayed with water, the bricks will soak up some water and immediately evaporate it away, taking heat with the vapor. Of course our water source is hugely abundant, the Mississippi River.

I'm not a fan of humidity, either! Thanks for the suggestion about dampening sheets. If it gets really hot, I'll give that a shot.

Thanks for the suggestion! I'll get the chance soon to test out my own fan configuration soon enough.

bobmcc's picture

The rule I've heard on moving air is that you pull air, you don't push it. The illustration was a chain - you can move a chain easily by pulling it, much harder to move by pushing it. It balls up, has little side-jaunts and generally doesn't work well.

lathechuck's picture

The blades of a fan push air away from the fan, and so we can feel the breeze at some distance away. On the opposite side, the blades produce a region of low pressure, which draws air in from all directions, so we don't feel the suction of a fan unless we're right up against it, or there's some kind of duct work on the intake side. When we're sitting by an open window, opposite to a fan which is pushing air out, the entire room acts like a duct of the air that the fan moving through the room, pushing and pulling at the same time. So, a fan can push in only one direction, but can pull from every open window.

I need to catch up on posts here, but in the meantime a brief update.

We got our attic insulated with blow-in insulation (from R20 to R50) and ventilated (with gable vents). It does make the inside of the house warm up noticeably more slowly than before as the heat of the day increases, so it's been a matter of opening the windows in the mornings with all 4 fans on spaced out around the house, then waiting until the outside temperature starts to climb in comparison to the interior temperature, and doing the opposite in the evenings.

When we go through hot periods, it is rarely cooler inside than it is outside even in the early mornings before dawn. We don't leave the fans on all night, but maybe we should try that to see the difference. We also need to put a few more curtains up, we haven't made curtains for every room yet and we should do that.

With a little window dancing, it does make a difference! We are going through another hot period now, so I get to test everything out properly. :)

Thanks again for the tips, everyone!

I would certainly leave fans running all night to get the best of the cool air into your house before you close it up. If you have a lot of sun coming into your house curtains will certainly help, but I would also suggest awnings as well. In my house, the west facing windows would get a huge dose of sun and heat in the summer if I didn't have those old fashioned awnings. You might also thing about squares of insulating foam that you can find in the hardware stores and cut pieces to fit the windows you don't have curtains for if that is where the sun comes in.

Hm, the insulation block idea could work well, too. Thanks for the idea!

Unless you run fans all night long (or as long as possible when it cools off) a house just won't cool off enough on its own.
The only exception I've found is if there's a stiff breeze blowing, 10 mph or more or a BIG temperature differential, 30 degrees or more, to encourage air flow on its own.

When you can't cool off effectively at night, keeping the heat out during the day matters tremendously.
While you're working on better drapes, consider the cheap, easy alternative: white towels or sheets folded over dowels. Mount a pair of cup hooks on the window frame, as high as they'll go, and hang the dowel there. The white towel or sheet will block and deflect direct sun. It will make a difference of a few degrees in that space. That's a few degrees of heat you won't have to cool down.

That makes sense. We will leave the fans on tonight all night to test it out. And thanks for the tips about the dowels and towels!

David Trammel's picture

One slight more expensive option for solar shielding is to pick up sleeping bags at garage sales or Wal-Mart. They are typically the right size to cover big windows if opened all the way. Thick and insulated, usually with a lighter color on the inside for Summer and flipped a darker side you can use for Winter. Their weight usually keeps them from blowing around in drafts too. I'm got them over all of my windows with just a slim open for the cats to climb up in the front window.

Not a bad idea, thank you!