When The Air Conditioner Is Broken

  • Posted on: 15 July 2020
  • By: Teresa from Hershey

As our World collapses, energy prices will shoot up and equipment will break. You may not have the money for either. Green Wizard regular Teresa Peschel has this informative post about what to do when the air conditioner finally breaks. Enjoy.

Why we aren’t dying when the air conditioner died.

We have a whole-house air conditioner (AC). I love our air conditioner but I minimize its usage because it’s expensive to run. Air-conditioned air is also not like the outside meaning that if I spend too much time inside, I suffer more of a shock when I go outside and experience immense temperature and humidity swings. Heating in the winter is similar; I minimize the contrast between my home and the outside with lower temperature settings for the furnace.

To maximize the air conditioner’s efficiency, I use a whole-house method. I have strategically placed trees to block the summer sun (which take time to grow); insulation, light-colored shingles, roof and soffit vents (you’ll have to redo the roof); white window shades at every window; ceiling, room, and window fans; and opened windows and access doors when appropriate. I take full advantage of the programmable thermostat. I keep an eye on what the outside temperature is and whether or not there is a stiff breeze. Natural cooling is free.

Our whole-house air conditioner is tied into our heating system’s ductworks and uses the furnace blower. Change your furnace filter monthly. Changing the filter is, according to the HVAC technicians I’ve spoken to, more important for the AC than it is for the furnace. Because I have all these elements in place, with careful thermostat settings, I can minimize the time the AC runs while still keeping the house at a reasonable temperature.

What is a reasonable temperature?

For us, it is 81° in the day and 76° at night. We work from home so I can’t let the house temperature soar and then crank it down hard at night. It’s easier to sleep when it’s cooler. It’s also easier to cool the house at night when I’m not fighting the sun. Because I have a programmable thermostat, I modify this schedule slightly at 5 am. These are the settings on my thermostat:
7 am 81°
3 pm 81°
10 pm 76°
5 am 74°

The 5 am setting of 74° is important. That’s when both the house and the outside are at their coolest. Cooling the house down another two degrees is much easier since I’m not fighting the weather and, because I trap my conditioned air, I can keep the entire house cooler longer, thus keeping the AC from coming on again until 10 pm. During the day, the ambient temperature of the house gradually raises to 81° but unless it’s extremely hot, it rarely goes over, triggering the AC to come on again.

How do I keep the house temperature from going above 81°? The rest of the system comes into play.

Carefully placed deciduous trees block the sun, keeping the house cooler. Walk around your house at various points during the day in July, starting in the early morning hours. Trace the arc of the sun and work out the location of trees that will shade the house. You’ll need trees to cover the arc from sunrise to sunset. Your yard, how closely spaced the houses are, and powerline location will determine exact placement, species, and number of trees. Don’t plant 100-foot oaks under powerlines or in the 6-foot wide side yard as it will end in tears. A local nursery or some research will help you get the right size and variety of trees for your exact location. Trees take years to grow so if you don’t have any trees, work out the sun’s arc first, and decide where you need a tree the most. Over the years, your trees will grow, and your house will be easier to cool and it will stay cooler longer.

Your roof is next. White or light-colored shingles reflect heat better. Unless you live in Minnesota, you need a light-colored roof. Roof vents along the ridge and soffit vents allow heat to escape. Heavy insulation in the ceiling keeps a barrier between your air-conditioned house and the mass of hot air just above it. Your attic should be well-ventilated and close to the outside air temperature, not 50° hotter. In the summer, a cooler attic keeps the rest of the house cooler. In the winter, a colder attic helps prevent ice dams. Unless your attic is being used as living space, it is not part of your HVAC envelope. Don’t waste heating or air-conditioning on your attic. It’s dead space. Insulate, insulate, insulate. Two layers of batts are a minimum. Never block the vents! If your attic wraps around living space, insulate those walls with batts and then insulate again with foil-covered two-inch foam panels nailed over the studs.

Use window treatments wisely. White room-darkening shades in every window will let you block the summer sun. Keep the shades pulled down as long as the sun is pouring down on that window and keep the heat outside where it belongs. Don’t raise the shades until the sun has moved well away from a given window. I’ve found that white room-darkening shades reflect the heat better than my drapes, my sheers, and my window quilts. I think it’s because a window shade is a flatter, more reflective surface. I don’t recommend vertical blinds which are only suitable for office parks. Mini-blinds don’t reflect the heat nor do they block the light as well as a window shade does. Mini-blinds are more expensive and more prone to breakage and they’re harder to keep clean. Drapes and window quilts insulate against both heat and cold, but a window shade gives you more control over opening the windows while still blocking much of the outside environment.

Fans let you set the AC temperature higher and let you take advantage of cooler outside air at night. Moving air always feels cooler than still air and a fan lets you spot cool where you need it the most as opposed to cooling the entire house. There are three kinds of fans.

Put your ceiling fans (bigger is always better with ceiling fans) in the center of the room, not off to the side. As my mother proved, installing a ceiling fan in the corner of a room only helps that corner and not the rest of the room. Add a light fixture to the ceiling fan and mark the switch setting on the fan so you remember which setting blows the air downwards (summer) and upwards (winter). If you have a very long, narrow room, you may need two evenly spaced ceiling fans on the center axis. Multi-speed ceiling fans give you more control over how much air is moving around.

Room fans let you move air around your body instead of the entire room. I use a Vornado tower model for my work desk. I’m much cooler and I don’t need to air-condition the entire house for my benefit. You’ll have to see what works best for you: a small, oscillating desk fan, a standing traditional fan, a box fan, or the Vornado tower. I’ve used my Vornado tower (the 41-inch tall room sized fan) for two summers now and I love it.

You can see several elements of my procedure in the photograph. I’m dressed appropriately for the heat and my hair is up. I’ve pulled open the curtain under my desk to let more air in at my feet. I’ve got my Vornado tower fan. Most important is the closed drapes and window shade in the visible window. That window gets full sun from about 10 am until about 3 pm. Blocking sunlight on this side of the house in the summer keeps the entire house cooler. You can also see the window fan off to the right side, resting on the floor for when it needs to go into the window. Finally, the large picture window has its shades up because the sun is no longer anywhere near that side of the house.

Window fans move the air in and out of the house. I use these at night, when it’s cool enough outside to cool off the house more efficiently than using the air conditioner. Otherwise, I keep the house shut up tight at night to trap my air-conditioned air.

If it’s going to be cool (below 68°) and breezy at night, I install fans throughout the first-floor windows to blow in free, cooler air while the AC is turned off. I have found through practical experience that if it isn’t much cooler than 68° at night, the AC does a better job than opened windows with fans. When I’m doing open windows at night, fans in the second-floor bonus room windows are set to exhaust air outside, thus setting up a circulation pattern throughout the entire house. I run window fans from sunset (when the temperature outside drops lower than what’s in the house) until about 8 am when the sun starts heating up. By 8 am, the fans get removed, the windows are closed tight, and the shades and drapes are closed and the AC gets turned back on. Windows without a fan are left cracked open with the shades pulled down to the window opening. How wide you can leave the other windows open depends on how safe you feel with open windows at night. Ambient noise, foot traffic, cars, and street lights play a big role as well. Those windows are also closed and drapes drawn by 8 am.

Again, I only use window fans when it’s cool enough outside, overnight, to work better than the air conditioner. Practical experience will show you when to use the fans instead of the AC. Humidity matters as does the amount of street noise and lights that you are subjected to.

Would a whole-house fan work better than a flutter of individual fans? You bet it would but we don’t have one. Eventually, we’ll install a whole-house fan and reduce our AC usage even more. Awnings would make a difference too, in keeping the sun at bay, but we don’t have those either. I don’t know if I will install awnings because I can manage without them. A few years ago, I planted three more cherry trees in the sun’s path around the house. The tallest one is about eight feet tall. In ten more years, they’ll be doing their part to keep us cooler.

If I am doing open windows at night, I also use my access doors to let more air move around on its own. These include two attic access doors and the hatch to the highest section of the attic. Along with opened windows in the basement level and the window fans, I can get pretty good airflow from bottom to top. Don’t forget your basement windows; open windows in both finished and unfinished rooms along with leaving doors open between those spaces to let the air move around. Use the fact that warm air rises. If you have a fireplace, opening the damper when you’re doing open windows adds another vent.

The drawback to opening windows, window fans, attic accesses, basement window wells, fireplace dampers, and the like is they work best when it’s naturally cool and breezy. The bigger drawback is closing everything (you can’t miss a single one) before 8 am so as to trap the cooler air. If you forget to close an attic hatch and the AC is on, you’ll be air-conditioning your attic and the great outdoors.

So that’s how I minimize my air-conditioning. This saves us money on a regular basis.

It’s also saving us right now.

This summer — here in central Pennsylvania — has been cooler than usual so I didn’t need to turn on my air conditioner until a few days ago. That was when we discovered that our whole house unit wasn’t blowing cold air. The fan unit works, but there’s no coolant. I’m on the repair list with my HVAC dealer but because of Covid-19, none of their regularly scheduled work for March through June got done.

I won’t see a repairman for a while.

Are we suffering? Not that much, as it turns out. July is always hard because the nights are so short, they can’t cool down enough but even so, the combination of trees, pale roof shingles and ridge vents, window shades, room and ceiling fans, and using window fans correctly at night is keeping the house tolerable. The highest temperature we’ve gotten so far is 84° inside. It isn’t cool enough at night to get the house down below 78°, but getting to that point, in combination with shutting up tight against the sun, is keeping it bearable inside.

If I hadn’t set these systems in place years ago, and learned how to use them correctly, we would be suffering much more, especially at night.

You can do this too. Plant properly placed trees, install ceiling fans and window shades, and make your air conditioner usage more efficient and less costly. It will last longer and, if your air conditioner fails, you can manage until the repairman visits.

If you want in-depth information on tree and hedge placement along with window treatments and the window dance, look for my book Suburban Stockade. You can read more about Suburban Stockade (including the introduction and the detailed table of contents) at https://peschelpress.com/suburban-stockade/.


David Trammel's picture

We just had two days at 95+ with terrible humidity. Kind of par for the course in St Louis during the Summer. Luckily we had clouds and a cold front move through last night and its a comfortable 84 with a breeze.

I've gone without an air conditioner for several Summers and its challenging but very doable. As your article points out, you need to work with the environment, and gather cool air at night, then close things up during the hot time of day.

If its really hot I retreat to the basement, which stays cool even in very high temperatures but that's not an option for many. I've found that if I take a nap from about 2pm to 5pm. By 5 the Sun has gotten far enough that it goes behind a big tree in the back yard and the house goes from taking on heat, to losing heat. With a box fan blowing on me (in minimal clothing), I can be quite comfortable. Sometimes a quick cold shower before my nap is added if I've been working up a sweat in the garden.

Recently I read where adding a furnace filter to the rear of the fan, to help filter out air contaminants, especially in areas where you have wild fire smoke, can help lessen any lung damage from Covid19. For someone older like myself, anything you can do to not get this virus is important. Seems that even mild cases of this illness does serious long term damage.

Great article. Thanks Teresa.

ClareBroommaker's picture

"In the winter, a colder attic helps prevent ice dams."

The house next to me has not been heated except by one space heater for more than 30 years. The roofer who last put on a new black flat roof, told me that the roof has lasted way over twice as long as expected because of the small temperature difference from inside to outside. Another advantage of cold winter attic space.

The previous owners claimed the attic was insulated. It wasn't because batts of pink fiberglass thrown around at random do not insulate.

When Bill insulated properly (multiple layers criss-crossed over top of each other) we discovered how much heat was being lost into the attic in the winter when the unprotected pipes going through unheated space into the upstairs bathroom froze! We didn't realize they were exposed until Oldest Child had a problem with the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom.

Those pipes got layers of pipe wrap, fiberglass insulation, and a covering box made of foam insulating panels and have never had a problem since. Insulating the pipes also made the hot water arrive hotter and faster.

The heat leaching through the un-insulated ceiling kept everything from freezing. Now, our attic's temperature stays pretty close to whatever the outside temperature is.

mountainmoma's picture

It gets very hot here, not humid, but over 100 quite a bit and in the 90s alot. Some nights cool off, and sometimes it is miserable and does not cool at night. When I moved in there were 3 window air conditioners and a homemade attempt on a whole house fan.

Here is why the fan overall was a fail. There is only one small attic space, over the upstair bathroom, the fan was put up there, with a vent opening to the large are of this open floor plan house, which was fine, but it was just open behind it and what they did was take out wood from the eaves behind it, hoping most of the air would go out that, and when they wanted to block it, in the winter, they would slide a piece of cardboard across the opening ! It will be obvious to most that what we had was a year round hole in the building envelope,heat escaping in the winter and even in the summer day time with the fan off, that hole would let in heat. The fan was horribly noisy. The purpose made attic fans that go thru the roof are better, of course, BUT they have been implicated in having houses catch fire from embers during Californias horrid fires we have, because they are an opening into the house. So, it stayed for a while as we tried it and took it out.

We took out the window airconditioners immediatelly out of principal before we know how hot it got, and started with our passive cooling ideas.

We hired someone to build a trellis over the south facing deck and I planted grapes and kiwis. It does take a few years for that to shade, so while they grew, I tacked up shade cloth for the summer season on the part of the trellis against the house. This was re-used every year, and when it was retired, was put to use in the garden if a place needed shade for a bit, still have it, and it is not degraded yet. So, now the only south windows, the 2 sliding doors were shaded in summer.

The house is an open floor plan, 1 and a half stories. so the upstairs bedroom doors open onto the cathedral ceilinged great room, the room with the 2 south facing sliding doors. SO, then we added operable skylights into the north ceiling of the 2 upstairs bedrooms. In the evenings, the bedroom doors are open while everyone is downstairs, all sliding doors, windows and skyights are open and air is able to vent from the whole house up to the top part of the house and those skylights. Even when the bedroom doors are closed, it all vents pretty well, as the bedroom windows are open and give the air current to vent out the skylights and the downstairs is all open to the outside.

Of course, there are heat waves where the nights are hot and then if you want to sleep cooler you want to not sleep in an upper loft ( high ceiling of the 2nd floor ) but downstairs or on the deck.

Venting out hot air at night really makes a difference. I've got fans upstairs blowing out and fans downstairs blowing in to move the air faster. A stiff breeze and a strong temperature differential between inside and out helps hugely.

If worse came to worst, we would sleep in the finished basement on the sofa-bed. That space remains cool no matter how hot it is outside.

There's always a way.

mountainmoma's picture