Keeping Cool without Air Conditioning… During An Epic Heat Wave

I normally try to keep my posts from getting too regional, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Tomorrow—September 14, 2014—it’s going to be 99 degrees here in Irvine. We’re only about ten minutes from the beach, so you can imagine how much worse it’s going to be for folks who are further inland. We’re talking very dangerous temperatures here, people. And just a little reminder: it’s the middle of September.

Guess what? Despite being pretty high quality in other areas, UCI’s grad student housing not only isn’t air conditioned, but we are prohibited from using window units, presumably because the school doesn’t want to be held liable in the event that somebody gets killed by a falling air conditioner. Of course, there are ways to address the liability issue that don’t involve making pregnant women, small children, and cranky people like ME sweat it out. But whatever. It is what it is.

Side note: my housing complex does have an “emergency cooling center” open 24 hours a day, but considering that it’s a single building, and there’s over a thousand of us, it’s not exactly a great place to get work done.

In a surprising (but also not so surprising) act of kindness/maternal anxiety, my mother—who, as I’ve mentioned before, is both my best friend and a living saint—called me up this morning and told me to head over to the hotel she’s putting me up in for the next three days.

Nobody puts baby in an oven.

My mom’s anxiety, while adorable, isn’t misplaced. I live in a “townhouse” on the third and fourth floor of my apartment building, so, during the summer, my house is always a good ten to fifteen degrees hotter than it is outside. To make matters worse, my apartment is positioned such that I get direct sunlight in every room of my house (save the bathroom) for approximately twelve hours of the average summer day. I wish I could say I have a strong constitution, but I don’t. I’m the fainting type. I also have a penchant for all things dramatic. If somebody’s going to get heat stroke in their apartment, it’s probably going to me… and maybe the pregnant ladies. They can be such drama queens.

Thing is, I fully expected that I was going to have to ride this heat wave out, and it’s not exactly going to be amazing when I get home. The projected high for Tuesday, the day I go home, is a brisk 97 degrees. (Needless to say, I plan on camping in the hotel lobby for a good chunk of the day after checking out of my icebox paradise.)

I feel really bad knowing that right now—as I’m enjoying the air conditioning—my grad student housing compatriots are sweating… not bad enough to join them, but bad enough to devote an entire post to heatwave hacks.

So here you go folks: all the tactics I have been employing (and will employ again starting Tuesday) to survive in my apartment during this hellish heatwave. Put on Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and let’s get going!

  • Change your work schedule. Normally I start working in the late morning—between 9 and to 11 AM—and early afternoon, take a mid-day break, and get back to work after dinner. When the weather’s like this though, you have to be very strategic. This morning I was up at 7 AM, spent an hour heat-proofing my house (more on that later), and started working immediately. Now that I’m at a hotel the rest of the schedule isn’t necessary, but the plan was to work from 8 AM to 12 PM, goof off/relax/try to sleep between 12 PM and sundown (about 7 PM), and then do as much work as I could from 7 PM to 1 AM. It will mess up your sleep schedule, if you have one, and you will almost invariably accomplish less than you’d hoped, but you’ll also be more focused, and safe.
  • Heat-proof your house. Most of these tips are super intuitive, and some require that you spend money, but I’m putting them out there anyway.
    • DIY blackout shades. A lot of grad students don’t have money for thick curtains, but there is one thing we all have in abundance: laundry. Use. The. Laundry. I didn’t take a picture of my blacked-out bedroom, because (a) the idea of strangers staring at my laundry squicks me out, and (b) the point is that it’s dark. Just trust me. It works. Close your blinds so they are as close to “black out” as they get, then take whatever laundry you have (rolled up towels and jeans are best) and lay them up against the bottom half of the blinds. Make sure you arrange the blinds so that there’s no space between them for light to get through, and voila! Blackout shades! Avoid turning on the lights and other electronics as much as possible. It’s not that bad… in fact, it’s kind of fun. Think of it as playing Batman as an adult!

      Because everybody loves Batman… and loves Batkid still more.

      • Tip: Keep the windows open at night, but don’t wait until it’s hot to close up in the morning. Ideally you want to be blacked out by sunrise. It seems counter intuitive, and you’ll feel like you’re living in a cave, but you’re actually going to be cooler this way than you would be with your windows open.
    • Buy a humidifier. Again, this is a regional thing… in most places having a humidifier on during a heat wave would be a TERRIBLE idea. Remember though, this isn’t just the hottest Southern California’s been in 50 years, it’s also the Don’t let the ridiculous amount of landscaping fool you: Orange County is a desert. You don’t need to buy something super expensive; my humidifier set me back $30, but it’s a purchase I would make again in a heartbeat. When you’re shopping for a humidifier, focus on “cool air” humidifiers with big fans… the bigger the better. Fill that bad boy up with COLD water (I’ve been keeping water in my fridge for refreshing the humidifier), and refresh it as often as possible to keep the water from getting hot. Fringe benefit: no more summertime bloody noses!

      You need to make sure you’ve got LOTS of fans. (Cheap joke… I know. But hey, if you’re delirious, you might just find it funny!)

    • Buy ALL the fans. In a fit of desperation I ran out to Target the other day and bought two more fans for my bedroom, which brings my count—including the humidifier—up to four. I have one real-deal fan that I spent a good $30 on, my equally expensive humidifier, a Target brand clip-on fan (which is way more powerful than I’d anticipated), and a tiny target brand fan with a USB port. I put them all over the room, and made sure that at least one of these fans was pointing directly at me at all times. Does it sound excessive? Yes. Is my bedroom by far the most comfortable room in the house? Yes. Haters gonna hate, but seriously, skip one nice meal with friends and invest in redundant air-circulation devices. It’s worth it.
      • TIP: Make sure at least one fan is blowing air directly on you while you sleep. If you need to use an eye mask to be comfortable doing this, do it. Still worthwhile.
    • Use your oven vent for good. As we fourth-floor dwellers are all too aware, heat rises. You won’t be using your cooktop or oven while it’s a quadrillion degrees outside, but the vent is another story. Use that baby to suck up hot air and get it out of your house!
  • Heat-proof your body. As much as I hate the heat, I am not very good at working outside my home, nor am I super mobile these days. If you’re stuck in your own towering inferno, the most important thing you can do is regulate your own body temperature.
    • Shower three to four times a day. This sounds crazy, but by “shower,” I mean get in your shower, and stand under cold water until you get used to it, then turn it down lower, and lower, and lower. Wait until you’re positively freezing, then turn it off, and towel off as little as possible. Do not, I repeat, do NOT squeeze the cold water out of your hair if at all possible. You should only do a full-on shower with soap and stuff once or twice, because the last thing you want to do is dry your skin out. As my dermatologist so eloquently put it: “wash only the parts that stink.”

      It’s like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge… except there’s no ice, no bucket, and nobody’s challenging you to do it.

      • TIP: Make sure one of those “showers” happens right before bed. We tend to sleep best in cool/cold rooms; since you aren’t going to be able to make the room cold, focus on dropping your body temperature a few degrees.
    • Make friends with an ice pack. The best place for an ice pack to go to keep you feeling cool is the back of your neck, but move it around if it’s starting to feel uncomfortable. Stick it in-between your chair and the small of you back while you’re writing, rest your feet on it for a while… whatever. Just don’t forget to put it back in the freezer.
    • Get to know your roommate. If you’ve never seen your roommate half-naked, get used to the idea. The less clothing you’re wearing as you wander around your (blacked out) home, the better. My roommate had the good fortune of going to visit relatives for the weekend, so I’ve been wandering around in a sports bra and some boxers… when I’m feeling prudish. When I get back to the house, I have every intention of wearing the same amount of clothing I would wear on a trip to the beach, and no more. Desperate times people… desperate times.
    • Make SMDS Smoothies! Seriously… if ever there was a time to try one of my recipes, it’s now! You can even turn leftovers into popsicles! Here are links to all the recipes I have up already. I’ll be posting another one soon that is sure to please, so stay tuned!
    • KNOW WHEN TO FOLD. If you are feeling unwell, you need to get out of your house. Do not be a hero. Stay at a friend’s place, get a hotel room, do whatever you have to do. It’s better to suffer the humiliation of asking somebody for help (monetary or otherwise) than it is to find yourself in the hospital because you were too stubborn to take care of yourself. Respect the desert… it’s been here longer than you.

Stay safe everybody! I’ll be back in the trenches with you on Tuesday!

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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