Keeping your cool when the heat is on

The recent unseasonable weather and soaring temperatures has had everyone reaching for the air-conditioning on-switch.

But did you know that long before Carrier invented the air-conditioner in 1902, people used their creativity to keep cool. Many of these ideas are simple and don’t cost a cent.

In ancient Egypt, for example, people hung damp reeds over windows and placed water-filled pots in hallways.  As the water evaporated, it would cool the air. In the 1950s, Australian women living ‘back of Bourke’ would soak bed sheets in water and hang them on the Hills Hoist to cool the air on the breeze. For a modern day Canberra alternative, try sitting a bowl of water in front of a small fan.

In the Middle East, wind towers would direct air down into building interiors. Today, cross-ventilation can do the trick.  Simply open windows and doors on opposite sides of the house to encourage airflow.

The citizens of Rome circulated water through their homes using aqueducts, but a cheaper alternative is to soak your feet in a bucket of water or keep a spray bottle handy. Roman Emperor Elagabalus is said to have imported snow from the mountains on donkey trains. Today, it takes less effort to keep ice blocks in the freezer or take an icepack to bed.

In Moorish Spain, trickling fountains and reflecting pools cooled the hot air, while deep-set windows and doors provided protection from the summer sun. So, close the blinds as soon as the sun comes up - and then open them when night falls to flush the house out with cooler night air.

Today, people around the world continue to dress for the heat, wearing wide-brimmed hats and loose, light coloured clothing. Hand fans are still a necessary accessory in many of our neighbouring islands. In the Mediterranean, people start their days before the sun gets too hot – and enjoy afternoon siestas to beat the heat.  And they take their beds outside to sleep under the stars. 

When the mercury soars, we may be thankful for our air-conditioning, but there are other ways we can take action to keep cool and keep the electricity bills down.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia