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How to stay cool without air conditioning in Philly

There are ways to cool your body, and your house, down in Philly’s intense heat.

An open fire hydrant along Allegheny Avenue at Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia helps people cool off.
An open fire hydrant along Allegheny Avenue at Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia helps people cool off.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Summer in Philly is always hot.

Now that the city is reopened, there are lots of air conditioned spaces you can go to for relief. Organizations like the Pennsylvania Department of Health have always recommended going to air-conditioned spaces — like a mall or library — to protect yourself from heat-related problems.

“With extreme heat, it is always important to remain cool, possibly in air-conditioned atmospheres,” state health department of health press secretary Maggi Mumma said in 2020.

This year will be a little easier than last year, when the pandemic shuttered a number of staying-cool spaces, including municipal pools.

There are, however, some things you can do at home to keep a little cooler if you are AC-less this summer. Here is what you need to know:

How to cool your body down

Let’s start with the basics: One key way to fight heat-related discomfort is to drink lots of cool water, which can both keep you hydrated and help cool you down. Sugary or alcoholic beverages can cause you to lose more body fluids. Dr. Joseph Teel, an associate professor of family medicine and community health at Penn Medicine, says you should drink water frequently.

» READ MORE: Why elderly people react differently to heat

How much? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. How much you need to drink can vary if you have health conditions such as congestive heart failure, Teel says, or be exacerbated by your environment, level of exercise, and overall health. One tip: Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink, the state health department says.

When someone suffers heat exhaustion on a sports field, Teel says an ice bath can help bring down their temperature. You can take the same approach. A cold bath or shower, he says, can help but is not a permanent solution because “you can’t stay in the shower all summer.”

You can use cool compresses, Mumma says, to help cool down. Making one is simple: Just wet a washcloth or towel in cold water, and put it on your body. Where should you put it? Some of the most effective areas, Teel says, are around your neck and on your groin, and if you’re at home, you can try using them with minimal clothing on to hit a few areas at once.

You can step up that technique by using fans to make it an “evaporative process,” Teel says. “If we have water on our skin and it evaporates, it takes with it some heat,” he says. Put on your cold compress and use a fan to blow air across your skin, which Teel says can “cool you down a little faster than just a cold cloth itself.”

How to cool down your house

Use fans wisely. Fans can be one of the best ways to keep cool — but there are right and wrong ways to use them. The city, for example, says you should never use a fan with your windows closed, which can create an “oven effect” by circulating hot air inside your home.

Fans can be more effective when the heat of the day is over, and you can open your windows to allow the cool night air in, Teel says. One of the best ways to create airflow is to put a box fan in an open window at one end of your space blowing air in, and another fan in a window blowing air out at the other end.

And if your home has ceiling fans, make sure the blades are rotating counterclockwise during hot weather. That way, the fan will push air down into your space to create a breeze. (Many ceiling fans have a directional switch on their motor that controls the direction in which they spin.)

There are more ways to keep your home cool.

Think about when you use your appliances. The Pennsylvania Utility Commission, for example, says that you should wait to use any appliances that generate heat — such as dryers, dishwashers, and ovens — until after 7 p.m. to avoid heating up your home unnecessarily. Turning off other nonessential appliances and lights is also a good idea.

Keep your blinds closed during the day. The sun, Teel says, can heat up your home faster, like a greenhouse. The PUC recommends spending time in rooms that are not hit with direct sunlight during the day.

If you’re going to buy an AC

Window air conditioners are much cheaper and more convenient to install than central air, and if you can afford one, it may be a good time. However, there are some things to consider when buying a window unit.

As Consumer Reports points out, you will want to get an AC that is appropriately sized for the room you are trying to cool. If it’s too small, it will have trouble cooling the room; if it’s too big, it will cool the room quickly but leave too much moisture behind. A good rule of thumb is for the unit to have 20 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of cooling power for every square foot of space in the room.

And if you need help with utility costs this summer, funding from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is available for qualified residents, a city spokesperson says.

Think about when you go out

The health department recommends staying indoors as much as possible and limiting exercise during the hottest parts of the day, Mumma says. However, if you have to go out, stay in the shade as much as possible and wear sunscreen, a ventilated hat, and sunglasses.

If you need to go shopping, Teel says, “look ahead in the week, and pick a cooler day. Avoid the time when you will be subjected to midday heat.”

At home, Teel says, wear as little clothing as possible. When out and about, consider using light-colored, loose-fitting clothes made of breathable, light materials like cotton that let air to circulate around you.

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