Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fan of Fans

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Here in New England, we've had  three long months of delightfully temperate weather. Then, just as thoughts turn to new school supplies and getting the sweaters out of the cedar closet, we're suddenly faced with 90 degree days. It's as if Summer has realized she only has a few more weeks to live and has turned up the heat in retaliation. How do we combat it? 


This will shock and amaze those of you living in more southerly climes (and by more southerly, I mean below the Massachusetts Turnpike) but I have no air conditioning. Central air is still rare in Maine, in part because we have the oldest housing stock of any state in the nation. Teachers use electric fans in classrooms. You can still find stores with slamming screen doors instead of refrigeration units.  (Is it just me, or do the rest of you get frosted when you walk out of a ninety-degree parking lot into a grocery store that's so cold you need  jacket and scarf?)

Lots of folks have window air conditioners, of course, and the number grows ever year, as our average summer temperatures climb and the number of degree days increase. (A chart of Maine's summer climate over the past several decades shows year-to-year variables, of course, but a steady upward trend.) However, at my house, we keep cool the old-fashioned way.

In part, I can get away with no-a/c stance because we have some advantages not shared by households in say, Texas, where Deb lives. First, of course, we reside in Maine. That means we can usually count on summer nighttime temperatures, even after a scorching day, to fall into the low sixties to mid fifties. As soon as the air begins to cool in the evening, every screened window and door is opened in our house. (I just realized another reason we can do this - living in the country, I don't need to keep the place closed up to keep out noise, pollution and overly-close neighbors.) 

The second advantage we have is an old house. Close to two hundred years old. The internal climate of our farmhouse changes with the speed and nimbleness of the QEII making a U turn; ie, not very. This creaky, drafty place keeps in cool in the summer and holds on to warmth in the winter (which explains the many times we've been able to carry on during a 3 or 5 or 9 day power outage in the winter.) If we lived in one of those modern tight houses you can heat with a lightbulb, we'd probably perish in our own effluvia.

So the house cools overnight. In the morning, we shut the windows. All the windows. We draw the curtains or shades wherever the sun shines in. If we get several degree days in a  row, as we've been having this week, we close off the family room and The Boy's bedroom, two parts of the house that were "shotgunned" onto the main building sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. Since they have no attic above them, they're particularly vulnerable to the sun. The temperature in the house rises, of course - yesterday it got up to 84 downstairs! - but it's livable. If you have a fan.

I love my fans. We have window fans, to suck the cool air in at night and exhaust the warm air during the day. We have a big square floor fan that we place at the head of the cellar stairs and use to bring the cool subterranean air up into the kitchen. We have fans that sit next to the computers and fans that oscillate while we're watching the television. (Those are the ones that get turned off when no one is there.) I love the feel of the air against my skin, and I love the way I'm still connected to the natural rhythms of the day and the season.

Summer's day hath all too short a lease, the poet wrote, and that's very true for both here in Maine and in the Adirondacks, where I set my books. We have, on average, twenty short weeks between last and first frost. Why spend it enclosed in an artificial bubble? And of course, if it does get Just Too Hot at home...there's always that other old-fashioned solution: go to the movies! 

How about you, dear readers? Can you remember your grandparents using fans and pulling the drapes down? And how do you keep cool in the September heat?


  1. I'm a fan of open windows and fresh air. The ceiling fans get a reasonable amount of use and, although our house does have air conditioning, we haven't had too many high temperature days --- I think it might have gotten turned on once this summer . . . .

  2. We use the same method as you, Julia. Plus in our renovated upstairs rooms we have ceiling fans. I love ceiling fans - sitting under one on medium right now - with their lazy rotation on low, busy cooling on high. Summer in New England is too short to spend it cold!

    Growing up in hot southern California we didn't have AC and also used the close-it-up method in summertime. Our house was unusual in having a basement (that you accessed from the outside - which now makes me think, Oh those cute Californians...), though, so we could switch on the fan to bring cool air up through the heating ducts.

  3. I lobby to turn on the AC in the bedroom several nights over the summer--otherwise sleeping is a bear. I also love the overhead fans Edith--what a difference. And John sets up his summer "office" out on the screened porch. (Better than the dining room table!)

    But the summer has been so glorious--trying to seize every second...

  4. I didn't have AC until 18 years ago and we got along fine, mostly because I lived in old houses that could take the heat. While I love having it now, we use it sparingly, preferring to open windows and use ceiling fans as much as possible. I have fond childhood memories of clipping sheets together with clothes pins and piling books around the edges then inflating the whole thing with a box fan. I'd spend hours inside my indoor fort, reading, cool as a cucumber.

  5. Have I mentioned, my husband COLLECTS old fans. We have lots of the ones in those old ads. Brass. Copper. Black metal. Heavy as all getout. They'd do double duty as balogne slicers so we don't use them.

    Going to Facebook now to post a picture of one of my husband's fans.

  6. We may live in NYC, but we have ceiling fans in every room and triple-honeycomb blackout shades to keep out the sun.....

  7. Fans! We have a hundred-year old house, no way to air condition. SO yep, we're fans fans, too.

  8. Growing up in Atlanta in the 50's and 60's we had an attic fan plus oscillating ones in what had been a 30's farm house. The first 2 years I taught in a new modern high school (with one wall of glass) it was not air conditioned. It used to always cool off at night, not so much anymore.

  9. I love that so many of you are also fan lovers! I thought the rest of the world had gone the way of the ac unit.

    Lucy, I think there's enough of a difference between Connecticut and Maine that the need for cooling increases noticeably. The Boy didn't bring any fans with him to Trinity when he left the third week of August, but he's been so uncomfortable, he called and asked if I could ship him one! (I bought an inexpensive tower fan on Amazon and used my free 2-day shipping instead.)

    Anonymous, I remember those attic fans! They could cool the whole house, but you'd go to sleep with a dull roar like a train running

  10. In our place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula we have no A/C and use fans. I had installed an attic fan as well to pull in cool air from the basement once the sun went down, but that's closed off as we were getting bats in the house!

    Two summers ago in a heat wave I taught the grandkids the pleasures of soaking their feet in tubs of cool water.

    ~ Jim

  11. Speaking of fans, Jane Thomas Scheffres posted this link on my Facebook page... it's for a fan you wear around your neck and it blows UP. A definite must have.

  12. I've never lived in a home with a/c here in Montana. Work place, yes. I had a job a couple years ago that ran the a/c so cold I had to have my little portable heater on in my office all summer. At home, we do the same thing with opening everything over night/early morning and shut things up during the heat of the day.

  13. Our house is 75 years old, and while we had A/C installed in 1987 when I was pregnant the last time, it is not super efficient. So I finally had ceiling fans installed in all the bedrooms a couple of years ago. What a difference.

    I grew up sleeping with my head in the window on hot nights, so I still do the same energy-saving things you do, Julia, even though we do have air conditioning. Why waste electricity? It drives me crazy to go into a super-cooled building on a hot day, especially if they have left the door wide open. Many places in Miami are like that, with yawning door openings, and blasts of frigid air escaping. What a horrible waste.

    Last night I slept at our rural farm home, where the air suddenly decided to give up the ghost. It was hotter inside than it was outside in 90+ heat, but fans and open windows made for a comfortable night. Here's to the good old-fashioned way.

  14. Actually, my parents in Nor Cal just got central air this summer. Growing up, we did the windows open at night/morning and fans things with drawn curtains on really hot days. I would love to do that, but it often doesn't cool off enough here in So Cal to make it a practical option.

    Of course, I do enjoy our warm evenings, so I'm not complaining too much about that. I do love heat.

    But yes, too many places over air condition. I often leave work with ice cold hands and feet in fact.

  15. My house, built in 1942, is duplicated all over the village I live in, so I have seen some with the original parts-- and it was perfectly designed for cross currents (and living within a mile of Lake Michigan, we get them). Alas, some previous owner replaced the three front double-hung windows with a picture window (the picture being the house across the street), and many of the other windows will give you a hernia if you try to open or close them.

    I have ceiling fans in almost every room, and I LOVE the modern table fans that won't slice your fingers off (my grandmother and mother put the fear of fans into me at a young age). I rarely use the central a/c (retrofitted 10 years ago) except to extract the humidity from the house (basement dehumidifier also does this).

    When I was in law school, I stayed one summer in Madison where my apartment had only one exposure (west), and it got incredibly hot. But in those days when hair dryers had plastic hoods and took forever, I could dry my hair fairly quickly by lying on the floor in front of my big box fan, which blew the ambient-temperature air across my rollers and the hardwood floor was actually quite comfortable in the heat.

  16. Many years ago, I befriended an elderly writer who lived in Berkeley CA, and she had the most wonderful cupboard. It was on the north side of her house (which was shaded on that side by a big redwood tree), and the back of the cupboard was just screening. I think it was a pie cupboard, or designed to hold something that didn't have to actually be refrigerated-- maybe fruits or vegetables?

    I was fascinated by it. Has anyone else seen this ingenious kind of cooling cabinet? (A screen porch for food?)

    Speaking whereof, I grew up with screen porches at our summer home, and essentially slept outside all summer. We also ate on the screen porch except in driving rainstorms. And one of my dogs, who went blind and deaf in his old age, loved to sit on the porch (where he felt safe) and smell the breeze from three directions.

  17. Having lived in our Maryland house for thirty years without AC, we certainly didn't install AC in our Cape Cod house. This summer, I used fans maybe twice, until the last few days. The bedroom ceiling fan is delightful.
    We had one of those exhaust fans but had it removed after an energy audit showed how much heat leaked out.
    Love this discussion of fans. I'm a fan.

  18. I'd say Portland, OR, is about half AC/half not. I don't have AC, but I have overhead fans (yes, such a difference) and regular fans. Unfortunately, I live in a modern place but under trees, so it's semi-manageable ... These days, being of a certain age, I'm my own tropical microclimate -- THAT'S what gets to me. I'll probably be using my trusty fans all winter long the rate I'm going! :-)

  19. I live in Wyoming where it rarely gets really hot. We have ceiling fans in every bedroom and in some other rooms in the house and those work wonderfully. We also do the windows open at night and closed in the daytime on our few really hot days.

    But I grew up in the South and, 10471boy were the summers miserable! Nobody had central air in those days, so we used window a/c units if we could afford them and fans if you couldn't afford them. Mostly you just sweated a lot! And drank lots of iced tea.

  20. We have no air conditioner here in Caifornia, Julia. We have the benefit of fog coming off the ocean after hot days and rarely feel too hot at night. We had double paned windows put in a few years ago and keep them shut with blinds drawn on hot days. Then open everything at sunset and it cools down nicely.
    I hate air conditioning. So glad we don't need it.

  21. I can't sleep if the room is too hot, so I appreciate my central AC. When I was growing up, we had no AC, just fans, and they pretty much just moved the hot air around. Around 14 years ago, after my AC tech had removed/replaced parts in my AC for three or four years, it became time to finally replace the unit. At the time, I could not afford it, so I had to make do with fans. Believe me, I do not want to relive those years! When I found out I needed major surgery in 2003, scheduled for June, I decided I did not want to be home on sick leave during the hot months with nothing but my fans. So I called my AC guy, told him that I wanted to have my central air replaced, and have been enjoying being able to sleep during the summer again ever since. This year I've only put the AC on for a couple of hours when I get home from work, and turn it off at bedtime. With the mild summer, I've been able to feel fairly comfortable overnight with a box fan set up on a chair near my bed.

  22. Fańs fan here. I feel like a real JRW .
    Only fans at home and good air.
    AC at the office so cold, I wear a sweater most of the time : hate it.

  23. Growing up, the first 15 years of my life we didn't have central air. We did at some point have a window unit in the living room. I remember open windows with the screens and hearing the sounds of the outdoors, which was very nice. Our finished basement always seemed cool, even though Kentucky can get pretty hot. I do think it was cooler back then though, and certainly in the northeast part of the state where I lived then. I remember lots more snow in the winter then, too. When I was 15, we moved to a house with central air. I didn't go to a school with air conditioning until I was in college. Again, it was nice hearing the sounds of the outdoors with the open windows, although I'm sure some students were distracted by it.

    Now, it seems that I can't do without air conditioning now. Of course, that's especially true since I stopped taking hormones at the beginning of the summer, and my body temperature is unpredictable.

    Julia, I loved the old fan ads you shared with us. I still have the ancient fan that my parents used, probably before kids even. It doesn't work, but I love that little round floor model fan.

  24. We live in Rockland so get that saving coastal breeze usually.LOVE all my fans!!But we did break down & buy an AC for the living room & 1 bedroom for those horrid muggy days Maine is not supposed to have(but is!).Have fans of all sizes all over the house.And NOTHING beats an open door most days.We're on a corner,a few blocks from the harbor, so lucky enough to get easterly & westerly breezes.

  25. I live in Ohio and it's supposed to be 92 today. At 1:30 the Weather Channel said it was 88 and felt like 95. I think it'll be in the 70's tomorrow. I don't have central air conditioning, either, just window units. I have the fan and A.C. both going and the coolest it gets is about 77. I live in an old house but the back part of it gets really hot. It's terrible. I have those black Blizzard fans. They're noisy but my other fans gave out so now I've gotten used to them. We don't use our ceiling fans. They never want to turn off! I'm at the library and they have their ceiling fans and A.C. going. I always bring a fleece jacket in case it's freezing. Someday I'd like central air, but then the electric bill would go up! If I won the lottery I wouldn't care. I really need it someday.

    I agree that grocery stores get too cold. I take my windbreaker with me to Walmart and Kroger so I don't freeze to death. I remember once that other people were complaining that it was too cold.


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