It's too darn hot. How to cool off my studio apartment?
April 28, 2009 10:25 PM   Subscribe

How can I cool off my NY studio apartment this summer? Our building has central air conditioning, and while it's cold enough when I sit right next to the unit, the rest of the apartment gets boiling hot. During today's heat wave, when it was 82 outside, a thermometer sitting on the unit read 70 degrees. On the other side of the room, it was more like 75, and on the other side of of the apartment, almost 80. The building doesn't allow window air conditioners. This is making living here really uncomfortable -- what else can I do to cool this place off?

I've been putting up with hot, stuffy summer air in my apartment long enough. I want to do anything and everything I can to cool the place down this year. The heat wave of the last few days reminded me once again how uncomfortable it can get.

Here's a plan that's similar to my apartment. (Unlike the apartment depicted, I don't have the main area divided into two rooms.) The central A/C is to the right, underneath the window. This unit has cold water pumped to it, and cools the room by blowing air over the cold water pipes. The window is south-facing, as wide as the entire wall, and extends all the way up to the ceiling,. Today, when it was around 82 degrees out, a thermometer sitting on the unit reads 70 degrees. On the other side of the room, it'll read more like 75, and in the bathroom or kitchen, or by the front door, almost 80. I have a Vornado fan underneath the air conditioner blowing upwards.

The building won't allow a window air conditioner to be installed. Last year I tried getting a portable air conditioner (this model) but it had absolutely no effect whatsoever, even after running it for days.

What else can I do to keep things cooler in this apartment? More fans? Install a ceiling fan? Replace all my inefficient, heat-emitting incandescent light bulbs? Any ideas would be appreciated!
posted by lsemel to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
a swamp cooler?
posted by Infernarl at 10:30 PM on April 28, 2009

More strategically placed fans. And don't point your Vornado upwards, that just wastes the cold by sending it straight to the ceiling. Instead, point it outward into the room and then place other fans (even cheap ones will work fine) to move the air through the apartment and into your other rooms.
posted by amyms at 10:35 PM on April 28, 2009

A swamp cooler would not work in NY - it's too humid here. My last apartment had ceiling fans, and I found they worked wonders in tandem with the underpowered ac - I'd suggest it if your landlord would be OK with it. Otherwise amyms is right - get a bunch of little oscillating fans that you could mount, and experiment until you get it right.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 10:37 PM on April 28, 2009

Check the NY Times temperature graph and you will see that the coolest time of day is between 5 am and 8 am. If you have a window fan that brings in air (you can use a timer perhaps?) tomorrow morning you'll be getting air around 55 degrees. You need to have another fan somewhere to pull the hot air out. You can have a fan come in the bottom of one window and a fan going out the top of another, the best is if you can get a cross draft, like opening your door and pointing a fan out there, if you can get away with dumping hot air in the hallway.

At the end of a hot day, after 7 pm or so, you can open your door and put a big fan blowing out your window, to dump all the heat that builds up during the day, if your halway is cooler than your apartment.

The key is to not let the walls, floor, furniture, etc get heated up above 75 or so, because then they will just be radiating heat all the time.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:40 PM on April 28, 2009

Fans will help. Try to put one a little bit in front of the window unit, blowing away from it. It should help force the cooler air toward the rest of the apartment. Put in a ceiling fan, and maybe some small fans around the place as well, for air flow.

Portable air conditioners won't help unless you have somewhere to vent them outside the apartment. If you can vent your portable unit out somewhere, you can probably get some additional cooling.

See if you can put reflective coating on the windows, or at least dark blinds. South-facing windows, while not receiving direct sunlight, still get light pretty much all day long. I have north-facing windows now (but had south-facing ones in my last apartment), and both places have 10 foot high windows. Putting dark blinds or curtains over them kept some of the heat out.
posted by bedhead at 10:45 PM on April 28, 2009

Response by poster: @Calloused_foot I own the place so I can get a ceiling fan installed -- is there any particular kind to look for?

@StickyCarpet Good idea -- do you think one of those dual window fans would suffice? Unfortunately the hallways in this building are the hottest place of all, so dumping heat there won't work.
posted by lsemel at 10:47 PM on April 28, 2009

I'm sorry - I really don't know anything about them (they were already there when I moved in), other than when I had them on, the apartment seemed that much cooler, even with the ac on.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 10:51 PM on April 28, 2009

Some of the duals can run both in and out. Put one in the bottom, and another as far away as possible in the top. If you really want to be slick, rig up a gator board or foam core hinged door for it, so you can close it off when the AC is working. You'll need other fans to push the cool air from the input into the apartment, so it doesn't just loop around and go right out the other. This is part of how I manage, I can usually forego the AC until June or July.

You can light an incense stick and watch the smoke to see where the air is flowing.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:56 PM on April 28, 2009

You want a ceiling fan that can run in both directions, so you can suck cool air in when it's cool outside by running it in reverse.

I'm not sure if it works well in a small space, but in our houses what has worked best, regardless of the size of the house, is to close it down when it starts to warm up (close all windows, close all blinds) and just let fans keep the air circulating.

When the temperature outside and the temp inside are about equal, open everything up and start sucking in outside air by reversing the ceiling fan and putting portable fans in the windows to bring air inside.

However, I live in the Bay Area where on but all but the hottest of days, the temperature will drop quite a bit after sundown. And even then, it required putting up heavy window treatments to really make it work, to hold that cooler air in. And even after doing that, the hottest of days are still pretty sticky at night when it doesn't cool down.
posted by padraigin at 11:02 PM on April 28, 2009

Do you have blinds on your windows? Closing them during the day will help tremendously.
posted by fshgrl at 11:04 PM on April 28, 2009

Response by poster: I was also wondering if my lighting and electronics are making the apartment hotter. For instance, I have four bulbs lighting up the kitchen, and the moment I turn them on I can feel them radiating heat. I also have about 10 40-watt halogen tracklights on the ceiling (which I probably will stop using when it gets too hot) And a computer. And a DVR, which is surprisingly hot at all times. Can these really raise the temperature in the apartment a noticable amount?
posted by lsemel at 11:05 PM on April 28, 2009

Lights can absolutely raise the temperature noticeably. As you say, you can feel them radiating heat into the kitchen; we have kitchen lights at our place that are just total killers if they're on full power. Especially because we like to sit under them, at the kitchen table. So we have a dimmer switch.

Above where the person talks about reversable ceiling fans, I believe he's referring to an attic fan or other fan that interfaces between indoors and outdoors. Also, I find it's enough to have a bunch of windows open and one window or attic fan - once you start blowing air out, the pressure generates a fairly substantial cool draft. However, in most humid areas it doesn't get cool enough at night to really cool the place down long-term.

Another thing to look at would be insulation. Getting good insulation (double-paned windows, dark blinds or awnings blocking the direct sun, etc) really works wonders and could do a lot to help your low-powered AC fight off the incoming heat.
posted by Lady Li at 11:19 PM on April 28, 2009

Either that portable AC unit really sucks, or it wasn't installed correctly and the hot exhaust must have been getting back into the room somehow. (Or the way you were exhausting it was letting in hot outside air, or something similar.) A 7000 BTU unit is really only good for cooling about 100-200 square feet of space, so if you were trying to cool more than that with it, that's probably why it wasn't working; if you weren't, then something might have been up with the installation.

We have a problem very similar to yours in our home, and we solved it with portable AC units. We have two, one for the bedroom and one for the room we spend most of our time during the day in. The 'day' one is manufactured by a company called "Sunpentown" and isn't too powerful, although in a single room it does knock the temp down noticeably. The other is a big Whirlpool and it will positively refrigerate the bedroom if I let it.

I don't know if either one would really chill the whole house, but they do a very good job of chilling particular rooms as we're using them. We have actually noticed a savings in electricity as a result of using them; similar to electric heaters we can now "spot cool" and turn the thermostat up higher on the central AC.

If you're absolutely sure the portable unit you have wasn't leaking hot air and really was operating correctly, then there are two solutions as I see it: you can either get a more powerful unit (the sky's really the limit, though at some point you'll be talking about very expensive commercial/industrial ones), enough to chill your whole apartment, or — if either the up-front or running costs of that don't appeal — trying to somehow section your apartment off and restrict the airflow, so you're only cooling a smaller area. How you might do that depends on the floor plan and how creative you want to get (retractable curtains?), but you'll want to use a BTU calculator and get the cooled area down to something that approaches the number of BTUs moved by the AC you have or are willing to buy.

The only other solution I can think of, aside from more/better portable ACs, would be to get some sort of blower fan and attach it to the cold-air outlet from the building system. If management won't increase the pressure being supplied to your room, you could always "suck" it directly from the vents. This effectively steals it from your neighbors, but it would bring in more cold air. Depending on the shape of the vents there are "boosters" I've seen around that you can buy, but I'd probably be thinking about putting together something with a serious blower in it if the problem is 10+ degrees of bad.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:45 PM on April 28, 2009

I disagree with little oscillating fans. One big super-powerful standing oscillating fan per medium-sized room is a wonderful thing. Worth the space it takes up. I've not been impressed by ceiling fans or even window fans, but maybe I've just met the wrong sort.

note: though a good fan might not change the temperature much, it will absolutely change the wind-chill factor.
posted by mail at 1:12 AM on April 29, 2009

Place a fan behind a pile of ice on really unbearable days.
posted by like_neon at 3:12 AM on April 29, 2009

More long term suggestion: check the roof of your building; have they put down that silver reflective paint? It apparently really helps reduce the cost of cooling buildings and isn't horribly expensive to do.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:05 AM on April 29, 2009

If you get a fan, get a Vornado. I got one on Monday to deal with no A/C during the DC April heat wave. The thing is remarkable!
posted by jgirl at 5:42 AM on April 29, 2009

Get a GREAT portable (windowless). It WILL work if you get a good one. Check these reviews and others on the net. Consumer Reports had this to say.
The Hammacher Schlemmer Institute claims this one is the best but look around.
We used this Sharp unit from Home depot last summer in our windowless basement rehearsal room from hell. It worked like a windowed unit and did not need a place to release water from condensation. We LOVED this unit.

Good Luck
posted by Studiogeek at 6:03 AM on April 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

oopz, (1 bad link)
The Hammacher Schlemmer Institute claims this one is the best but look around.
posted by Studiogeek at 6:07 AM on April 29, 2009

I'd also look at whether your portable air conditioner was installed incorrectly or was a lemon. I've got one of the DeLonghi Pinguino models - picked it up on Craigslist for cheap - and it makes a big difference. The room I live in is essentially a greenhouse, due to window placement, and is barely insulated; it's also right under the roof. The windows are ancient and oddly shaped, and won't take a window air conditioner. It gets nasty in the summer. It is, however, totally livable with the portable AC.

Did you have the portable unit venting out a window? If not, you were essentially using it as a crappy, expensive heater, not an air conditioner, because it's venting all the hot air right back into your room. How far from the vent location did you place it? (Less distance from the window vent is better.) Was the venting tube very bent/crooked? (This can also cause less effective venting.) Go behind the machine when it is running: are there any places where you feel hot air coming out? Near the area where the vent pipe attaches? Along the vent pipe? Where the vent goes out the window? If so, you just have a leak, and you should be able to seal that off easily. Do you feel any cold air coming out of the machine when you are right by it? If not, the machine itself might be a dud.

Aside from air conditioners, I do suggest Vornado fans over box fans; they're quieter and more effective, in my experience.
posted by ubersturm at 6:28 AM on April 29, 2009

As ubersturm suggests, definitely make sure the AC is properly venting outside. To work, ACs (and refrigerators) have to generate more heat than they cool. Unfortunately, the biggest heat source in your apartment is probably your refrigerator and there's not much you can do about that. Proper design of living spaces would place refrigerators on outside walls with ducting to vent the fridge's heat outside in the summer, but no one is doing that yet, which is really too bad.

You mentioned incandescent and halogen bulbs (also incandescent). Incandescent bulbs are basically electric heaters that also happen to give off light. Replacing them with compact fluorescents will help quite a bit. Beyond that, anything electric will give off waste heat, to some extent. A powerful desktop computer will give off a lot of heat. If you leave your computer on all the time turn it off when not in use. Consider using a laptop primarily, if you aren't using one already. Large TVs (CRT, LCD, and plasma) can generate a surprising amount of heat, and some models will continue to do so when "off." Anything that feels warm to the touch is raising the temperature in your apartment. Turn off lights and appliances you aren't actually using. If you cook at home a microwave will be more efficient than a stove, for things that are microwavable.

Fans seem to have been well-covered. The biggest help will be using a fan in the early morning when it's coolest outside to bring that air in. Keep things sealed up during the heat of the day and use heavy curtains to minimize heat gain from the environment. If the fabric is thick and blocks a lot of light it's probably a good choice.

There really is a lot you can do to cut down on the heat in your apartment, and a lot won't cost much, if anything. But if all that fails and the apartment is still unbearably hot have maintenance check out your unit. There may be a valve or something they can adjust to help cool things further.
posted by 6550 at 7:45 AM on April 29, 2009

One big super-powerful standing oscillating fan per medium-sized room is a wonderful thing. Worth the space it takes up. I've not been impressed by ceiling fans...

I disagree. In my (tropical) experience, a ceiling fan worked much better. It needs to be a certain distance from the ceiling; don't set it flush. The Vorado doesn't do it for me.

Lights and appliances can raise the temperature. I noticed it last winter in my under-heated living room. Three 60 watt bulbs and the tv brought the temp up 5 degrees at night.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:36 AM on April 29, 2009

Don't CFC lights emit less heat waste than the old kind of bulbs? I noticed my house was cooler after I swapped out all the old lights.
posted by QIbHom at 9:44 AM on April 29, 2009

Absolutely block out sunlight during the day with blinds and/or curtains. Open windows at night and close them 1st thing in the morning to keep the heat out as long as possible. Switch to fluorescents where possible. Talk to the condo board about vents to get rid of the hot air in stairwells - read about the stack effect; I used it very successfully in a building without ac during several hot summers. The silver roof treatment, or even white paint, will help, too. AC is expensive, and small efforts can really help reduce the cost, which is also an environmental benefit.
posted by theora55 at 10:13 AM on April 29, 2009

If you have a south-facing wall of windows, your apartment is just a solar heat box. Curtains might help but you really want to reflect light back out with window film; you can get 3M window-insulation kits at Ace Hardware but ideally you want their Prestige 70 product which (per their specifications) transmits almost 70% of light while blocking 59% of solar energy (at 60º incidence which is about what we get at midday at this latitude). Try Michael Hassenauer 651-737-1053 or Jim Passage 800-286-2656, they're 3M's sales reps for the product and the region respectively.
posted by nicwolff at 10:33 AM on April 29, 2009

I don't know any specific ceiling fan models, but it's worth it to get a nicer fan. For one, it will look better, and two, it runs less of a risk of getting off balance and squeaking.
posted by radioamy at 11:18 AM on April 29, 2009

My Pinguino (in a studio with no cross ventilation) was a worthless PITA.
posted by Lizzle at 11:43 AM on May 3, 2009

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