Improve air flow and staying cool in old apartment?
July 7, 2016 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I rent a second floor apartment (815 sq ft) that is around 100 years old. I work from home a lot and summers in Minneapolis can get hot and humid! How do I improve the air flow and or keep it cool without air conditioning? Challenge: some of the larger windows do not open.

Even when the morning is cooler, if it was humid the night before the apartment will "trap" that climate. Do I just buy a lot of fans (and what kind work best)? Is there a strategy in placing them?

That apartment itself lays directly west to east. The living room faces west, with a big window (50"x60") and door that leads out to the porch. That window doesn't open, and the storm door has a retractable screen on the top half. There's also a ceiling fan that is always on, but it doesn't seem to do much. Is there a certain direction it ought to rotate?

The living room leads into the dining room, which also has a big window (50"x60") facing south. But only the two narrow windows on each side (12"x 60") open.

Then there's a long dark hallway about 12 feet that leads to a bathroom and a bedroom. It opens out to a kitchen and a second bedroom with a window that opens directly east.

When I first moved in the spring of 2015, the second bedroom was a storage space. Now that I've cleaned it up (mostly) I keep it open in the hopes that it would improve airflow. Doesn't feel like it's working.

I've also included a crude layout of the apartment if that helps.
posted by mlo to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Open all windows in the apartment that can open. If there's one you can fit a window fan in, all the better. Try to get a cross-breeze if at all possible.

Curtain or close blinds on all windows that don't open. This is especially important for west-facing windows in the afternoon, but in general darker is cooler.

Is a portable AC unit an option at all?
posted by Sara C. at 9:36 AM on July 7, 2016

Ceiling fans should rotate counterclockwise in the summer to blow air downwards. The ceiling fans that I have encountered have always had a directional switch on them.

During the day, you might want to focus on keeping the heat out more than keeping air flowing. So sun blocking drapes on all the windows (especially the south facing ones), windows closed.

At night, you can aim for air flow ideally keeping the porch door, and 2nd bedroom window open.

And yeah -- portable ACs have come a long way over the years maybe invest in one for the room that you do work in?
posted by sparklemotion at 9:39 AM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you don't want to leave the window open, you can also hang linen curtains and have the ends dip into a bucket of cold water. as the breeze flows through, the air is a bit cooler.

Frozen water bottles in front of a fan, close to you, for immediate relief.

Window fan + ceiling fan

You could try a room dehumidifier, which doesn't work as well as an AC. Or both an AC and a dehumidifier.
posted by mmmleaf at 9:43 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There's an AC unit in the bedroom along the hallway, but I like to use it sparingly and only for sleeping. It adds a lot to my electricity bill so I'd rather not have more AC units.

None of the big windows have blinds, curtains or even curtain rods, but I can add them.

I work in the dining room, which is fairly open to the hallway and living room, plus I am limited by two narrow windows that open.

I can stand heat. I'm not expecting to cool the apartment by 20 degrees or anything. Stale and humid air is what I'm hoping to improve on!
posted by mlo at 9:44 AM on July 7, 2016

Black-out curtains make a HUGE difference.
posted by AFABulous at 9:47 AM on July 7, 2016 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Basic principles:

1. Closed windows should be shaded (ideally with blackout curtains).
2. There should be at least one window fan in every room.
3. Maximize airflow in the coolest part of the day (late evening, early morning) with all windows open and all fans going.
4. Create a cross-breeze by having one fan blowing in and one at the other end of the apartment blowing out. You want the fan blowing in to be on the cooler side of the house if there is one - probably the east-facing room anytime after 1 or 2.

Though honestly, unless you have some real problem with AC, I would also get a portable floor unit that you can use while working.
posted by lunasol at 9:48 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with those who say opaque curtains make a big difference during the heat of the day, particularly if the sun is shining in that window. I resist air conditioning as well, and my strategy is usually to open any window that can be during the night and early morning when the cool air can be pulled in with window fans, and then closing everything up in the mid-morning through evening to keep hot air out. Doing all this we can generally keep the interior of our house ten degrees cooler than outside during the day.

Someone suggested a dehumidifier, which do help, but in my experience are nearly as expensive to run as an AC unit. Which makes sense given the principles behind them are nearly identical (I mention it since you cited the high cost of AC as why you didn't go that route.)
posted by aught at 10:05 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in your neck of the woods, my living room has the three windows situation where the middle window won't open, and it faces south. I'd been using box fans, with one facing out the window and one into the room, but I just replaced the inward-blowing one with a tower fan like this one set up in the corner of the room, and it's much better. In your apartment I'd try something like that and maybe another one at the other end of the hallway, if that's possible.
posted by clavicle at 10:06 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The tower fan recommended by The Sweet Home is good and fairly small. It's this Seville Classics Ultra Slimline (possibly currently out of stock and available on Amazon from high-priced resellers only). Put it in front of one of the windows that opens.
posted by cushie at 10:09 AM on July 7, 2016

Best answer: Is the hallway cooler and less humid than the apartment? Do the hallways smell like whatever people are cooking on your floor?

If the answers are yes, and no, then open ONE window, put a fan in the window (open a window that's about the size of your fan) and point the fan OUT the window. If you can leave your apartment door ajar, all the better.

If your building doesn't have cooking smells, it's because the air in the hallways and units is pressurized in a way that keeps smells in (air travels into instead of out of units). Normally opening windows would reverse this pressure, but putting a fan facing outwards intensifies it. This lets you steal all the cool, less humid air from the hallway. If you're not sure if your building is pressurized that way, the other way to check is to put your hand against the apartment door edges when it's closed. Feel a breeze coming IN through the crack? If so, you're good to go.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:12 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Close your windows and block them off with heavy drapes when the sun comes up, then open the windows when the sun goes down and add box fans to blow in cooler air. I would personally just live in the bedroom on the really bad days, with a curtain over the door to block any drafts. To sleep in heat I usually soak a couple of towels in cold water, wring them out, and put them on my head and feet.

If possible, relocate your working hours to a Starbucks or something and let them pay for the A/C to cool you during the hottest part of the day. Another option is shifting your awake time to 5AM-11AM (long nap in front of a fan) 4PM-10PM to avoid having to do anything in the hottest part of the day. Definitely depends on what your job is.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:15 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Basically, you want to stop heat from coming in, and retain cool air when you have it. So, if you possibly can, cover the west-facing window on the porch with shading on the outside.. The more reflective the better. Same on the south-facing windows if the outside is accessible. This will be 10 times more effective than hanging curtains inside, which doesn't stop any radiative heating and kind of works like a solar collector. If covering the outsides is not possible, apply reflective film to the insides of the windows.

As suggested, draw in as much cool air overnight as possible, and then, if it is going to be a hot day, close all the windows but leave your ceiling fan running. Putting in window fans on a hot day is just pulling in hot air and will do nothing to cool the place. Open windows only if it is cooler outside than inside.
posted by beagle at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Blinds help keep out sun while allowing air to move. I hate blackout curtains, so that'swhat I use. You can get mylar space blankets and just tape to big, south-facing windows.
A fan pointed at you will cool you. In these days of AC, people tend to forget how nice a fan feels.
A box fan in a bedroom window will keep air moving and make sleep nicer.
After showering, make sure the bathroom gets ventilated, and keep the door closed; you want to minimize most moisture.
Water on skin evaporates and cools you. Wash or wet your hair. Wipe down face, arms and neck with a cool wet cloth.
Cool beverages help cool you from the inside.
posted by theora55 at 10:28 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Stale and humid air is what I'm hoping to improve on!

House plants? Aloe Vera are pretty hardy and are one of the top five plants for improving indoor air quality.

You can also get chemical dehumidifiers instead of machines. They are typically intended for storage spaces, but they are effective. They aren't expensive.

When I and my two sons were all sharing a single bedroom while living with relatives during my divorce, we initially had serious problems with heat and humidity. We began removing all cardboard boxes from sodas and other food we were storing in the room with us. The thermometer in the window would drop be 5°, so the improvement was not just perceptual. The humidity also went down and we stopped seeing large roaches.

After we moved to an apartment, we continued to be picky about stuff like that -- getting rid of cardboard, junk mail, etc. That apartment did not need the air run nearly as much as previous apartments.

If you can reduce unnecessary papers and cardboard in the space, you might be surprised at how effective that is at getting humidity and heat down to a bearable level.
posted by Michele in California at 10:35 AM on July 7, 2016

Google: "cooling towel"

I have a portable AC but being super cheap this year so I don't run it. Bought a cooling towel (groupon?) last year - they are surprisingly effective!

It's made of some strange material with a massive amount of surface area or something. Soak it in cool (doesn't really matter) water, half-wring it out, drape it around neck/shoulders. Sweet Relief! Re-wet when it gets dried out/not cooling anymore.

Just remember to fold it when you're done with it - when it dries completely it's really stiff. If it's in some weird shape, you'll have to re-wet it in the shower or awkwardly in the sink.

Won't do much for the humidity, but cooling the blood flowing into your brain helps a lot.
posted by porpoise at 11:41 AM on July 7, 2016

Ask your landlord if you can have installed, or install ceiling fans in EVERY room.

I live in a similar building, in a fairly humid climate and my place came that way. I have AC, but i don't need it unless it gets over probably 85f outside with sustained sun.

I only use blinds, but they're the beefier metal variety. The instant the sun sets i crank all the windows open.

I've never lived in a place where anything worked better than just ceiling fans everywhere. I've had nice fans, window fans, whatever. All the air in the room all moving just makes such a huge difference. Even when i do turn the AC on, i leave them all on.
posted by emptythought at 12:28 PM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

You don't even need to buy a special cooling towel. The way I keep cool is to run my fans and just carry around a wet towel with me and wipe myself down a) when my skin starts to dry out or b) when I get hot.

I laze with a book and just half-assedly wipe down and allow the air to cool the dampness from my skin.

In a pinch, or if I have to do housework, I'd just take one of those freezer packs and literally stick it in the back of my pants where it hits my lower back, and then go about my bid-nezz.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:34 PM on July 7, 2016

I installed white metal blinds, angled to reflect the sun. I stuck a box fan in one window, pointing outwards and it draws a nice steady breeze in through the window I'm sleeping near.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:20 PM on July 7, 2016

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