Written by guest blogger Denise Deby, who enjoyed visiting splash pads while researching this post.

Another beautiful summer morning. I step outside my house. The cool air carries a hint of heat to come. I hear the bright chirp of robins, the high buzz of cicadas, the deep hum of … air conditioners.

During Ottawa’s humid summers and especially in heat waves like the one we had recently, air conditioners can save lives. But running them costs us, in money, energy and greenhouse gas emissions.

And our reliance on them is increasing. Canadians’ use of energy to cool our homes has almost tripled since 1990. Now, 4 out of 5 Ontario households have some type of air conditioning. Offices and retail establishments are often so overcooled that we have to wear jackets or sweaters in them.

I was thinking about use and overuse of air conditioning when I came across the book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) by Stan Cox (The New Press, 2010). According to Cox, air conditioning has profoundly influenced recent history, as it increases global warming, alters how our bodies deal with heat, and isolates us from each other and from the outdoors. Judging by the buzz surrounding his book, Cox is on to something – many people have strong feelings about air conditioning. Cox’s view, though, is not that we should do away with air conditioning but rather that we should change how and how often we use it.

In Ottawa, fortunately, there are some alternatives for keeping cool in summer:

  • Fans: ceiling, floor, and tabletop fans can all help cool us down.
  • Natural cooling: close doors, windows and blinds when it’s hot, and open them when it’s cooler at night; try to get a cross-breeze. Outdoors, seek shade; install awnings, plant trees.
  • Water: visit a city wading pool or splash pad for free. Check out a swimming pool or beach (contact the City of Ottawa for hours, fees and conditions. On Wednesdays during July and August, seniors can swim for a loonie at city pools.) Run through a sprinkler, or spray yourself lightly with water.
  • Spend time in public places: libraries, community centres, shopping centres or other public buildings listed by the City of Ottawa (or call 3-1-1). Rainbow Cinemas and the City have an arrangement to reduce prices for movie showings when the City issues a heat warning.
  • Drink water.
  • Minimise use of appliances and lights; dry laundry outside, avoid using the oven – all those things that we know about.
  • If used, air conditioning should be energy efficient, well-maintained and the appropriate size and type for the space it cools. Turning the thermostat up a few degrees can significantly decrease electricity use; Natural Resources Canada recommends 25°C, or 28°C if the residence will be unoccupied for more than a day. Use a timer or programmable thermostat — it’s more efficient to let a room cool gradually than to try to bring the temperature down quickly. Use a “fan-only” setting in the evening and early morning to bring cooler air from outside into the house.

Using alternatives to air conditioning more often can help us get more in tune with our natural environment – living within it rather than trying to conquer it – while still staying healthy and comfortable.