Cool Summer: Eco-Friendly Air Conditioning Alternatives0

Matthew Van Dusen | Thu May 31 2012 |

This year’s winter and spring were the hottest on record in the United States and it’s likely that summer will continue the trend.

With the prospect of a steamy summer quickly approaching, all many of us can think about is retreating into our air-conditioned homes and offices. Unfortunately, air-conditioning is one of the heaviest burdens on the power grid, resulting in costlier energy and more greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are a number of environmentally-friendly alternatives to conventional air-conditioning. From the cutting edge to the traditional, here’s our take on air-conditioning alternatives:

Passive House
Why it’s cool: First conceived in Germany about 20 years ago, a Passive House requires no active heating or cooling system. Passive houses are super-insulated and airtight in order to minimize energy use – traditional homes are “like Swiss cheese” by comparison. Passive houses generally use strategic shading, which shades the house in the summer when the sun is higher in the sky but allows the winter rays.
Drawbacks: Cost. Though it is possible to make back the costs of additional insulation and bespoke design, the additional design elements drive up the price.

Geothermal Heat Pumps
Why it’s cool: Similar to how caves regulate temperature, Geothermal Heat Pumps use the earth’s steady temperature to cool and heat water. Each system has an indoor and outdoor unit that transfers water into the ground and pumps it back inside. For cooling, water is piped into the ground, where the soil extracts excess heat, significantly reducing the amount of electricity needed in conventional cooling methods.
Drawbacks: Installation costs run higher than conventional methods, but the energy savings usually make up the difference in three to ten years.

Solar-Powered AC
Why it’s cool: Assisted by a source that is in no short supply during the summer, solar-powered air- conditioning is good news for the power grid, which gets heavily taxed from conventional systems. AC units packaged with solar panels help reduce energy bills without the commitment of extensive rooftop solar panels, which have a daunting price tag. Also, additional solar panels can usually be added to units, opening up the possibility for further energy savings.
Drawbacks: Solar-powered air-conditioning is still a relatively new technology. Solar-assisted AC units can help reduce energy bills, but further advances are needed to reach maximum energy efficiency.

Ice Power
Why it’s cool: Ice power works in conjunction with conventional air-conditioners by making ice during the night, when energy demand is lower. During the day, it uses this “ice battery” to deliver cooling to the AC unit, which offsets the energy usage of the system.
Drawbacks: Currently, the company developing the units sells only to utility companies, and not individual building owners. The upshot to this is if your utility is participating, you won’t have to pay for one of the units. The downside is that if you want to complement your air-conditioning unit with Ice Power, you’ll have to wait until the residential unit becomes commercially available.

No Air-Conditioning
Why it’s cool: If you want to opt out of air-conditioning completely, you have a few options. Proper insulation can go a long way when it comes to temperature regulation. Also, consider the color of your roof – a darker color will absorb more energy, making the space hotter in summer months. If possible, keep the windows open and use floor or ceiling fans to keep the air flowing. Natural ventilation can also be achieved by keeping a window open on the windward side, and installing an opening in the ceiling or attic to let the air out. If the windows usually remain closed, solar window film can help keep things cool by reflecting the heat away.
Drawbacks: These solutions work best in moderate climates with milder and shorter summers, and may not be sufficient for hotter climates.

Top image: The Line House courtesy Flickr user Peter Guthrie