The Nickel Pincher: 8 Cheap, Easy Ways to Stay Cool

Staying cool doesn't always require an energy-guzzling air conditioner; you can get by with some ice packs, a fan, and maybe a bandanna.

August 11, 2010

Fans cool you, not the room. Save money and switch them off when you leave a room.

This summer has felt merciless, and not just for those of us in the cooler northern regions of the country. It seems as though as soon as one heat wave ends up North, another one starts up down South or out West. If you're as tired as I am of being hot, here are some of my favorite tips for staying cool without sucking vast quantities of electricity, therefore saving you a few pennies on your air-conditioning bill.


#1: Drink LOTS of water and other nonalcoholic drinks. You need plenty of water to help your body manage the heat, plus cold liquid absorbs heat as it warms to body temperature. Opt for these homemade summer drinks, or suck on ice pops, rather than resorting to alcoholic beverages, which dehydrate you.

#2: Keep the heat out. To avoid letting your house turn into a heat sink, use shades or curtains to keep the sun from shining in your windows, turn off lights, and restrict heat-generating appliance use (think TVs, computers, stoves, and dishwashers) to evenings.

#3: Move some air. Fans move the air around you, helping sweat to evaporate from your skin, which makes you feel cooler. A handheld, floor, window, or ceiling fan will do, but be sure to turn it off when no one's in the room. Fans do not actually cool air, just your skin.

#4: Swamp it. If you live in a dry climate, you can rig up a temporary mini "swamp cooler," otherwise known as an evaporative cooler. Swamp coolers use moving air to evaporate water and leave the air cooler. To make the most basic kind, you can hang a damp piece of cheesecloth, natural burlap, or other absorbent thin or open-weave cloth in an open window and hope for a breeze, or suspend it in front of a fan. If using a fan, find some way to tie the cloth to the fan so it doesn't get caught up in the blades or gears and cause a fire; plastic zip ties or strong twine will work. Use a squirt bottle to dampen the cloth again every so often (be sure you are not squirting the fan’s electronics, of course). If you are clever, you can leave the lower edge of the cloth inside a trough filled with water, which will then wick up the cloth on its own, freeing you from the spray bottle and keeping you cool for hours.

#5: Create a glacial breeze. In humid climates, a swamp cooler doesn’t do much because the air is too wet already. But you can aim your fan into a bowl of ice cubes or put frozen bottles of water in front of it and enjoy the chilled breeze. Making ice uses lots of electricity so this isn’t a green alternative to an efficient air conditioner in the long term, but it can get you through the occasional hot day or night.

#6: Go wading or take the plunge. Failing a cool mountain stream in your backyard, fill a dishpan half full with cool or cold water and put your feet in it for instant relief! Or, go whole hog and submerge yourself in a bathtub or kiddie pool of cool water. Even room-temperature water can be very refreshing, so leave the water in the tub for reuse within a day or so if you don’t have little ones who might come to grief in it.

#7: Cool down a hot night in bed. Take a large gel pack out of the freezer (the kind you might use to keep a cooler of food cold), wrap it in a washcloth, and slip it into your pillowcase on top of your pillow. Put a second wrapped cold pack down by your feet. When you pull heat out of your head, neck, and feet, your whole body cools down, and you’ll be able to get to sleep.

#8: Wrap your neck. Years ago, chilled neck wraps were all the rage and, while not the most stylish accessory you might own, they're still a great option for helping you stay cool. Plus, it’s super-easy to make your own.

You’ll need:

- a bandana or an 18-inch square of fabric
- polyacrylamide gel crystals
- needle and thread OR fabric glue

Polyacrylamide gel crystals are sold as soil additives to put on your plants to retain water. You can find them at a local garden store; some brands to look for are Aquagel and Watersorb. Get the smallest container they have, as they soak up vast quantities of water, expanding to hundreds of times their dry volume. Just beware: It really isn't a good idea to add this stuff to plants, even though that's its intended use; while not toxic in its crystal form (which is how you'll be using it in this project), it may degrade into carcinogenic acrylamide, which can contaminate anything that's growing in your pot. Compost is a far wiser and safer choice for boosting your soil's water retention, and it breaks down into valuable nutrients instead of toxic chemicals.


In a large bowl, mix a tiny amount of dry gel crystals with a cup of water (the package I’m looking at says 1 teaspoon will soak up a quart of water so ¼ teaspoon of this brand would be about right; read the label of whichever product you choose) and let it sit until the water is completely absorbed—this is kind of fun to watch—adding a pinch more of the crystals if needed.

Fold your bandana corner-to-corner into a large triangle and make a rough crease. Then spread it out on a flat, water-resistant surface. Pile the soaked crystals along the center of the crease in a hotdog-shaped mound about eight inches long. Fold the bandana back over the mound into a triangle and, around the edge of the mound, sew the two layers of fabric together or attach them using fabric glue. Then roll up your creation, making a long cylinder with cloth tails on either end, and sew or glue the top corner to the cylinder to keep everything from unrolling.

To stay cool, soak the entire thing in water, refrigerate or even freeze it (the gel stays pliable), and then drape it over the back of your neck whenever you get overheated. You can tie the tails loosely in front to keep it from slipping.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every week on