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How to Survive a Sweltering NYC Summer Without Air Conditioning

By Irene Plagianos | July 10, 2013 6:22am | Updated on July 28, 2016 12:16pm
 Surviving a New York City summer without an air conditioner
Life Without Air Conditioning
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NEW YORK CITY — Take your shirt off. Pop your underwear in the freezer. Dump a tray of ice cubes on your bed. Throw back some chilled vodka shots before you go to sleep.

Those are just a few of the tactics savvy — and sweaty — New Yorkers said they’ve used to beat the sweltering heat while living without air conditioning during the steamy summer months.

And while some talk of surviving without air conditioning like it's a war story — punctuated at the end with a resounding “never again!” — many New Yorkers have committed to braving the dog days of summer without the comfort of a chemically cooled breeze.

For some, taking the heat is worth it to save the cold hard cash whirred away by running an air conditioner. Others say protecting the environment — or themselves — from the chemicals emitted by air conditioners is reason enough to deal with the stifling weather.

For Stephen Lee, a 30-year-old city employee, living without an air conditioner is something he became accustomed to growing up in San Francisco — and he decided to keep the habit when he moved to New York City three years ago. He estimated that he saves about $50 a month by going air conditioner-free.

“It’s a matter of what I’m used to, but it’s about saving money and the environment too,” Lee said on a recent warm afternoon. “Although, yeah, it’s a lot different here from San Francisco — the weather in the city can be just terrible."

The cooling system Lee has rigged up in the fifth-floor walk-up apartment he shares with his wife Lauren in Central Harlem consists mainly of just one fan. It isn't used to create a mechanical breeze — it sits in the living room window, facing out, and is meant to suck the hot air from the apartment.

“It works pretty well,” Lee said. “It seems to make more sense to try to get the heat out, than just blow hot air in."

“But, I mean, on those crazy hot days, nothing really works — you just have to deal.”

He and his wife said they also keep the shades down during the day, to block the blazing sun.

“And lots of cold showers, cold water — oh, and don’t turn that oven on at all through the summer, just don’t do it,” Lee added.

Several New Yorkers said they have cooling strategies similar to the Lees, but add extra cold sensations to help them survive — and sleep — like putting clothes, sheets and towels in the freezer.

"I'd freeze my pajamas, or whatever I'd wear to sleep, then blast at least a couple of fans on myself to get through the night," said Kate Scott, 21, a college student who has spent several summers without an air conditioner.

"It works in the sense that you have no other choice, but I wouldn't say it's the ultimate solution to the heat — it's a little break from the heat."

Drinking lots of icy cold water also helped, Scott said.

Anthony Rizzi, 30, said he wore as little clothing as possible, and covered his head or neck with freezing water-soaked towels, when he handled hot summers in Queens without an air conditioner.

"Dousing yourself with cold water helps too — and drinking some cold beers before bed at least helps you numb the pain of the heat," he said. "Sometimes a fan just isn't enough."

But some, such as 36-year-old Phoebe Leung, rely mostly on fans. 

Leung has managed to survive without an air conditioner for the three years she’s lived on the Upper West Side, by creating a cross-ventilation system with one fan blowing in and another blowing out, on opposite sides of her apartment. She decided to go with fans over air conditioners to save money, and also because she believes she's allergic to chemically chilled air.

“I always seem to get sick with an air conditioner on,” Leung said. “I can’t deal with that kind of cold air blowing on me — I’d rather deal with the heat.”

The efficiency of an air conditioner, along with the space's air quality, can be affected by the unit’s filter, experts said.

Bacteria and mold can build up on the filters if they are not cleaned often enough, which can affect allergies and lead to possible longer-term respiratory ailments, said Stan Cox, the author of “Losing Our Cool,” a book on the effects of air conditioning.

Con Edison also recommends keeping filters clean for the most efficient use of your air conditioner.

Leung and other New Yorkers said that along with being sensitive to air conditioning, they are also concerned about potential environmental effects.

More than 6 million window units are used in New York City each year, and that’s not counting central-air systems that keep offices, apartment buildings and stores at a constant chill. The amount of electricity needed to power air conditioners, along with the chemicals emitted from their coolants, both contribute to global warming, experts said.

“I don’t think chemicals from the AC are great for the environment, and I really just don’t like the feeling of the artificially freezing air,” said Alizah Salario, a Park Slope resident, describing her decision to live without an air conditioner.

Salario said she stays cool with a ceiling fan in her bedroom, along with a spritzer bottle filled with cold water to mist herself with on those sticky hot days.

Other recommendations from New Yorkers who forgo air conditioning included freezing water-soaked washcloths and placing them on your head and feet — along with eating plenty of frozen fruits, ice cream and vats of gazpacho.

However, the most frequent piece of advice about surviving air conditioning-free from New Yorkers on a recent hot afternoon was similar to 26-year-old Staten Islander Andre Valasquez's tip:

"Oh my God, oh my God — just don't do that," he said. "Seriously, be serious, get yourself some AC!"