Is There a Cheaper Alternative to Air Conditioning?

Swamp coolers and other A/C replacements

Office manager sitting in front of a metal fan blowing her hair

Robert Daley / OJO Images / Getty Images

Air conditioning is one of the conveniences of the modern world. But what do you do when your A/C breaks and you can't afford to fix it? Here are some cheap alternatives to home and car air conditioning, as well as some tips to troubleshoot a broken system.

Cheap Alternatives to Home Air Conditioning

There's no replacement for a functional home or car air conditioning system, just like replacements for car heaters often fall short. However, depending on where you live, there are some things you can try to get some relief from the heat without air conditioning.

Keep Your House as Cool as Possible

If your A/C is broken, the most effective thing you can do to keep cool is to not let your house get too hot. Follow these tips to keep inside temperatures under control.

  • Don't add extra heat to the house: Avoid using ovens, incandescent light fixtures, and other devices that put off heat. Keep the refrigerator closed as much as possible since fridges work by dumping heat into a house to keep the interior contents cold.
  • Keep the curtains drawn: While bright sunlight and a blue sky can lift the mood, the sun beating in through open windows can cause the temperature inside a house to go up.
  • Use solar screens or window films: If you want the curtains open, buy screens or films that let light in without transferring heat.

Use a Fan

Fans are great sources of relief when you don't have air conditioning. Fans don't actively cool air, they just move it around the room. However, fans are cheaper and use less energy than air conditioners.

If the humidity in your area is low, get a misting fan. It won't do much good in a muggy climate, and it may make things worse. If you live in an arid environment, a misting fan may prove valuable.

Use an Evaporative Cooler

If the humidity is low enough, an evaporative cooler is an effective alternative to a basic air conditioning unit. When the conditions are right, an evaporative cooler reduces the temperature in a room by a few degrees. Evaporative coolers aren't as effective as real air conditioning devices but are more effective than using only fans.

Quick Fixes for Your Home's Air Conditioner

Hiring an HVAC professional is the surest way to remedy a problem with any air conditioning system. However, before you call a repair technician, consider these troubleshooting tips.

The air conditioner doesn't turn on:

  • Make sure the thermostat is set to cool: Lower the thermostat. If you have a complicated digital thermostat, check the manual.
  • Check if the condensing unit outside is making noise: If the condenser makes a noise but the fan doesn't spin, it may be a bad capacitor.
  • Check the circuit breaker and fuses: When the A/C won't turn on at all, open the circuit breaker and check to see if the fuse corresponding to the A/C unit is blown. If it is, replace it with a new fuse. If everything looks good, call a professional.

The air conditioner runs but doesn't blow cold air:

  • Check for blockages in the condenser: With the air conditioner turned off, go outside and check the condensing unit. Look inside to see if any debris has fallen in and clear away leaves and weeds that have gathered around the unit. Remove anything that can block the flow of air into or out of the unit.
  • Check the A/C filter: If the filter is clogged, the system will struggle to pull in enough air.

The air conditioner blows cold air but doesn't provide enough cooling:

  • The unit may not be big enough for your home: If it's the first time you've run the A/C, then it's possible the A/C unit isn't properly sized for your home.
  • The unit may require professional repairs: If the A/C is the right size but not able to maintain an internal temperature that's 20 to 25 degrees lower than outside temperatures, it may require professional attention.

Cheap Alternatives to Car Air Conditioning

Here are a couple of workarounds if your car's air conditioning system is broken.

Open the Window

There's a myth that says it's more expensive to roll the windows down than to run the A/C because it creates drag. But that's not necessarily true. When you drive on surface streets, roll down a window to keep cool without consuming a lot of gas. Driving on a highway with the window down creates more drag and, as a result, consumes more gas.

Compare the risks and rewards of repairing versus buying a new air conditioner on a case-by-case basis.

Use an Evaporative Cooler

If you live in an area with low humidity, like the southwest United States, get an evaporative cooler. These devices were known as swamp coolers for many years and were mounted on the passenger windows of cars like tiny jet turbines.

Swamp coolers work through evaporative cooling. These coolers rely on water evaporation to pull heat from the surrounding air, leaving it cool on the inside. The downside is that they don't work well in humid climates.

You can buy a tiny 12-volt evaporative cooler, or build one from an ice chest and a fan. If you build one with a fan, dump ice into the ice chest when you want to use it.

Place Wet Rags Over the Vents

If you want to simulate the effects of an evaporative cooler without buying one, drape a wet rag over a dash vent. It’s not the most effective way to cool the car's interior, but it's better than nothing.

Quick Fixes for Your Car's Air Conditioner

If your car's air conditioning system doesn't work, there are a number of things that could be wrong. Here are some tips to troubleshoot your situation.

Hand pushing AC button in car
Stephen Shepherd / Photolibrary / Getty Images

The air conditioner blows cold air but not cold enough:

  • Check if the cooling fans are running: With the engine running, and the air conditioner turned on, check to see if the condenser or radiator fans are running. If they aren't, that may be the problem.
  • Check for debris blockage: If the fresh air intake is blocked, or if the heater box is full of leaves and debris, the air conditioner won't run properly.
  • Check the cabin air filter: If the car has a cabin air filter, that's usually an easy thing to check.

The air conditioner turns on but doesn't blow cold air:

  • Check if the compressor is engaging: With the engine running, and the air conditioner turned on, check to see if the A/C compressor pulley is engaging. You should periodically hear a clicking sound, and the freewheeling clutch on the compressor will engage. If it doesn't, the compressor, clutch, or another related component may be faulty.
  • Check if the system has enough refrigerant: Many automotive A/C systems stop working due to low refrigerant, but checking the level requires specialized tools. Checking for leaks also requires specialized equipment.

The air conditioner doesn't turn on at all:

  • Check the fuses: This may be the result of a blown fuse. Do not replace a blown fuse with a heavier duty fuse. If the fuse blows again, there's a short in the system. If the fuse is not blown, hire a professional to diagnose the problem.