Is There a Cheaper Alternative to Air Conditioning?

Swamp coolers and other A/C replacements

Woman sitting in front of a metal fan blowing her hair

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Air conditioning is one of the true wonders of the modern world. There are some places where living without it isn't really an option, and a lot of other locales where enduring the summer heat au naturale is a truly miserable experience. But what do you do when your A/C breaks, and you can't afford to fix it?

This is a problem a lot of people run into, and whether or not to cut loose with the money it takes to fix a busted A/C unit is a tough decision to make. There are a bunch of different factors to take into account, like the humidity where you live, and whether you're missing out on A/C in your home or your car.

The cold, hard fact is there's no true replacement for a functional home or car air conditioning system, just like replacements for OEM car heaters all fall short of the mark. However, depending on where you live, there are a handful of things you can try that may provide some relief.

Quick A/C Fixes at Home

There are a lot of things that can go wrong with an air conditioning system, and most of them require the assistance of a professional. If that isn't in your budget, then there are a few basic problems, and fixes, that you can try out first.

Problem: The air conditioner doesn't turn on.

  • Make sure the thermostat is set to cool - This is a very basic thing, but it's still worth checking. Also, try lowering the thermostat. If you have a complicated digital thermostat, check the manual.
  • Check if the condensing unit outside is making noise - If the condensing unit is making noise, but the fan isn't spinning, you may have a bad capacitor.
  • Check the circuit breaker and fuses - When your a/c won't turn on at all, this is the last chance for a cheap fix. If everything looks good, then you'll need to call a professional.

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

  • Check for blockage 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, clear away any weeds that have grown around or inside the unit, and remove anything that could be blocking the flow of air into or out of the unit.
  • Check the A/C filter - If the filter is plugged up, then the system will struggle to pull in enough air to run properly.

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

  • The unit may not be big enough for your home - If you recently moved into a new home and this is your first time using the A/C unit, it's possible that it just isn't properly sized for the house.
  • The unit may require professional repairs - If your A/C unit isn't able to maintain a temperature inside your home that is about 20-25 degrees lower than the ambient temperature outside, and it is properly sized for your home, it will probably require attention from a professional.

Cheaper A/C Alternatives at Home

The fact is that, depending on where you live, just trying to survive without air conditioning can be a pretty miserable experience. There are some things you can do to mitigate that, and some alternatives that kind of work, but you'll have to experiment to see if anything actually does the trick for you.

Keep Your House as Cool as Possible

If your A/C is busted, one of the most effective things you can do is to keep your house from getting too hot in the first place:

  1. Don't add any extra heat to the house: Avoid using appliances that put off a lot of heat like your oven. Keep your fridge closed as much as possible too since fridges work by dumping heat into your house in order to keep the interior contents cold. Even old-style incandescent lights can pump out heat.

  2. Keep your curtains drawn tight: While bright sunlight and a cheery blue sky can do a lot to lift your mood, sun beating in through open windows can cause the temperature inside your house to jump dramatically.

  3. Use solar screens or window films: If you want to have your curtains open, consider buying screens or films that are designed to let light in without transferring heat.

Use a Fan

While fans only move air around and don't actually cool it off at all, aiming a fan your way can still help a whole lot. Fans use a whole lot less electricity than air conditioners, and they're also cheaper to buy.

If the humidity in your area is low, you may even want to consider a misting fan. These don't do a whole lot of good when the humidity is high, but when it's low they're definitely worth checking out.

Try an Evaporative Cooler

In a similar vein to misting fans, evaporative coolers are somewhat effective replacements for air conditioning units if the humidity is low enough. When the conditions are right, they can actually reduce the temperature in a room by a few degrees. So while they clearly can't stack up against real air conditioning, they are more effective than fans alone.

Quick A/C Fixes in Your Car

Hand pushing AC button in car
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Automotive air conditioning repairs typically require tools and expertise that the average car owner just doesn't have. Even in situations where simply recharging the system results in a temporarily restored flow of cool air, there is usually still an underlying problem that will eventually need to be fixed.

Here are some basic problems, and fixes, that may get the A/C in your car working again:

Problem: The air conditioner blows cold but not cold enough.

  • Check if the cooling fans are running - With the engine running, and the air conditioner turned on, carefully 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 be able to run properly.
  • Check the cabin air filter - If your car has a cabin air filter, that's usually an easy thing to check.

Problem: The air conditioner seems to turn on but doesn't blow cold.

  • Check if the compressor is engaging - With the engine running, and the air conditioner turned on, carefully 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 bad.
  • 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.

Problem: The air conditioner doesn't turn on at all.

  • Check the fuses - The only real easy thing you can check is whether or not you have any blown fuses. Do not replace a blown fuse with a heavier duty fuse. If the fuse blows again, that indicates there is a short in the system.

Cheaper A/C Alternatives in Your Car

Unfortunately, there aren’t any really viable “quick fixes” for a broken air conditioning system. Some problems, like a blown fuse, are quick and easy to fix, and it's worth at least giving that a shot. Although it's important to mention that if you find a blown a/c fuse, never replace it with a bigger fuse just to keep it from popping again. If it keeps blowing, there's another problem there that has to be dealt with.

The fact is that most a/c failures are due to bad components like a compressor or a receiver/dryer, or a leak that allows all of the refrigerant to escape. You can temporarily “fix” that kind of problem by purchasing some refrigerant and a filling gauge, but it’s just going to leak out anyway. In that case, you just end up paying for the pleasure of pumping some very expensive hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.

One other "easy" fix is that if your heater box is all crammed full of debris like leaves or pine needles, that can keep the air conditioning from working properly. The problem there is that heater boxes are often difficult or time-consuming to reach, so it may not be quick and easy to check on your own.

Open the Window

Cracking open a window may not seem like an ideal solution to your busted air conditioning, especially due to myths you may have heard about the relative costs of running air conditioning versus opening a window. The myth goes that it's actually more expensive to roll your windows down, due to increased drag, but the situation is actually a lot more complicated than that.

The bottom line is that if you're driving around on surface streets, rolling down a window should help cool you down without increasing your gas usage too much. And if you can actually stand having your window open on the freeway, that might be worth it too, compared to the cost of paying to fix your air conditioning.

Try a Swamp Cooler

If you live in an area where the humidity is relatively low, like the southwest United States, then there is a decidedly low-tech option called an evaporative cooler that you can try. These devices were known as “swamp coolers” for a lot of years, and you used to see them mounted on the passenger windows of road-tripping cars like tiny jet turbines.

Swamp coolers work through evaporative cooling, so they don’t do a whole lot of good if there’s a lot of moisture in the are already. If the air is dry, then the mechanism of evaporation can effectively pull out heat and make you feel cooler.

They don’t make the big window-mounted units anymore, but you can find little 12v evaporative coolers that are better than nothing after a long day of work. You can also build your own swamp cooler out of an ice chest and a fan, although you’ll have to dump a bunch of ice into it anytime you want to use it.

Place Wet Rags Over the Vents

If you want to simulate the effects of an evaporative cooler without buying on or trying to hack together your own, you might actually see decent results from just draping a wet rag over one of your dash vents. It’s not exactly the same thing as the real deal, but the wet rag will help cool off the hot air through the same basic mechanism.