Monday, June 29, 2009

Ten ways to beat the heat!

A week-long heatwave is forecast for much of the UK. How can one keep cool and carry on when the mercury is rising?

After two less-than-dazzling summers, the sun is back. Temperatures in parts of the UK this week are expected to top 30° Celsius, prompting the Met Office to issue its first ever heatwave warning.

But the effects of soaring temperatures can be countered. With some help from the NHS' Heatwave Plan, here are 10 suggestions - some eminently practical, others a little more ambitious - to help you keep a cool head while all around you are losing theirs.

White houses in Patmos in Greece
In many parts of the Mediterranean houses are whitewashed

The NHS's heatwave plan for England suggests using "pale, reflective external paints" to keep your house cool.

It's something you can see in many of the hottest parts of the world. Go to areas of Greece or north Africa and whitewashed villages are the norm. And there's science behind this.

"It will certainly help," says physicist Prof Robin Marshall. "If you make the roof of your house white you will bounce a lot of heat back into the atmosphere."

Of course, keeping your house white may not be totally straightforward. In a dry, pollution free area of the Med you may be OK. If your house is in London, Leeds or Liverpool, you might find it soon loses its reflective qualities. And titanium oxide paint, which provides the brightest white, may cost a bit.

"Metallic paints are better - they reflect further out into the near infra-red range," says Prof Mark Dickinson, of Manchester University's Photon Science Institute.


Keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm. If you go outside, walk or sit in the shade, apply sunscreen regularly and wear a hat. (To produce vitamin D, which is all important if you want to maintain functioning organs, the body only needs 10 minutes' exposure without sunscreen once or twice a day. And it breaks down if you stay too long in the sun.)

Tuareg man in blue
This Tuareg man seems to believe dark colours are best

The NHS advice says: "Wear light, loosefitting cotton clothes."

So if white houses keep you cool, then white clothes must also be the best for keeping cool? It's perhaps not quite as simple as that. If you go to some of the hottest places in the world, people often wear dark colours. You can find Tuareg tribesmen resplendent in navy blue robes, and Chinese peasants toiling in black.

"I look at what people do who have got experience living in hot sunny climates," says Prof Marshall. "They wear black clothing.

"If you can stay out of the sun it will radiate heat off much better. But if you are in the sun it would be nice to have something on that is white."

Tuareg tribesman wearing white
While this Tuareg man prefers white

Richard Trillo, author of the Rough Guides to Kenya and West Africa, knows a thing or two about dressing to stay cool. He advocates loose cotton trousers, where shorts are not an option.

But there are other things to bear in mind as well.

"Don't carry anything in your pockets. I find even a credit card in my pocket is noticeably uncomfortable. It is covering up a bit of skin surface.

"If you can bear to have a short haircut, do so, it makes you so much more comfortable."


Shut windows exposed to the sun, and draw blinds or curtains against the light. Open these at night, or once the sun has moved off, to let in cooler air.

Palm trees in Miami
Trees offer shade and other benefits

"Trees, plants and green spaces act as natural air conditioners, provide shade and absorb carbon dioxide," says the NHS's plan.

If you're in a warmer part of the British Isles, pop a palm tree in front of your house and it will soon be blocking out the sun.

And there's a chance you'll be contributing to a wider effort. Trees pump out moisture.


You can get the same effect in the house, not just with plants, but by leaving bowls of water around. "Evaporation helps cool the air," says the plan.

Of course, if humidity is not your thing, you may want to ignore this advice.


Keep hydrated with cold drinks, and eat foods with high water content such as fruit and salad.

A chilled lager or iced tea may seem refreshing, but avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages.


Insulate lofts and cavity walls - this helps keep the heat out when the weather is hot, and in when the mercury drops.

This may be more practical than painting your house white, says Prof Dickinson.

"It all depends on what your house is made of. If it's good at keeping heat in, it's good at keeping heat out."


Not one from the NHS, but one that would please the Victorians, is proper use of your sash windows.

The simple fact is that many of those who own homes with sash windows don't open them in the right way. We should be leaving equal gaps at the top and bottom of the window.

The theory, explored by researchers at Imperial College London, is that cool comes in through the lower opening and warm air is pushed out through the top.


Avoid over-doing physical exertion. Reaching for a cold drink ought to raise enough of a sweat as it is.




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