What ARE the “dog days of summer,” anyway?
The ancient Greeks envisioned the constellation Canis Major as a dog chasing Lepus, the hare. Sirius is the star at the tip of the dog’s nose. To the Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” occurred around the day when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period they believed could bring fever or even catastrophe.
Of course, Sirius rising with the sun depends on one’s latitude. And, that was then: a millennium has passed and it’s no longer occurring in the hottest part of the year. In fact, due to the earth’s wobbling rotational axis, our planet shifts about one degree a year, so in another few thousand years, Sirius will be rising with the sun in mid-winter. So, people being what they are, we’ve adapted the meaning of “dog days of summer” to our own fanciful beliefs, such as the temperatures being so hot that dogs just lie around all day—basically, the complete opposite of Canis Major’s greyhound in hot pursuit of the rabbit.
We were probably closer to the Greeks’ original warnings about the onset of fever back in midcentury Phoenix, when muggy late-summer nights under a swamp cooler coaxed the local gambler to hang out at Greyhound Park on Washington, cheering on his favorite underdog on the oval track as it chased a mechanical “rabbit” lure around the oval track. It cooled down this time of year back then, when the “suburbs” were distinctly different small towns with agricultural acreage between them…when nearly everyone irrigated their lawns like they still do in Arcadia…before we connected two dozen cities and towns, pouring so much concrete and laying down so much asphalt that we have become a major urban heat island. I remember those days well from visiting my grandmother who lived near 44th St. and Thomas. We’d sit outside quite comfortably in the evenings and mornings all summer. Granted, we weren’t yet spoiled with air conditioning’s mid-seventies, dry temperatures as the norm. But what urban Phoenicians hang outdoors these days without having cultivated huge canopy shade trees over many years, then springing for a patio mist system and a pool or pond with waterfall?
Cool Tips for Hot Climates
What can we do to feel cooler in these post-dog days, other than counting off the weeks till our two-week autumn and perusing homes for sale in La Jolla? Some amazingly simple things can help:
1. Change interior warm wall paint to similar cool colors. Multiple studies on the effects of paint color temperatures were so conclusive that major corporations with large office buildings now typically paint their walls cool blue or blue-green in warm climates and warm beiges and salmons in cooler cities. The human body actually perceives the room temperature as being two degrees lower when in a cool-painted room. How simple is that? Besides, painting contractors are looking for work in the summer and that will give you two more advantages: a better deal on the job and the excuse to stay at a lush luxury hotel during off-season rates.
2. Stay away from a lot of saturated red in your interior. Beyond being a stereotype, the effects of red are measurable in our physiological response. Our blood pressure and heart rate rises when surrounded by reds. McDonald’s wasn’t just making us feel upbeat and happy when they chose lots of red and accents of yellow for their branding. They wanted their target market (children) to be the impetus of parents bringing them to eat there and, once on site, they wanted them to eat a LOT, eat FAST, and get the flock out of their restaurant so more people could take their seats and do the same. Surrounded by red, we eat faster and talk faster and yellow prompts us to move along.
3. If stone or tile flooring seems too “cold” to you and your bare feet—and it can, especially in winter—try real wood. It’s a much cooler feel underfoot than carpeting, yet feels “softer,” especially if you stand on it for long periods of time. When our big, furry cat isn’t asleep in the pedestal sink, he’s sprawled out on the wood kitchen floor on his back, paws in the air, just waiting for me to open the refrigerator so he can flip over and rest his chin on the bottom shelf. I can’t imagine wearing fur in our summer heat, although I realize fur helps animals stay cool, too. He just has a LOT of it. So I give him about one minute in his “cool-spa” before dragging him away and closing the door.
4. Slipcover upholstered furniture with smooth cottons–or linens, if a few wrinkles don’t bother you. Avoid faux fur or velour on your favorite chair; you’ll tend to crank the ol’ thermostat down if you’re sitting on fuzzy fabrics. While you’re slipcovering the love seat, think about what you wear when running around town, getting in and out of a hot car. White / off-white natural fibers let your body breathe, helping you keep your cool.
5. Sleep cooler. Opt for the newer pillows that stay cool. Older memory foam pillows hold more heat than their re-engineered counterparts, but feathers or down hold much more. Bamboo or cotton sheets sleep cooler than polyester, too, and some have wrinkle-minimizing finishes.
6. Keep the sun off your windows to begin with, rather than trying to insulate sun-blasted glass with thermal-barrier blinds and shades. Shade trees, synthetic fabric shade sails mounted in creative ways, and even wood louvers work great. Add to that double- or triple-glazed windows of Low-E glass with the space between the glass infused with argon or krypton (allowing less convection than plain air) and you are way ahead!
7. Add that water feature. It feels SO much better to sit on either of our patios next to falling water than to even sit twelve feet away from it, so keep the feature an integral part of your relaxation or entertainment area. If you have any neighborhood noise from roads, freeways, or air traffic landing patterns, the fall of water will mask that as well. Who wants to add white noise from outdoor speakers when you could enjoy a small waterfall or cascade?
8. Make use of arbors, whether in the garden seating areas or against the house. The single best thing we did to shade a west-facing second-story bedroom with French door and sidelights was to build an arbor over the deck, laying our fast-growing Lady Banks Rose tree over it. Within a few years it had grown completely across the arbor along the full length and width of the deck, keeping direct sun completely off the glazed surfaces and bedroom wall. The difference is amazing. Fortunately, my husband had the foresight to design in an opening so he could shove a ladder up through it from the deck and trim it off the roof, or it would have engulfed the A/C unit by now. I dream of green roofs and permeable concrete being the norm, but in the meantime, the HOA wants vegetation OFF the flat roof.
9. Which brings me to another point: shade your air conditioner! It needs breathing room, but it doesn’t need blasting sunshine. If you have a split system, be sure your builder didn’t do you the “favor” of concealing the outdoor condenser/compressor with a visual barrier that’s so close to the cabinet it doesn’t allow good airflow around it. If you opt for a trellis and light-coverage vine, simply keep it trimmed so air continues to move through the cool plant material. Pre-coolers for heat pumps on the roof work in the desert, but they introduce cooling via water evaporation and we all know the challenges of water—especially hard water—so opt for one that’s proven in the industry.
10. If you do have a pool (or large spa), make use of it in these warm mornings: dip in and back out, providing yourself with evaporative cooling effects that last till you’re completely dry again. A few quick laps will leave you refreshed and ready to face the day.
Who knows? You may start feeling just as cool in the dog days of summer as we native Zonies did before y’all arrived…
A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org