Cool gadgets to beat the heat
Home Tech: New products that may help you cope with summer's heat from bedroom to backyard.
The New York Times
A few weeks ago, I made the most embarrassing fashion faux pas of my life: I wore shorts to a wedding.
In my defense, the wedding took place outdoors in a small Pennsylvania town that, like much of the East Coast, had been sacked by record high temperatures for many days. In a prenuptial climate report, the couple had assured guests that they should feel free to "dress for comfort and safety" rather than style.
And my wife had OK'd the shorts (though she herself wore a very pretty formal dress; it was her friend who was marrying, after all).
And did I mention that the shorts happened to be pinstriped? I'm not the sort of man who wears just anything to a wedding.
Still, I was mortified. When we got to the ceremony it emerged that I was the only guy to have taken the "dress for comfort" edict to heart. Every other male older than 8 wore a suit, while I looked as if I were auditioning to play the steel drums as part of a late-career Beach Boys tour.
It was then that I pledged to never again find myself at the mercy of the heat. I would do what I always do in tough situations: look for technological fixes to my predicament.
Ever since, I've been researching devices that are designed to help people beat the heat without embarrassment. Initially, my investigation wasn't especially promising: I discovered that far fewer consumer products are aimed at cooling you in the summer than warming you in the winter. But this could change as temperatures continue to rise across the land. In fact, I predict a boom in technology to make summers more bearable.
Some of these cooling products are meant to help you cope with situations like the one I faced at that scorching wedding, when you're outdoors and there's no place to hide from the sun. I also tried several inventions designed for indoors, either with, or as an alternative to, air-conditioning. I found that some of the products worked better than others. But they all left me optimistic about the future of cooling.
The next time I set off to broil, the first thing I'll pack is a personal fan called the Handy Cooler. The device, which sells for about $49.95 and is about the size of a 1980s-era mobile phone, works like most other handheld battery-powered fans: you turn it on and aim it at your face.
But the Handy Cooler has an ingenious innovation that distinguishes it from its competitors. Tucked behind the fan's blades is a spongelike "cooling filter" that you're supposed to douse with cold water. Turn on the fan, and air passes through the wet filter, reducing the surrounding temperature by several degrees, creating an oasis of cool air that you can take anywhere.
The EnduraCool instant cooling towel, made by Mission Athletecare, works in a similar way. After you drench the thin towel under a faucet (or, less gracefully, get it wet by soaking it with your sweat), you're supposed to snap it several times in the air. This action is said to activate the towel's cooling mechanism, though I can't tell you how well it works compared to alternative methods.
Sure, when I wrapped the wet towel around my neck, it did make me cool, but I suspect I would have gotten the same result by just hanging an ordinary damp rag in its place. And the EnduraCool sells for about $15, which is more than you'll pay for an average hand towel.
I had more success with Omni-Freeze Zero, a new apparel line by Columbia Sportswear that will be available in 2013. Columbia is best known for its winter fashion, but the company recently employed a team of researchers to wrestle with the paradoxical challenge of designing clothes that make you cool.
"For thousands of years we've focused on the opposite problem," said Michael Blackford (known as Woody), Columbia's vice president for global innovation.
Omni-Freeze Zero consists of men's and women's athletic shirts, pants and shoes. All are made of a fabric treated with a compound that is "endothermic" in an aqueous state. This simply means that the material feels chillier when wet.
During a regular workout at the gym, I tested an Omni-Freeze Zero athletic shirt, which will sell for about $60, and I found that after I began to sweat, the shirt kept me substantially cooler than did my ordinary athletic shirt. It didn't feel cold, exactly — just not unpleasantly warm.
Blackford said that the effect would have been more pronounced if I had worked out under the sun. But he also noted that in company tests, different people had various reactions to the shirt, some feeling very cool, others merely comfortable.
He expressed high hopes for icy clothing. Over the next few years, he said, Columbia will make apparel with an even more pronounced cooling effect, and eventually athletes, gardeners and others who work in the sun will get used to the idea of staying cooler by wearing more. What's more, cool clothing will protect us from damage and diseases caused by sun exposure.
Finally, of course, it will save us from embarrassment: No one will have to contemplate the horrible sight of men in shorts at a fancy party.
For now, though, let's head indoors.
The three other gadgets I tested are meant to relieve the suffering of people who can't sleep because of the heat. This is a worthy goal, because sleeping presents a thermodynamic puzzle: You want to stay cool, but many people, myself included, also like to feel cozily wrapped up in sheets. How can you be covered and comfortable at the same time?
One easy solution is the Brookstone Bed Fan, an instrument that sells for $99.99, sits at the edge of your bed and, through a thin chamber aimed at your feet, blows cold air under your sheets. I found the fan well designed and easy to operate: It comes with a handy wireless remote control.
But it works best if your bed is between 26 and 57 inches high. My bed is lower than that, which meant that we had to position the fan at an angle to catch the breeze, and it fell down during the night. Still, while the device worked, the cool air felt dreamy.
I didn't have the same reaction to the Chili Technology Chili/Cloud, a gel-filled pillow that's supposed to stay cool. Though I liked its firmness (another personal choice), I didn't feel any chill whatsoever. Maybe you would find it cooler than I did, but at $129 for the deluxe model I tried, you'd be placing a big bet.
I much preferred another product by Chili Technology, the ChiliPad. This invention cools (or heats) your entire bed by piping cold water through capillaries under your slumbering body. To set it up, spread the ChiliPad on your mattress, then place your fitted sheet and the rest of your bedding on top. Connect the pad to an electronic control unit that's outfitted with a thermostat and a pump. Fill the control unit with water, set your desired temperature — from a chilly 46 degrees Fahrenheit to a sweltering 118 — and turn on the device. In a few minutes, your bed will achieve the desired thermal condition. (Even better, the model I tested had two control units, which meant my wife and I could set two different temperatures.)
The ChiliPad was marvelous. But the model I tested, a queen-size pad with two zones, is $899; the cheapest ChiliPad (for a single bed) sells for $399, while the dual-zone California King is $999.
To me, that's a bit pricey. You could, after all, just sleep in your shorts.