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Design for your climate and keep cool

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This section sets out the climate characteristics in northern Australia, house design features that respond best to the region’s conditions, and tips for running an air conditioner that is battling the northern heat.

There are 3 climate zones in northern Australia:

Zone 1: Tropical

Zone 2: Sub-tropical

Zone 3: Hot arid

Map of Australia indicating tropical, sub-tropical and hot arid area zones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zone 1: Tropical

Australia’s tropical zone extends from Exmouth in Western Australia, across to midway between Townsville and Mackay in Queensland, and the Top End of the Northern Territory.

Far northern Australia experiences a very hot, humid wet season (November to April), followed by a warm, dry season (May to October).

In tropical zones, it is important to keep your home structurally sound in case of potential hazards. You also need to know what design features to look out for when you buy, rent, build or renovate.

Diagram shows a raised Queenslander-style home with tall trees and broad eaves, tall trees for shade, ventilated roof and louvered windows, with arrows showing how breezes can be funnelled over, under and through the house to cool it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tropical house—key design features

Tips for tropical design

  • Look for design solutions that maximise shading, such as wide eaves, window awnings and verandahs.
  • Create covered outdoor living areas using surrounding trees and fences.
  • Shade the entire building all year round.
  • Create ventilation with large window openings and louvres (with adequate screening), and through the roof space with eave and vents.
  • Use lighter colours for roofs and external walls to reflect the heat.
  • Choose lightweight building materials where possible to avoid heat storage, with controlled use of mass materials such as concrete slabs or brick walls for air conditioned areas.
  • Use elevated design for underfloor air flow and passive cooling.

For more information see the Tropical and sub-tropical living guide.

Zone 2: Sub-tropical

The sub-tropical zone experiences hot humid summers with mild winters.

Tips for sub-tropical design

  • Look for adjustable shading that can block summer sun and allow winter sun in
  • Choose narrower floor plans with ventilation and window systems that can capture breezes.
  • Insulate and ventilate the roof space, taking care to manage for condensation.
  • Use lighter colours for roofs and external walls to reflect heat.
  • Include a well-positioned and shaded outdoor living area.

For more information see the Tropical and sub-tropical living guide.

Zone 3: Hot Arid

The hot arid zone covers northern central Australia. It ranges from Carnarvon in Western Australia and encompasses Newman, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Longreach and Charleville, as well as the Queensland hinterland.

Northern central Australia experiences hot, dry summers and warm winter days with cold nights. The climate also has low rainfall and dry winds all year round.

Consider design elements and take advantage of existing features that suit the climate. This applies whether you are buying, renting, building or renovating your home.

Diagram shows a home in the hot arid zone with concrete slab foundation, living areas oriented to the north, adjustable eaves, windows and doors aligned for natural air flow and tall trees for shade, with animations showing how breezes can be funneled ove

Tips for hot arid design

  • Look for appropriate use of thermal mass for building construction such as brick walls and concrete slabs.
  • Select a light-coloured roof to reflect heat.
  • Choose appropriate shading and landscaping to block summer sun and allow winter sun in.
  • Invest in evaporative cooling to manage indoor comfort levels
  • Make the most of deep covered balconies or verandahs that offer sun-free outdoor living spaces.
  • Create a shaded courtyard using soft vegetation as a groundcover instead of paving.

For more information see the Hot arid living guide.

Design tips for all zones

Orientation

The first thing to consider when designing any home is its orientation.

Ideally, the house will be positioned in relation to the sun’s path throughout the year, capture prevailing breezes and keep out hot winds.

Living areas and bedrooms should be located away from the hot western afternoon sun — a garage or bathroom is more suitable for this side of the house.

For more information on orientation see the Your Home website.

Breezes

If you live near the coast, cooling breezes generally come from the ocean. On the east coast, breezes generally travel north-easterly to south-easterly, whereas on the west coast they are commonly south-westerly. The predominant breezes in the Top End come from the north-west in the wet season and the south-east in the dry season.

Breeze direction can vary within a few 100 metres due to landforms, vegetation or buildings. Talk to your neighbours in hotter seasons to establish the direction of your most reliable cooling breezes. The Bureau of Meteorology also has records of wind data for major locations.

Capturing breezes when living inland can be more of a challenge. But while many inland areas receive no regular breezes, cool air currents can form as night air flows down slopes and valleys.

In flat inland regions, currents created by the temperature differences between day and night can provide useful cooling. Cold air mass can be trapped and stored in your home’s building materials.

To become more aware of local climate variations and to take advantage of air and thermal currents, you should invest in a temperature gauge or home weather station. This is particularly helpful in conditions where you might fail to notice changes in outside conditions.

Fans

Create air movement and relief from the heat by installing ceiling fans in bedrooms and living areas. Ceiling fans are cheap to run at only around 2 cents per hour, and you’ll get the best results when locating directly over beds and seating areas.

Solar PV

With new developments in home battery storage, solar energy is becoming even more attractive for households. Our Solar PV and battery page has more information.

To assess the benefits, get an estimate of how much electricity you use each year and the power you can generate in your particular location. Ask an accredited installer about the right size system.

You may be eligible for financial assistance towards the cost of installing a solar PV system under the Australian Government’s Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES). See our rebates page and contact energy retailers to find out about feed-in tariffs.

For more information on solar PV see the Your Home website.        

Hot water systems

Hot water can account for 25% of your energy use. Choose the most suitable energy-efficient model you can afford and avoid paying for capacity you don’t need. See our rebates page for available assistance.

Heat pump and solar hot water are recommended in both tropical and arid climates. You may be eligible for financial assistance to help with the cost of installing a system under Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES).

Ensure you understand the information on safety and maintenance for your new system. This is particularly important for storage hot water system that you’re switching back on after a period of non-use.

The water needs to be heated to above 60°C for at least 35 minutes before use, killing any bacteria that may have grown. It may take several hours for the water to reach this temperature.

Extreme weather

Northern Australia experiences a range of extreme weather conditions from heatwaves to fire, flood, drought, cyclones and storm surges. With a changing climate, extreme events may become more frequent and severe. It’s vital for all households to:

  • have a plan in place to help you respond and stay safe.
  • maintain your home to ensure it is structurally sound, and manage for potential hazards.
  • know what design features are important when buying, renting, building and renovating.

As a first step you should familiarise yourself with extreme weather preparation advice from the Australian Government, state and territory governments or your local council. You should also sign up to get local weather warnings and emergency alerts. See the Resources and assistance guide for more information.

Tips for running your air conditioner

Before putting on the air conditioner, follow the climate-specific tips in this guide. These include seeking out shady, elevated verandahs and outdoor living areas. Make effective use of adjustable vents, louvres and blinds to manage comfort levels.

When it gets too hot and you need to turn on air conditioning, follow the tips below to get the most out of your cooling system and minimise your energy costs.

1. Consider using fans

Fans are a great first choice for cooling as they can improve comfort levels so you feel about 3°C cooler. They’re also much cheaper to run than air conditioners. As fans cool the person (not the room) by creating airflow, arrange seating and other furniture to take advantage of the effect. Pedestal fans are useful in spaces where ceiling fans don’t reach.

Running your fan at the same time as your air conditioner may increase its effectiveness by boosting the circulation of chilled air in the room. Running the air conditioner at a higher setting for less time will save you energy.

Choose an energy-efficient model (fans don’t have star ratings). Power consumption rates of different units vary widely, from 50 to 100W. Those with a lower wattage save energy over time.

The amount of airflow is also important. An efficient fan producing 140 cubic metres of airflow a minute typically has a power of 75W. Regular cleaning will help a fan to operate at its best.

2. Turn your air conditioner on earlier

When very high temperatures are forecast you can beat the heat by turning on your air conditioner before it gets really hot. The system won’t have to work as hard when the outside air temperature is cooler. You can then maintain a cooler indoors temperature more efficiently by using a timer and combining the air conditioner with a fan.

3. Don’t run your air conditioner too cold

Each degree of extra cooling increases energy consumption by 5% to 10%. To save money, operate the air conditioner at a higher temperature setting, between 25°C to 27°C, and use a timer to avoid it running when not required.

4. Close the doors

When using your air conditioner, close all doors and windows including doors to adjoining rooms that you don’t need to cool.

When deciding where to install your air conditioner, choose an easily sealable, insulated  room. You will feel its effects sooner, avoid air leaks and keep energy costs down.

5. Use weather monitors

Check outside conditions with a home weather station with an indoor display or alert system to help decide when to switch off and open up windows, doors and louvres. Remember to close up the next morning before the outdoor temperature rises. 

6. Go with the stars

When it’s time to purchase or replace your air conditioner, look for the most energy-efficient system you can afford.

Most home air conditioners (single phase, non-ducted) display an Energy Rating Label which shows the energy efficiency of the system.

In 2019, a Zoned Energy Rating Label (ZERL) was introduced that provides a seasonal efficiency rating for 3 distinct climate zones across Australia, providing more detailed information regarding energy efficiency. 

energy rating label

7. Cool the room, not the entire home

Non-ducted split systems are the most efficient air conditioning option. These avoid the energy loss that comes from pumping air through the ducts to cool your whole house.

8. Choose for your climate

Select cooling-only units for tropical climates and reverse-cycle air conditioners for sub-tropical and hot arid climates where both heating and cooling functions are needed. For hot arid climates you may consider alternative technologies such as evaporative cooling.

9. Size is important

Ensure you select the correct-sized system for your needs, taking into account local climate, house and room design. It pays to get professional assistance, as an incorrectly sized unit will be very inefficient.

10. Look for inverter technology

Inverter technology enables an air conditioner’s compressor to operate at variable speeds, depending on the output required.

The technology is now available with the majority of reverse-cycle air conditioners and can reduce running costs, particularly over longer operating periods. Inverter air conditioners generally have faster heat-up times and maintain more comfortable internal temperatures.

11. Manage for mould

Operating an air conditioner in a sealed room dries the air, which can be effective in managing mould.

Switching off the air conditioner and opening windows lets humid air inside, which may cause condensation to form. Keep the room closed before opening it up to access breezes or cooler night air.

12. Keep it clean

Cleaning your air conditioner filters every 2 weeks during use, as well as cleaning and dusting fans, will help appliances operate more effectively.

Regular cleaning of fly screens can improve airflow in and out of your home.

For more information see the Heating and cooling page.