Nine out of ten American new homes in the US are built with central air... and Americans use as much electricity to power their AC as the entire continent of Africa uses for everything.(Metro News, July 9, 2010)
Before we get to our main article, here's a great quote from Stan Cox - author of Losing Our Cool - a fascinating book on the way that air conditioning is affecting us, as well as our planet:
In Losing Our Cool, I show how indoor climate control is colliding with an out-of-control outdoor climate. In the United States alone, energy consumed by home air-conditioning and the resulting greenhouse emissions have doubled in just over a decade; energy used to cool retail stores has risen by two-thirds. Air-conditioning is approaching 20 percent of year-round electricity consumption by U.S. homes, the highest percentage in history. But air-conditioning has shaped human life in other, sometimes unexpected ways that go far beyond the monthly utility bill.
With reports from some of the world’s hot zones—from Arizona and Florida to India and Australia—Losing Our Cool documents the surprising ways in which air-conditioning changes human experience: giving a boost to the global warming that it is designed to help us endure, providing a potent commercial stimulant, making possible an impossible commuter economy, and altering migration patterns. Though it saves lives in heat waves, it may also be altering our bodies’ sensitivity to heat; our rates of infection, allergy, asthma, and obesity; and even our sex lives. And six out of every seven gallons of diesel fuel U.S. forces haul into Iraq and Afghanistan are used to run air-conditioning.
As we attempt to cool ourselves down with air conditioning, the planet heats up and ice bergs melt.
The Unchilled Life - First Published in the New York times, 2009
Photo, copyright Scott Holstein for the New York Times
TO many Americans, abstaining from air-conditioning is a masochistic folly akin to refusing Novocain or renouncing the dishwasher. Yet as this particular summer finally heats up, even citizens who believe that climate control is a God-given right may be questioning whether it has become a luxury they can no longer afford. They are probably also wondering how they can survive without it.
Those who’ve done just that like to point out that air-conditioning is a relatively recent boon to humanity: The Allies won World War II without it, and the great pyramids of Egypt were built al fresco. Today, fans of the unchilled life say that it is not only possible to turn back the clock and live as one with summer, but to do it while maintaining a fairly high quality of life.
Lisa Finkelstein, a freelance editor, stopped using the semi-functional air-conditioning and heating unit in her rented cottage in Tallahassee, Fla., two years ago, mostly for economic reasons.
“You live with your windows and doors open, you use fans, drink lots of cold liquids and take it easy,” she said. “You come to realize that winter and summer is going to be kind of a bear but you dress for it, and you enjoy fall and spring very much. What’s interesting is you acclimate to it.”
She said that if she didn’t work from home, the adjustment would probably be harder. “It’s miserable when you come out of a nice air-conditioned place,” Ms. Finkelstein said.
This summer, she probably has more company in the choice she has made. Shipments of window air-conditioners from manufacturers to distributors were down 39 percent in the first half of this year compared with the first half of last year, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., and shipments of central air-conditioning units have been down 10 percent a year for the past few years, according to the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute in Arlington, Va.
Those who plunge into a warmer world for economic reasons sometimes find that there are advantages that they hadn’t anticipated.
Copyright Josh Anderson for the New York Times
Genma Holmes, a 42-year-old mother of three in Nashville, and her husband, Roger, declared their suburban ranch house a no-air-conditioning zone last summer as surging gas prices ate into the profits of their pest control business. Their children — now ages 17, 18, and 23 — were not amused, given that average summer temperatures in Nashville are in the high 80s with around 90 percent humidity.
“They didn’t look at it from our economic point of view,” said Ms. Holmes, who ripped the thermostat from the wall after her offspring repeatedly turned on the central air while their parents were out. “They thought we were doing something to them personally. They thought mom and dad were going through some kind of midlife crisis, like when we recycled before everyone started doing it.”
To defend against the heat, the Holmeses took some of the usual measures: long, cool showers at night, box fans in the open windows and grilling outside instead of turning on a hot stove.
It was when the family put up an awning and fan over their patio — effectively transforming it into their living room, where they spent about three hours a night grilling, playing games and talking instead of going their separate ways — that they discovered the upside of an uncontrolled climate
“We spent an entire summer getting to know our kids by sitting outside trying to keep our electricity bill down,” said Ms. Holmes, who estimated that the family saved $2,100 last summer; they are repeating the experience this year. “It was very therapeutic and we got closer. We also got thinner — all of our diets changed because we were eating a lot of grilled food. And by the time fall came around, with the change in the economy, we had learned to live off less. So when everyone started talking about how hard things are, we felt like we had already experienced the worst of the worst. It prepared us for the whole year.”
Copyright-Josh Anderson for the New York Times
Like the Holmeses, many choose to go natural during the summer for economic reasons. Others find that this is a point on which finance, politics and habits intersect.
“In our social circle, use of the air-conditioner is extremely limited,” said Martin Focazio, who lives in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., and commutes into Manhattan four days a week to his job as a digital media strategist. “It’s not like we’re health-nut crazies or a bunch of dirty hippies dancing naked around the fire. We’re all white-collar geeks living an exurban lifestyle. We just all share the philosophy of rolling with the seasons if you can.”
Five years ago, Mr. Focazio dismantled the central air system in the 1,600-square-foot ranch house he shares with his wife and three young children. He left the blower motor in the attic, which the family turns on at night to draw up hot air and vent it outside, lowering the inside temperature by a few degrees but leaving the humidity unaffected.
“If you sweat it out, drink water and let your body adjust with the seasons, you’d be surprised,” he said. “There’s a few days where you feel like you’re walking into a wet shower curtain, but it’s amazing how your body will adapt.”
Mr. Focazio, 44, said that before the family stopped cooling their house, they tended to wait out their summers rather than participate in them.
“We found that going in and out of air conditioning always made you feel like it was too hot outside, so you ended up sitting in your easy chair eating pretzels,” he said. But being uncomfortable indoors forces them out — onto their 1,000-square-foot multilevel deck and beyond.
“When it’s too hot to just sit here we might go swimming or ride our bikes or walk along the canal path,” said Mr. Focazio, who noted that he usually loses about six or seven pounds each summer, which he attributes to an appetite diminished by the heat, and an increase in exercise.
To continue reading, click here for the New York Times.