Sunday, August 31, 2014

Air Conditioning: Sometimes a Necessary Evil

Last night, about 9 o'clock, I turned on my air conditioning for the first time in August. It was 83 degrees in the house and the humidity was high. I had three fans running in the living room/dining room area where I was watching a football game. I was still sweating.

I don't like AC. Never have. I grew up in Piedmont South Carolina, whose climate at the time closely approximated that of Texas. When I was in high school, I often practiced pre-season football in August when it was 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity at 9 a.m. We didn't have any fat football players.

Almost nobody had AC then. Some of the new houses being built in the Central Savannah River Area near Augusta, Ga., were equipped with window units, but I don't recall any of my friends having them. But, then, I don't recall the heat being as oppressive as it is now. Maybe that's just blocking out the bad memories.

In any case, AC tends to dry out my throat, make me snore (more), and leaving me raspy in the morning. It's uncomfortable and I don't get any feeling of the earth when I'm sealed in my house.

Two years ago, I replaced an aging heating/AC system with one that is much more efficient and cost effective and when I do have it on, I don't feel so guilty about wasting the earth's resources.

Central AC at an apartment house.
Fact is, I think, we're all too dependent on AC. Nearly 90 percent of the homes in the U.S. are equipped with some kind of AC, whether it be central or room. It is prevalent in nearly every part of the continental U.S., save for the great Northwest, where it is cooler year-round. The U.S. Energy Information Administration states it this way: "Wider use has coincided with much improved energy efficiency standards for AC equipment, a population shift to hotter and more humid regions, and a housing boom during which average housing sizes increased."

There has been a good bit written about how AC has changed our society, sending people inside behind closed doors, keeping them away from their neighbors, isolating them. I get that. My neighborhood has a lot of porches on houses built 60 years ago. Almost nobody uses them. Drive through Raleigh Court, where the houses are 100 and you'll see bigger empty porches that used to have people shapping beans, making ice cream and talking to neighbors on them.

Family on front porch, 1950s.
The EIA says that 85 percent of the homes in the South have central air and 67 percent of them use it all summer. Single family homes have AC at a rate of 89 percent, while 82 percent of apartments are equipped with it--a statistic that surprises me, frankly.

The U.S. Department of Energy tells us that we're dumping a lot of pollution into the air with AC: "Air conditioners use about 5 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States, at an annual cost of more than $11 billion to homeowners. As a result, roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air each year -- an average of about two tons for each home with an air conditioner." The older accepted refrigerants have been and are being phased out in favor of those that do less damage to the ozone layer (the one that protects from from getting skin cancer).

According to The Guardian (the best newspaper in England): "Residential, commercial, and industrial air conditioning worldwide consumes at least one trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Vehicle air conditioners in the United States alone use 7 to 10 billion gallons of gasoline annually. And thanks largely to demand in warmer regions, it is possible that world consumption of energy for cooling could explode tenfold by 2050, giving climate change an unwelcome dose of extra momentum.

"The United States has long consumed more energy each year for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. In fact, we use more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa, home to a billion people, consumes for all purposes. Between 1993 and 2005, with summers growing hotter and homes larger, energy consumed by residential air conditioning in the U.S. doubled, and it leaped another 20 percent by 2010. The climate impact of air conditioning our buildings and vehicles is now that of almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year."

All that said, summers are hot and humid here--much, much less so this year than in any year I can recall--and AC is close to necessary. But if we'd temper its use, I think we'd all be a lot better off and a hell of a lot tougher.

(Graphic:; photo


  1. One correction - The Guardian is the best newspaper in the world.

  2. Kurt: Oh, OK. But the bar is suddenly pretty low whether world or Britain. Still, a very good paper.

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