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In the heat wave, the case against air conditioning

Posted by on Jul. 12, 2010 at 8:06 AM
  • 126 Replies

By Stan Cox
Sunday, July 11, 2010; B03

Washington didn't grind to a sweaty halt last week under triple-digit temperatures. People didn't even slow down. Instead, the three-day, 100-plus-degree, record-shattering heat wave prompted Washingtonians to crank up their favorite humidity-reducing, electricity-bill-busting, fluorocarbon-filled appliance: the air conditioner.

This isn't smart. In a country that's among the world's highest greenhouse-gas emitters, air conditioning is one of the worst power-guzzlers. The energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Turning buildings into refrigerators burns fossil fuels, which emits greenhouse gases, which raises global temperatures, which creates a need for -- you guessed it -- more air-conditioning.

A.C.'s obvious public-health benefits during severe heat waves do not justify its lavish use in everyday life for months on end. Less than half a century ago, America thrived with only the spottiest use of air conditioning. It could again. While central air will always be needed in facilities such as hospitals, archives and cooling centers for those who are vulnerable to heat, what would an otherwise A.C.-free Washington look like?

At work

In a world without air conditioning, a warmer, more flexible, more relaxed workplace helps make summer a time to slow down again. Three-digit temperatures prompt siestas. Code-orange days mean offices are closed. Shorter summer business hours and month-long closings -- common in pre-air-conditioned America -- return.

Business suits are out, for both sexes. And with the right to open a window, office employees no longer have to carry sweaters or space heaters to work in the summer. After a long absence, ceiling fans, window fans and desk fans (and, for that matter, paperweights) take back the American office.

Best of all, Washington's biggest business -- government -- is transformed. In 1978, 50 years after air conditioning was installed in Congress, New York Times columnist Russell Baker noted that, pre-A.C., Congress was forced to adjourn to avoid Washington's torturous summers, and "the nation enjoyed a respite from the promulgation of more laws, the depredations of lobbyists, the hatching of new schemes for Federal expansion and, of course, the cost of maintaining a government running at full blast."

Post-A.C., Congress again adjourns for the summer, giving "tea partiers" the smaller government they seek. During unseasonably warm spring and fall days, hearings are held under canopies on the Capitol lawn. What better way to foster open government and prompt politicians to focus on climate change?

At home

Homeowners from Ward 8 to the Palisades pry open double-hung windows that were painted shut decades ago. In the air-conditioned age, fear of crime was often cited by people reluctant to open their homes to night breezes. In Washington, as in most of the world's warm cities, window grilles (not "bars," please) are now standard.

In renovation and new construction alike, high ceilings, better cross-ventilation, whole-house fans, screened porches, basements and white "cool roofs" to reflect solar rays become de rigueur. Home utility bills plummet.

Families unplug as many heat-generating appliances as possible. Forget clothes dryers --post-A.C. neighborhoods are crisscrossed with clotheslines. The hot stove is abandoned for the grill, and dinner is eaten on the porch.

Around town

Saying goodbye to A.C. means saying hello to the world. With more people spending more time outdoors -- particularly in the late afternoon and evening, when temperatures fall more quickly outside than they do inside -- neighborhoods see a boom in spontaneous summertime socializing.

Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer. As a result of all this, a strange thing happens: Deaths from heat decline. Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too afraid to venture outside for help and too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another during heat waves, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.

Children -- and others -- take to bikes and scooters, because of the cooling effect of air movement. Calls for more summer school and even year-round school cease. Our kids don't need more time inside, everyone agrees; they need the shady playgrounds and water sprinklers that spring up in every neighborhood.

"Green roofs" of grass, ivy and even food crops sprout on the flat tops of government and commercial buildings around the city, including the White House. These layers of soil and vegetation (on top of a crucially leak-proof surface) insulate interiors from the pounding sun, while water from the plants' leaves provides evaporative cooling. More trees than ever appear in both private and public spaces.

And the Mall is reborn as the National Grove.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/09/AR2010070902341_pf.html

by on Jul. 12, 2010 at 8:06 AM
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Replies (1-10):
itsmesteph11
by on Jul. 12, 2010 at 8:30 AM

 Ahh yeah, whatever.  I'm in TX and I don't care about fluorocarbons and greenhouse gasses. I want my comfort and I use  my a/c almost year round.  I don't need idiot econuts telling me I should not be using my a/c and in fact the country should be a/c free or we are doing something bad. Horse crap.

stormcris
by Christy on Jul. 12, 2010 at 8:41 AM

I think perhaps this author is nuts. It is not just a matter of moving things outdoors. In triple degree heat and/or high humidity it is not safe for many children to be outdoors. Perhaps instead of coming up with these ridiculous notion the author would be better served to find a viable alternative. 

....and yes I have read some of his books ...although I find his ideas nostalgic they are not feasible...not in a hundred degree heatwave nor with the truth of solar flares. Focusing on one problem leaves you open to being knocked on your bottom for failing to recognize all the elements that go into a condition.

candlegal
by Judy on Jul. 12, 2010 at 8:55 AM

I am in Texas and I agree.

Quoting itsmesteph11:

 Ahh yeah, whatever.  I'm in TX and I don't care about fluorocarbons and greenhouse gasses. I want my comfort and I use  my a/c almost year round.  I don't need idiot econuts telling me I should not be using my a/c and in fact the country should be a/c free or we are doing something bad. Horse crap.


mbaker331
by Member on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:06 AM

i am being stubborn about putting in the window ac unites.  There are three in the house one for the living room one for my in laws room and one for mine and hubbies room.  even when it was over 90dgrees and we were all dieing all i can see is the dollare signs.  i got a rice pack that you can put in the freezer and use to cool off with we have the iccy pops that are really just frozen coolaid and we have a ton of fans.  And we visit the river to cool off. 

My MIL was pushing for them to go in but FIL and i held firm.  Plus the minite you put them in even if you can stand the temp you are going to use them.  So i'm being sttuborn.  and now its a standable temperature and we don't need them right now.

Raintree
by Ruby Member on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:08 AM

I think it'll be hard to get people to go back to life before climate control devices. That said, I do think the article makes a subtle- but very true point- that the use of these devices has indeed, closed down a window of time (sorry for punniness) that encouraged a strong sense of community.

When I was a child- I grew up in Colorado- we didn't really need air conditioning, but people were starting to buy them up. Still, the cost of running them was somewhat prohibitive, and many people only turned them on on the hottest of days. Many people spent time outside in the evening- talking to passing neighbors- etc. It was different, and it also created a safer feeling in a neighborhood.

Today, when most people hardly venture outside without being in their vehicle, community has sort of flown out the window- except in the form of bizarre neighborhood organizations that tell you how long you can open your garage door, and what you can plant in your front yard. We've lost something- it's sad.

Raintree
by Ruby Member on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:10 AM

This attitude is sort of what people around the world refer to as American entitlement.

Quoting candlegal:

I am in Texas and I agree.

Quoting itsmesteph11:

 Ahh yeah, whatever.  I'm in TX and I don't care about fluorocarbons and greenhouse gasses. I want my comfort and I use  my a/c almost year round.  I don't need idiot econuts telling me I should not be using my a/c and in fact the country should be a/c free or we are doing something bad. Horse crap.



40isfun
by Christi on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:10 AM

Oh wow.  That sounds really nice.  I wish it could be that way.  We don't use our air condititoner much other than to get rid of humidity. It's too expensive.  Then at night we may crank it up to get rid of any humidity that has accumulated and cool the house down a bit and then off it goes again.

jaxTheMom
by on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:10 AM

Is this guy nuts?

Is he actually anywhere in the region during a heat wave like the one we just experienced?  Throw the windows open and let the kids out to experience the cooling air on their bikes, my aunt fanny!  There IS NO cool air.  There is hot, wet air that knocks the breath right out of you and a pounding sun.  This isn't a Minnesota heat wave for crying out loud, this is the southeast and it's downright tropical in the summer months.

It's dangerous!

mbaker331
by Member on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:11 AM

in tx i understand i lived there for a while 90 is nothing and it probly seems silly that we would be dieing in it.  but its all about what you are acclimated to and in Maine i'm acclimated to negitive degrees in the winter to the point i can go out side in a short sleve shirt once it hits 32 again.  and really come spring 50 is warm.  i don't think i would survive TX summer any more.

Quoting candlegal:

I am in Texas and I agree.

Quoting itsmesteph11:

 Ahh yeah, whatever.  I'm in TX and I don't care about fluorocarbons and greenhouse gasses. I want my comfort and I use  my a/c almost year round.  I don't need idiot econuts telling me I should not be using my a/c and in fact the country should be a/c free or we are doing something bad. Horse crap.



AMom29
by Gold Member on Jul. 12, 2010 at 9:13 AM

 Sorry, I cannot take heat.  I live in Michigan -- it's not supposed to be this damn hot.  I love my A/C and I don't care who knows it.

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