You’re Probably Using Air-Conditioning Wrong
If you’d told me last year that this summer we’d be living through a pandemic and then decide to give up air-conditioning I would have thought you were crazy.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Back in May, I scheduled our yearly air conditioning maintenance appointment for June 12th. Each year I hope that the system still works and no major repairs or heaven forbid, replacement is needed. Given Covid-19 uncertainty this year I especially wasn’t looking for a big bill. My husband and I decided we’d wait until after the service appointment to turn it on.
When it hit the upper 80s the third week of May we told our girls we couldn’t use the air conditioning until the service appointment. They assumed it was broken and this was a temporary situation.
Temperatures started to reach the upper 80s. The girls found two fans in a closet and brought them into their rooms. Problem solved. In the late afternoons when it got uncomfortable, we’d retreat to the basement where it’s always cooler. My husband started spending more time at his desk down there, rather than in the guest room, where he’d set up his quarantine office space.
When we got May’s bill in June, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a bit lower than the year before. This little experiment had a nice side effect.
After the technician came and serviced the air-conditioner we had no real excuse not to turn it on. It was working just fine and needed no repairs (thank you!).
Yet by then, it had become a game to see how long we could go without it.
After 19 years together my husband and I learned something new about each other: neither of us actually like air-conditioning. We’d both considered it a necessary evil, but now we were reconsidering if that were true. We’d gone this far, why not keep going? The girls protested, but we assured them it would be okay.
Deciding to do without good old A/C for as long as we could, I was curious to see what we might gain from giving up this luxury that we’d become so accustomed to. While my husband has lived several places that didn’t have air conditioning, the only place I’d spent time without it was at my grandparent’s shore house, where they relied on ocean breezes to cool things off. Our girls never had.
I knew it was possible to improve my life by giving things up, sometimes permanently and others temporarily. I’d given up many things with very positive results: cheese, straws, shopping for a year, and even sleeping with my husband (but no, not sleeping with my husband).
More recently, the pandemic had led to giving up other things, that in the short-term no longer seem necessary: underwire bras, makeup, jewelry, shoes that aren’t flip flops or sneakers. I didn’t miss them. I was comfortable and saving time. In my pandemic existence, I’d also stopped doing things that now seemed to carry more risk than I’m comfortable with; pedicures that I don’t do myself, dinners at restaurants, and even sending my kids back to school.
It was all beginning to make me feel like an expert at giving things up. I felt confident I could do it, but what I had to figure out was how to make it comfortable for the whole family. With camps canceled and time with friends extremely limited, the last thing I wanted to do was to make my girls’ summer even more challenging (or make them hate us).
I reminded myself that artificially cooled air in the summer is a luxury that most of humankind has not had. Air conditioning was only invented in 1902 and it wasn’t until the 1970s that most Americans had it in their homes. Today usage varies greatly by country, yet somehow the US uses more energy for air conditioning than all other countries combined. This is staggering when you consider the US does not even occupy the hottest parts of the planet and includes only 4.25% of the human population.
We can certainly do better than that.
Obviously a how-to guide on not using A/C would be pretty short: Don’t turn it on.
Sometimes it gets hot in your house without air-conditioning (surprise). Getting used to the heat and even a little sweat is possible though.
There are also little things we discovered that make it a lot more bearable.
Realizing that your body adapts
Have you ever thought about how sensitive the human body is to temperature change? There’s such a narrow range of appealing temperatures. I like to keep the thermostat set at 65 degrees in the winter. My family complains they’re freezing. (I tell them to put on another sweater.) But then when it’s just 15–20 degrees hotter, they want to cool it down? Has modern life made us this fragile? I think we can be more adaptable than that.
When I was at college in central New York state, every spring when the temperature hit the 50’s you’d see students not just ditching their jackets, but also wearing shorts. The campus was still dotted with mounds of snow that had yet to melt, but after months in the 20s and 30s, I had to agree that the 50s felt downright balmy.
When the temperatures first get hot (which I’ll unscientifically define as upper 80’s) in the summer, our first instinct might be to flip on the air-conditioning, but if we can resist this temptation, we can acclimate to the temperature increase. Give it a week and see.
Statistics show that Americans set their air conditioning to anywhere between 69 degrees or less up to 80 degrees or more. Interestingly, people in colder climates set their air conditioning to lower temperatures than those living in hotter ones. This shows that humans get used to warmer temperatures with exposure to them. Relief, and even what is considered too hot, looks different depending on where you live.
A bonus that comes from learning to live with the heat is that our sensitivity to the slightest breeze or break in the humidity after a thunderstorm also increases. We savor good weather and appreciate it more. Personally, it also makes me feel that even though we aren’t traveling, hosting parties, or going on any road trips this summer it does feel like we are experiencing the season.
Getting up early
The first thing in the morning is when you receive your first reward. The open windows! The fresh air! During these times I frequently have the same thought: if we were using the air-conditioning I’d be missing out on this feeling. Often at night the temperature outside dropped below what we’d have it set at inside. It didn’t make sense.
I love “open window weather”. For years I’d lamented the fact that the weeks in the spring and the fall when open windows are possible were too short. Turns out, I’d been short-changing myself. If I’m willing to manage with some mid-day heat, there are more opportunities to enjoy open window weather than I thought.
Using window coverings
Our house faces Northeast. In the morning I close the plantation shutters at the front of the house I leave open at night to capture the cooler night air. This prevents the sunlight from streaming in and heating up the room.
Mid-day I open these blinds and after the sun passes over, I close the blinds on the windows at the back of the house to prevent the late afternoon sun from heating things up on its way down. This simple routine really makes a difference. It also connects me to the rhythm of the day and marks the passage of the hours (and gives me an excuse to get up from my desk).
Getting everyone a fan
While at the hardware store, I picked up two more 10” fans so that every family member had one. These things were not just a lifesaver, but an energy and money saver too since they make you feel cooler and cost less to run than air conditioning.
While sitting at my desk, on the couch in my office, or lying in bed I’d turn the fan on facing me for a cool and quiet breeze that kept me very comfortable (and allowed me to sleep well).
While ceiling fans cost just $.01 per hour to run compared to air conditioning cost of $.36 per hour, our small fans likely use even less and have the advantage of being portable.
I can bring my fan downstairs and put it at the end of my yoga mat while exercising. Since I can’t stay directly in front of it the whole time while working out, it’s less effective, but still makes me more comfortable.
Cooking less, eating less
It’s hard to want to fire up the oven or stove when the kitchen is already over 85 degrees. So on hot days, we end up eating more salads and raw dishes. When I need to cook, I rely on my pressure cooker that doesn’t heat up the kitchen. We also embrace leftovers or simple sandwiches.
But along with this, I also discovered that on hot days, without A/C I’m less hungry. I’m not an expert on detoxes, but between the sweating, the increased water drinking, the increase in water-rich raw foods, and the decreased appetite, it felt like a cleanse of sorts. (It also was the perfect way to put an end to the pandemic baking frenzy we’d been on since March.)
Spending less, using less
A mailing from our utility company in June told us that 68% of energy costs in the summer are from cooling. That was all the motivation we needed to stick with it.
Had one of the biggest ways to reduce our carbon footprint been hiding in plain sight the whole time? We’d gone from two cars to one (hybrid) vehicle. We composted. Maybe this was the next logical step?
If nothing else it would help remedy the guilt I sometimes feel over living in a larger than the average house in a country that has the second largest home size in the world. But that wasn’t all. When the bill for June arrived in July it was half of what we spent the previous year.
Knowing when and how to use it
And then there was the day that broke our streak: a forecast of a humid day with a high temperature of 98 degrees, which meant it would feel well over 100 degrees. If it had just been the two of us stubborn adults, we might have persevered. Sitting at our respective desks with fans I’m sure we would have been fine, but it felt unfair to our kids. A bit defeated, we shut the windows and turned on the air conditioning and set it at 80 degrees. Last summer we had arguments with the younger members of the family wanting it to be set at 70. We’d compromised at 74.
To our surprise, the girls said it was too cold when they came in from outside. We moved it up to 82. The US Department of Energy recommends setting your air condition at 78, but you can save 2% on your electricity usage for each degree above 78 you set it. (Or spend an extra 6% for each degree you set it below 78.)
Keeping all this in mind will reduce our energy usage and our bills for all the summers yet to come, which makes me glad that we had this experience.
Our two-month streak may be over, but it was not the end of our air-conditioning free days. The experience fundamentally changed our relationship with the use of artificially cold air in the summertime.
We no longer think of air-conditioning as something meant for keeping the house at 74 degrees all summer long. It’s for taking the edge off the heat (and sometimes humidity) when it gets unbearable. And while 12% of total US energy costs are spent on air-conditioning, our new goal will be to spend as little as possible on it, enough that we can enjoy ourselves, while not forgetting that it’s summer.