How Air Conditioning Saved The World

Karen Heller wrote how she doesn’t need air conditioning and neither do I. (link). She lives in Philadelphia. Last time I checked, Philadelphia was a northern city. I bet she doesn’t live without heaters in winter.

I live in Georgia, where it’s hot. Come May it gets up around 80 or 90, and by July and August we are in the high 90’s or 100’s every day. I’ve had days without air conditioning: when the cursed thing breaks and we all sweat it out, cook outside, and take our meals on the screen porch with fans running.

Heller found a kindred spirit in transplanted Georgian Stan Cox, who filled an entire book about why we should forego comfortable temperatures. His primary objections are that it uses between 600 and 700 kWh per capita in America annually, which costs us .06 percent of our GDP. Is this a matter of morals to him, or just priorities?

You see, televisions, computers and video games together use nearly 400 kWh per capita. Hot water and lighting are biggies; together they consume between 875 and 900 kWh. All our swimming pools, spas, small electric devices, security lights, and cell phone chargers are the worst offenders: nearly 4,400 kWh. (Source link.) I will readily admit that the single biggest power monster in America is air conditioning, and I’m glad that it is.

Because air conditioning saved the world.

Don’t tell me about all those wonderful times sitting on the front porch in the Georgia evenings. It’s over-romanticized. Most of those times, if you ask our southern seniors and get an honest answer, they’d sit and complain about the heat. And the gnats. And the heat. At night, people didn’t sleep well; it was too durned hot. During the day, those who worked outside suffered dehydration, heat stroke, and all the related health issues.

Even Cox moved from Georgia to Salina, Kansas, where the annual high temperature from June to August is right at 90 degrees (source link). The three-month summer low is a comfortable 67. If I lived in Salina, I wouldn’t use a lot of air conditioning either.

In middle and south Georgia, 67 is a dim memory until sometime in mid-October. In August, the thermometer rarely dips below 82, even at night. When it’s dry, you get flies. When it’s damp, you get mosquitoes and gnats.

The only alternative to central air conditioning is to leave the windows and doors open all the time. Screen doors are wonderful things, but not so conducive to privacy. Maybe Cox likes having his neighbors see and hear everything that goes on in his house. I don’t.

I spent 27 years (the first 27 years) of my life living in the northeast. I lived in New Hampshire, where we had hot summers, cold winters, mosquitoes the size of small birds, and no air conditioning. I mostly didn’t mind, because it was only for a few months in the summer. Some people up north have swimming pools they only use for 60 days. That’s a much bigger waste than a big ugly window air conditioning unit.

But how did air conditioning save the world?

For one thing, without air conditioning, healthcare would be worse. “The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommends that operating room temperatures be kept between 66 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, with a humidity percentage of 70.” (Source link.) Yes, that’s cold, but it’s necessary to prevent sweating, bacteria growth, humidity, and condensation. Those things transmit germs.

For another thing, the Internet runs on air conditioning. As one example, take Facebook. The massive data consumer built one data center in Pineville, Oregon, where it has its own hydroelectric plant just to keep the equipment cool. Another is in Luleå, Sweden, just outside the Arctic Circle. No AC needed there, but lots of cable to wire up the rest of the world to it.

The New York Times examined the multiplied thousands of data centers that support our digital world, and concluded “that this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.” (Source link.)

Data centers consume about the same amount of power as all the computers in the U.S. put together, with America-based data center using about 25 to 33 percent of the worldwide load. As a good rule of thumb, let’s say that for every computer using power, add a 25 percent tax for the data center.

If we really want to eliminate air conditioning, we should not just remove that ugly window unit, we should also get rid of our power-hungry computers, televisions, game consoles, smart phones and all those other devices that depend on data stored around the world in power-wasting, air conditioned facilities.

But the biggest driver of air conditioner efficiency is home use. The measure that the industry uses for efficiency is called SEER. And, way back in 2007, the average SEER in America went from 13.07 to 13.66. The typical SEER (then called EER) in 1974 was 6. In 1992, the government mandated a SEER of 10. In 2015, that became 14. (Source link.) The higher the SEER rating, the less power a unit uses to keep a home comfortable.

The more that heating and cooling equipment companies (the same companies generally make commercial units and residential) invest in power-efficient unit, the more everyone can live comfortably, with their smart phones, televisions and game consoles, and Googling the answer to every question as it comes up. The more efficient heating and cooling, the cheaper health care becomes as hospitals build new facilities. Hospitals are the largest users of heating and cooling per square foot (probably other than data centers that is).

Our little 14 SEER air conditioner at home drives the market to make big spaces cooler, cheaper. That is, unless you want to go to Luleå for that operation.

The alternative that Heller and Cox promote is to turn off the AC simply because it uses power and is perceived as a luxury, some form of conspicuous consumption. Every change has a consequence. If we all turned off the AC, besides being smelly, sweaty, bug-bitten creatures, we would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs (the average HVAC technician makes $19.87/hour). We would create a disincentive for companies to make better air conditioning units, which would make AC in places where it’s absolutely required more expensive and less efficient.

I have no beef with people who, for their own personal reasons, don’t like to be cool and comfortable. I have no sympathy for hypocrites who blather on about imminent global warming catastrophe as they heat and cool 20-room homes and fly off to conferences in private jets. Everything in moderation is, however, always the best path.

I keep my thermostat, during the summer, between 76 and 78. I use Google Nest electronic thermostats, which use advanced algorithms to reduce power usage. I actively look at my power usage history, and how much my two AC units are running. Both my units are 15 or better SEER.

Recently, I noticed the bigger unit taking longer to keep the house cool. Although we pay for annual health checks on our systems, I called the company to come out. Turns out there was a leak in the inside coil, which they fixed under warranty. I only paid for coolant. A 5 percent loss of efficiency of an HVAC system due to a small leak saves money, power, and greenhouse gases. How many people check their units regularly? Most just use them until they fail, and gripe about the power bill.

It’s irresponsible to be a poor steward of a piece of equipment that costs $4,000 or more. But it’s also illogical to recommend that everyone doesn’t need air conditioning.

Life without air conditioning may be some romanticized version of better times past, but, like most things that are romanticized, the truth is generally, smellier, sweatier, nastier, and more ignorant than the narrative.