The not-so-cool side of air conditioning

  • Star Tribune
  • July 26, 2010 - 2:47 PM

Air conditioning accounts for nearly 20 percent of total electricity consumption in U.S. homes -- even though it's not used year-round in most states.

Environmental writer Stan Cox, author of "Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)," has gathered a lot of info on everybody's best friend this time of year -- A/C -- and how we can learn to live with less of it. Cox, who lives in Salina, Kan., doesn't rail against A/C's existence, but warns that we can't sustain the level we use now, let alone increase it.

But that's not so bad: "We can help one another get through heat waves rather than flee into cold isolation," he says.

Q What is the cycle of air-conditioning abuse?

A Being in air conditioning all the time decreases the body's natural tolerance to heat. The hotter it gets, the more we use. The more we use, the hotter it will get, because it contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions.


Q Newer air conditioners are more energy-efficient, so aren't things getting better?

A The energy used to cool homes has doubled in the past 12 years or so. Only about 3 percent of air conditioning actually cools people; the rest is cooling buildings and empty space. Also, the average size of homes is a lot bigger now, so even if the air conditioning is 20 percent more efficient, houses are using 37 percent more energy.

Q How has A/C affected us culturally and socially?

A Contrast the typical neighborhood activity on a summer evening 50 years ago with today. Then, kids were running up and down the block; neighbors visited on their front porches. Now the streets and porches are dead zones where you hear the humming of fans and compressors and that's it.

Q What is your theory on how air conditioning has influenced politics?

A In 1960, only about 12 percent of homes were air-conditioned. Then it really took off and made it possible for larger populations to move to hotter regions, the South and the West. The Northeast and the Midwest have increased in population just 27 percent over that time, while the South and West have grown more than four times that much. The economic and political centers of gravity moved along with the population from the North to the Sun Belt, which traditionally is more conservative, bringing more red-state seats to the Electoral College. If we would have had the population distribution in 2000 that we had in 1960, Al Gore would have won the presidency.

Q Why is air conditioning bad for weight-watchers?

A When we're living in an air-conditioned bubble, we're always in a comfort zone where our bodies burn less energy. Also, studies have been done on livestock as well as people showing that we all tend to eat more in air-conditioned environments.

Q So that's why restaurants and grocery stores are always so freezing. How can A/C addicts wean themselves of their dependence?

A If you have to take a sweater to work in July, start there. Overchilled office workers should rise up and demand less energy use. At home, you can reduce A/C use a lot without turning it off altogether. A lot of people have a tendency to switch the thermostat from heat to cool in May and not touch it again till October, never opening up the house to fresh air. You don't have to leave it on every day, all day, when you're not there. If you open the windows and have a fan going, the mid-80s can be a very comfortable temperature.

Q Does your home have A/C?

A Yes. We check it about once a summer to see if it still works. We try to time it around when guests are coming for dinner on a hot night. Living without air conditioning in these times -- talk about social isolation!

Q Does your wife complain that because you wrote this book now she can't turn on the A/C?

A I'm lucky enough to have married a woman who grew up in southern India, without air conditioning. I have that unusual advantage.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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