Beating the heat

We just finished a week or so of 90+ temperatures with high humidity in Boston without air conditioning.  We survived quite well.  It wasn’t until day 6 or 7 that I really began to suffer – that the was day there was no afternoon sea breeze.  Exhaust fans on each floor pull air through the house and smaller fans are placed in the rooms we use the most.  We are lucky to have good four-way ventilation.  Cool showers and cooking in the mornings = or not at all – also help.  (We went out once to out favorite pub so find that their air conditioning was not 100%, but it was just fine.)  I am one of those rare people that don’t like living in refrigerated air.  So I was very interested in the Boston Globe article in the Sunday Ideas Section titled “How to Live Without Air Conditioning”  In it, Leon Neyfakh  points out the life style changes that we could make so that we at least reduce our energy consumption.

Since the technology was invented in 1902, and the first window unit was brought to market in 1939, air conditioners have become ubiquitous in the United States. Today, almost 90 percent of American households have one—as do the vast majority of restaurants, stores, museums, and office buildings. During weeks like the one we’ve just had, these places are sanctuaries: To walk into one after being outside is to be reminded how sweet life can be.

But all that magic chilling comes at a cost—something most people are aware of on a personal level, because their electricity bills are so high during the summer, but not so much on a global scale, which is really where the problem lies. In China and India, air conditioning sales have reportedly been growing by 20 percent per year; around the world, air conditioning energy demand is projected to increase vastly over the next decades. According to Stan Cox, author of the 2010 book “Losing Our Cool,” air conditioning in the United States already has a global-warming impact equivalent to every US household driving an extra 10,000 miles per year.

English: Series of air conditioners at UNC-CH.

English: Series of air conditioners at UNC-CH. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think about that.  And we continue to build office buildings taller and more dependent on artificial cooling.  Yes, maybe some are energy efficient and green building, but they still consume vast amounts of energy.

When experts look at A/C use in America, they immediately see a spot of illogic: We use vast amounts of energy just to let businesspeople do something they’d probably rather not do anyway. “We are probably overcooling our office buildings by 4 to 6 [degrees] F just so that office workers, particularly the males, can wear their business suits,” wrote Richard de Dear, who is head of architectural design science at the University of Sydney and a researcher on thermal comfort. “The current clothing behaviour is costing us a fortune in energy and greenhouse emissions!”

In Japan every summer, in an environmental initiative called “Cool Biz” that started in 2005, government officials encourage building managers to let temperatures climb to 82 degrees and advise employees to loosen their sartorial standards. In 2011, the government even put on a fashion show, with models catwalking in untucked polos, capri pants, and Kariyushis, a Japanese take on the Hawaiian shirt.

Here in America, it probably wouldn’t require such a hard sell. Many female workers already dress for summer weather, and would likely be delighted not to have to huddle in sweaters against the A/C. Among men, polos are already considered appropriate on casual Fridays, and it’s not hard to imagine that most would happily embrace a breezier style for the rest of the week. Instead of long pants, they could don formal shorts—a concept that has long been embraced in Bermuda, where executives can be seen attending meetings with exposed knees.

And people can do similar things at home.

Even a mid-sized building could save considerable amounts every year by operating at shorts temperature. But if modifying what we put on our bodies could help us give up extreme climate control, rethinking buildings themselves—and how we ventilate them—would go even further. Already, some of us live in homes that can be effectively cooled by opening windows in the basement and on the top floor every morning, thus taking advantage of the so-called stack effect to pull cool air up through the house and allow hot air to vent into the street. People can also try “evaporative cooling,” a modest, low-tech form of air conditioning, by hanging wet towels in the window or setting them in front of a basic electric fan.

Some of  Neyfakh’s life style suggestions like changing to a work schedule with early morning hours, a mid afternoon siesta, and late work hours are a tougher sell:  Too many people commute long distances.  But people who telecommute could try raising the temperature at home a few degrees so that they at least don’t have fried brains and the inertia that comes with it.  Also try adjusting blinds to follow the sun and plant trees.

There are some parts of life, it must be said, for which air conditioning is not just a luxury but a necessity. The Internet depends on servers that require climate control in order to not go up in flames. Modern skyscrapers depend on it, as well. If we gave up air conditioning, New England would largely be fine, at least for now, but entire swaths of the country would become uninhabitable: Summers in the Sun Belt cities and in parts of the South would be so harsh that millions of people would simply move away. We also would be unwilling to take away A/C from those most sensitive to extreme heat—namely, the sick, the very young, and the elderly.

That doesn’t mean that trying to reduce our society’s addiction to A/C is a fool’s errand. The fact is, our bodies are built to adjust to heat—it’s just that we haven’t had to lately, because we’ve become so accustomed to refrigerating ourselves when the weather gets hot. A study in which researchers surveyed 21,000 people, spread out across 160 buildings on four continents, found that “people in warmer climates were more comfortable in warmer indoor temperatures than their counterparts in cooler climate zones,” according to Richard de Dear, one of the coauthors.

The findings indicate that people actually prefer being in places where the temperature fluctuates, as long as they have some control over it. “If you have the ability to open or close a window, turn a fan on or off, change the blinds, modify your clothing—it just becomes a natural part of your day-to-day living, and you don’t build these expectations that conditions should be the same all day and all year round, which I would call ‘thermal monotony,’” said Gail Brager, an architecture professor at UC Berkeley who also worked on the study. “We not only accept—we actually prefer—a wider range of conditions that float with the natural rhythms of the outdoor climate.”

No doubt this is hard to believe, as you sit there in your air-conditioned home, happily soaking up the artificial breeze emanating from the murmuring machine in your window. But is there not something fearful about refrigerating ourselves with such vigilance? We’re not cartons of milk, after all; we will not spoil, even if we do sweat a little. In fact, by taking full advantage of the technology inside our own bodies—technology that makes it possible for us to adapt to a whole spectrum of temperatures—we might discover we’ve been missing out on a way of life that actually feels quite natural.

Everyone doesn’t have to go air conditionless as we do, but there is nothing wrong, and much to gain by not making all of our buildings so cold.  Maybe we can at least agree on a temperature like 80 or, like the Japanese, 82 and save some energy.

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