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Posted at 12:30 PM ET, 07/06/2012

Air-conditioning: Modern-day luxury or summertime necessity?


Star Heating and Cooling service technician Tommy Mays checks the pressure of coolant in an air conditioning unit behind the Alcohol Safety Action Program building on North Main Street in Harrisonburg, Va. on Friday, June 29, 2012. (Justin Falls - AP)
The derecho that tore through the Washington, D.C. area one week ago could not have come at a more inconvenient time. Nearly a week after the storm, not only are a few thousand unlucky people still without power, but the outages have coincided with among D.C.’s hottest weeks on record.

Temperatures approaching 100 degrees today will mark our 9th straight day of temperatures 95 degrees or higher – a first for the nation’s capital. It goes without saying that now is not a good time to live without air-conditioning.

If you were among the many D.C. locals who suffered without A/C for a day or more, you’ll likely agree that surviving summer without it is nearly impossible. It makes us wonder how earlier generations coped during the dog days of summer before the invention of indoor cooling.

Yet if our great-grandparents managed, it begs the question: for all the comfort that air-conditioning provides, is it an absolute necessity in hot climates? Or is artificial cooling a modern-day luxury on which our society has become too dependent?

An interesting debate in the New York Times last month asked a similar question. Views toward air-conditioning ranged from overdependence to “crucial to modern life.” One author explains that cooling America’s buildings and vehicles adds half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere every year.

Summers in the mid-Atlantic or the South would be pretty miserable without indoor cooling, though. So does that make A/C necessary after all? I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

As summers trend hotter, and record-warm overnight temperatures become more frequent, air-conditioning is a must for our health and well-being. Indoor cooling helps prevent heat-related illnesses, allows us to sleep more comfortably at night, and it protects the interior of our homes. From an economic perspective, air-conditioning is important to employee morale and productivity (just imagine being stuck in an office for eight hours a day with no relief from the heat).

Yet for all the benefits that air-conditioning provides, we often have a tendency to overuse it. Just walk into a movie theater, restaurant, or shopping mall during the heat of summer: sure, it feels refreshingly cool for a few minutes, but sit there for a while and it might begin to feel chilly.

To be fair, “comfortable” means different things to different people, and indeed some of us get cold or warm more easily. Nonetheless, our society has grown so accustomed to air-conditioning that we forget the difference between necessary indoor cooling and excessive A/C usage.

If you think about it, an indoor space cooled to 77 or 78 degrees is still much more comfortable than an un-airconditioned room that could easily swelter to 85 degrees or higher during a summer heat wave. When we’re sweating outside in 100-degree heat, of course it feels great to walk into a building where the thermostat is set to 72ºF or lower. It helps us cool off quickly. But we can still survive summer with moderate indoor cooling as well.

My personal rule of thumb is this: if I step outside of an air-conditioned environment and the outdoor heat actually feels “pleasant” for a few minutes, it’s a sure sign that the home or building I walked out of had the air-conditioning on too high.

While we are free to set our thermostats to our liking, let’s remember during this record-breaking heat wave not to take our beloved A/C for granted. As temperatures soar, you’ll do the environment (and your utility bills) a favor by turning up the thermostat a degree or two. After recent power outages, most would agree that a little bit of A/C is better than none at all!

By  |  12:30 PM ET, 07/06/2012

Categories:  Latest, Extreme Heat

 
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