Give Me Swelter
Thursday, July 20, 2006
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., where summers are short and heat advisories are rare, Elissa David never had air conditioning. Her parents didn't believe in it. Now she lives here, where on some summer days the only thing higher than the temperature is the humidity, but she is sticking with family tradition: She never switches on the window unit in her fourth-floor Arlington apartment. She keeps her shades half-drawn, turns on a few fans and dresses in shorts.
"Air conditioning makes me feel like a flower that doesn't have any water," says David, who works for a nonprofit environmental organization. "It sucks the moisture out of my body."
Her June electricity bill: $18.
Across the Washington area, in shaded bungalows and high-ceilinged rowhouses and downtown lofts, some people actually prefer to live without air conditioning. Their homes can be sweltering caves where fans whir, glasses of iced tea sweat, ovens are abandoned, and residents wake up in a pool of perspiration. And yet they seem to have little temptation to switch on the instant relief of artificially chilled air.
When Sarah Fairbrother and Luke Wassum bought their brick rowhouse in Petworth 16 years ago, their house inspector told them the air-conditioning compressor was dead. They've never replaced it.
"We decided it wasn't worth dropping money on something we only need two or three weeks a year," says Fairbrother, who works at American University. "I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and I moved south to thaw." Fairbrother says the only time they ever considered a portable air conditioner was for their large and furry cat.
The couple are clearly in the minority. According to the latest statistics from the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, 57 percent of all occupied homes in the United States have central air conditioning; an additional 25 percent have window units.
So what's driving the holdouts? Some people simply cannot afford to pay for air conditioning. For others, it comes down to priorities.
Some say air conditioning in any form is a lifestyle indulgence. For others, the issue lies in a deep conviction that AC is a waste of energy, and it's worth suffering a bit for the sake of the Earth. Some don't like the feel, or the noise, of AC. Some just don't want to spend the money.
"It's a war between comfort and cost, in my experience," says Mary-Beth Corbitt Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for Pepco. This year, Pepco residential customers saw an average annual increase in their rates of 12 percent over last year; it was 39 percent for Maryland residential customers. Dominion Virginia Power's rates are capped so customers are paying essentially the same rate as in 1993, according to a spokesman.
Kathy Jentz happens to live in a former 1935 Pepco substation brick Colonial in Silver Spring. These well-constructed houses, built in various styles to blend in with the neighboring properties, contained a giant transformer. Over the years, Pepco has sold off some of them, and they have been remodeled into private residences.
Jentz, who publishes Washington Gardener magazine, admits cost is one of the reasons she leaves the central air conditioning off. She also avoids using her clothes dryer and chooses not to own a car. On Monday, when the Air Quality Index was at Code Orange, with temperatures in the 90s, it was a sweltering 88 degrees on the thermostat in Jentz's main floor, where she was working from home using just a small fan. She reported that a load of laundry she had hung in the sunroom dried in a record three hours. She expresses a dislike for AC's frigid air, which she says feels "artificial."