A/C Setting Can Push Couples to the Boiling Point

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009

It was the middle of a steamy summer night, and the frame house in Cleveland Park was quiet, dark and, for Bill Adler, way too hot.

He tottered over to the thermostat and there it was: treachery. Despite a long-fought household compromise standard of 74 degrees, someone -- Adler's suspicions instantly centered on his wife -- had nudged the temperature up to 78.

For the sleepy freelance writer, it was time to set things right . . . right at 65 degrees. "I just kept pushing that down arrow," he said of his midnight retaliation. "It was a defensive maneuver."

Let the thermostat wars resume. With the belated arrival of Washington's signature summer brew of brick-oven heat and steam-room humidity has come the return of the region's first law of domestic thermodynamics: When one spouse wants to jack up the A/C, the other wants to turn it down. Mild-mannered helpmeets in March and April become ferocious defenders of the dial in July and August.

Researchers who study sex differences agree that when it comes to temperature, it seems women are from Venus and men are from Planet Freon.

"This is a real phenomenon," said Kathryn Sandberg, director of the Georgetown University Center for the Study of Sex Differences in Health, Aging and Disease. "We have lots of data showing that women generally are far more sensitive to feelings of cold."

Studies among several species of mammals have shown the same results. Given a choice between two chambers on either side of their comfort range, males prefer one that is "too cold" and females one that is "too hot." And military research has shown women to be more susceptible to frostbite, hypothermia, Raynaud's disease and other cold-related conditions.

Natalie Grande of Garrett Park is another spouse who bundles up each summer, at least until her husband, Mario, leaves for work each morning. Then she decommissions the A/C, throws open the windows and invites the tropics in for the day.

"I'm perfectly comfortable right now with just the fans," she said on a steamy mid-summer afternoon. "When he walks in, he'll say, 'Oh my God, it's hot in here,' and stomp around and close all the windows and turn on the air conditioning. I know he's a miserable wretch if he's hot, so I just put on my L.L. Bean wool-lined slippers and endure it."

She pauses. "And after he's cooled down a little bit, I sneak over and notch it up a bit."

Grande is far from the only Washingtonians changing from beachwear to ski wear as soon as their significant other comes in the front door. Corey Rodgerson, service manager at Climate Heating and Cooling in Springfield, said he gets dispatches from the thermostat front nearly every day. As soon as temperatures settle into the 90s, his phone starts ringing: One member of a household calls to say the A/C isn't working properly. Rodgerson's technicians arrive on the scene only to find that the system is working fine but that someone has upped the thermostat setting.

"What normally follows is a threat of bodily harm to the other person in the house," Rodgerson said. "We get it all the time. Now we make sure to have them check the setting while we've still got them on the phone."

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