A/C Setting Can Push Couples to 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."

There isn't much HVAC technology can do to defuse these cold-button issues, according to Michael Hartman, president of Thomas E. Clark Heating and Air in Silver Spring. Automatic dampers installed in the ductwork of each room can let each person in the house create a separate climate, he said. Or warring factions in a house could use window units to boost the cool in a particular room. But those require individuals to stay in their own segregated honeycombs within the house.

Otherwise, folks just have to find a compromise. "It's just like at my house," Hartman said. "It's always the husband who wants it cooler and the wife is freezing."

The difference in temperature preference between men and women is explained by several factors, Sandberg said, including women's lower ratio of body mass to surface area, lesser muscle mass and a slower resting metabolism.

Further, women have a lower tolerance for cold than men. When Sandberg has had male and female volunteers hold their hands in ice water as long as possible, women are typically quicker to max out. In a survival response that researchers don't fully understand, a woman's sympathetic nervous system, which helps the body regulate its temperature, activates under cold stimulation more easily than a man's.

"If a woman likes it less cold in the house, it's probably partly due to this low tolerance to the pain of cold," Sandberg said. "Women are more sensitive to that discomfort."

Despite their numerical advantage, the women in Adler's house have raised the white flag and hauled out the fleeces and wool socks. "There is no more war. We have surrendered," said Peggy Robin, Adler's wife and defeated leader of the household's less-like-a-meat-locker-please faction, which includes the couple's two daughters. "Now we just put on sweaters and suffer. He went on a business trip to California last summer, and the kids and I have never been more comfortable."

Adler likes waking up with condensation on the windows. Robin, also a writer, stays buried under blankets until she hears the compressor switch off. Then she takes her coffee and newspaper to the porch to escape the dairy-aisle climate of the kitchen, where her thermometer routinely shows it to be in the mid-60s.

Adler admits, in a hushed voice, that he knows setting the upstairs thermostat at the compromise 74 degrees actually results in a downstairs temperature several degrees cooler. That's just fine with him. "My philosophy is that it's much easier for everyone else to put on a sweater or a down parka than for me to walk around completely naked," he said.

If temperature sensitivity breaks down so neatly along sex lines, does that mean same-sex couples don't fight over the thermostat? Scientists don't have data on that, but it's clear not all same-sex couple are models of thermal harmony. Tibby Middleton and Barbara Kenny of Frederick have been partners for 43 years but haven't yet resolved the quest for the right temperature.

Kenny said the difference emergences once they settle down in front of the television. "She will have on a fleece jacket, a green fleece blanket and little earmuffs. I'm sitting there in shorts and a T-shirt in front of a fan. It's always been that way."

In contrast, Brad Ward, who has lived for more than a year in a chilly house in Crestwood with his spouse, Sanj Grewal, said: "My husband and I both feel compelled to leave the thermostat as cold as humanly possible during the summer. We're in total agreement on keeping cool."

Couples shouldn't despair over thermostat conflicts that might last a lifetime, said Diane Sollee, head of the Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. In fact, because the stakes are relatively low, garden-variety thermostat disputes could even help build a strong marriage.

Happily married couples, the ones who make it all the way to the rocking chairs, argue pretty much nonstop about an average of 10 "irreconcilable differences," Sollee said. "Couples are always going to disagree about some things, always. The important thing is to talk about them with love and respect. In marriage communication, we have to teach couples to talk to each other, even when they disagree, in a way that will make them want to make love that night."

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