It’s time to come out of the closet. Or, more precisely, the sweat lodge.
My family lives without air conditioning, except for one antique, semi-comatose window unit that “cools” the bedroom to approximately the same temperature as Dallas at dusk.
Our house in Philadelphia was built in the 1920s, when people were tough and resourceful. For most of the year, the house is cool and pleasant, as long as there isn’t a mash-up of continuously scorching days and epic humidity, when the air is putrid, stagnant and, if it were a color, would definitely be mustard.
Which would be this summer. Which, so far, is the fourth-hottest summer on record in the Washington area. Emphasis on so far. NASA reports that July was the Earth’s hottest in recorded history. Cheer up, people say to those of us without air conditioning, September’s coming. Except people forget that most of September is still summer.
There are people among you, friends even, who live without artificial cooling during what are affectionately known as the dog days of summer. One-third of American households don’t have air conditioning, according to the Energy Department. Many of those, of course, can’t afford it, but people don’t like AC for a variety of reasons beyond cost: environmental, aesthetic, nostalgic, social and cultural.
And, yes, to humble-brag, which I may be doing right now, about our greater tolerance, lower carbon footprint and puny electric bills, which are half the temperature outside.
Clinical social worker Olivia Snyder lives on the fifth floor of a Philadelphia apartment building with southern exposure and no air conditioning. It gets so hot, she says, “I don’t want to turn on the burners, let alone the oven.”
But window units offend her. “Air conditioners are ugly. I really like the view,” she says. Also, “I hate sleeping with the noise. I’m super-weird about noise.”
There are people who are living without air conditioning in places far hotter than the East Coast. In 2009, Chris George, now a Washington Post digital editor, voluntarily gave up air conditioning for a year while living in the inhumane heat of Tempe, Ariz., mostly out of environmental concern. “I’ve been called many variations of the word ‘insane,’ ” George wrote in the Arizona Republic of the experiment, during which temperatures reached 103 degrees inside his home. But he also learned that “comfort is really just what you’re used to.”
There are a thousand reasons my family does without central air. Actually, several thousand.
Installing central air would be a profoundly expensive enterprise, involving a cavalcade of zeros and most likely new, less-beautiful windows. When our children ask why we’re still sweating it analog-style, and our house feels like a Tennessee Williams stage set but without the fetching undergarments and crippling dysfunction, we answer, “College tuition, vacations, cheese. You know, things like that.”
Also, I don’t like the hermetic feel of central air, the way it reduces everything to an artificial hum and makes you feel isolated from the environment, your body’s natural responses and, depending on your age, all the summers of your youth.
Air conditioning is not sultry or mysterious. It has no place in pulp fiction or film noir. The movie “Body Heat” is set in a small Florida town in 1981 yet is completely devoid of central air, which manages to make absolutely everything seem sexy — ice cubes, sweat, even wind chimes, which are generally just annoying.
There are positive aspects of going without. Fewer house guests. More dinner invitations. That humble-bragging business. Showers. I can’t tell you how rewarding showers feel. And ice cream tastes way better.
Air conditioning made Americans greedy and silly. Once the country got hooked on central air, strange things materialized: windows that don’t open, the office sweater in August, summer colds, Las Vegas, football in Phoenix.
“We don’t use air conditioning because it makes it too hot outside,” says Stan Cox, quoting a vintage survey response, and he’s on to something. Cox wrote the book “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World” on the negative effects of air conditioning: It uses 5 percent of all our electricity, costs American homeowners $11 billion and wreaks havoc on a planet that did far better before it came along.
“Being in air conditioning most of the time in the summer reduces your tolerance for heat,” he says. Culturally, “there’s been an impact on neighborhoods and communities, resulting in much less outdoor social interaction.”
Cox grew up in Georgia, “where we sat on the front porch in the evening seeing each other.” For many of us, darting through sprinklers and hoses was a staple of summer evenings. There was this imperative to go to movie theaters or public fountains and pools, to be with other people and share in the physical toll of the season.
Cox’s home in Salina, Kan., has central air, which he turns on precisely once a year, “to see that it’s in proper working order,” and “maybe to have people over for dinner.” He doesn’t like air conditioning in the car. Or in his office at the Land Institute, where he works as a crop specialist. “I have kind of a blanket hanging over the vent, which would blow right on the back of the neck,” he says.
Caroline Stern is in a mixed marriage. Her husband, Gerald Cohen, adores air conditioning; she’s hotly opposed. Their Yonkers, N.Y., home has a unit in their son’s room, and one in Cohen’s office, but their bedroom is without. “I don’t feel like it’s very healthy to sleep with it on,” says Stern, an executive assistant at Columbia University.
Living without affords its own strange luxuries. True, life is harder, but also more sensual. Stern loves the freedom that heat bestows to reclaim summer as a slower season. “If you’re living without air conditioning, you can’t do stuff,” she says. “It’s enforced relaxation and stupefaction.”
See? It’s also the perfect excuse.
An earlier version of this story had the wrong first name for Stan Cox. This version has been updated.