If there’s one thing bound to get a Southerner’s attention, it’s the assertion that we might not need our air conditioning. So when I saw an article from the Washington Post with that title in my news feed, I had to click.
Life without air conditioning? I can’t imagine. Or can I?
Summer in the Seventies
By all accounts, this has been a very hot summer, and we’ve treated it accordingly. There have been days when I stayed inside for the entire day. Days where I stepped outside and went straight to an air conditioned car.
Certainly, the heat and humidity have reduced the amount of exercise I’ve attempted. Even Little Bit has stayed in almost all day.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem right. I remember my childhood. At least in my memory, my brother and I stayed out all day, riding bikes and climbing trees. We found ways to keep cool: wading in the creek, running through a sprinkler or running after the ice cream truck. For the most part, though, summer didn’t decrease our level of activity, it increased it.
No one stayed inside, even at night. Mom would cook dinner, and we’d eat outside on the porch. We’d visit someone’s house, and sit on a patio.
Most of our friends and family had air conditioning. We used AC, but we didn’t need it. We knew how to open the windows, drink plenty of iced tea and lemonade, and take advantage of stray breezes and ceiling fans.
I’m not a transplant. These aren’t mountain summers or Maine summers I’m talking about. I’m a Carolina girl from hot, humid Fayetteville. The world might be a little warmer, but we didn’t lack for 90 degree temperatures.
Life went on into the 80’s and I lived in unairconditioned dorms and spent plenty of time outside. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve spent more and more time inside in the summer to the point where even an afternoon in the mid 80s feels too hot outside unless I’m spending it in the water. I rarely open the windows and catch the breeze, or sit on the porch holding an icy glass to my forehead.
A day in the 90s? Hmmm, we’d better go to the movies or the library.
I’ve gotten wimpified.
But, as the Washington Post article mentions, there are costs to my wimpification.
First, air conditioners use a lot of energy and that costs money. The article said about 5% of your total home energy usage, but it seems like our energy costs are a lot more than 5% higher in summer than in spring and fall. Of course, we probably do more energy intensive activities too: watching TV and playing video games instead of bonfires and other outdoor activities. I know it reduces my gas mileage as well.
Second, when we spend more time inside, we are less social. We’re closed up in our houses instead of interacting with our neighbors.
We’re also less active and probably less healthy, trapped inside with our germs all day.
The Problem With Turning Off Air Conditioning
So with all those negatives, maybe I should just turn the AC off, at least most of the time. I should ride around with the windows down in my car, open the windows in the house and turn on the fans, dress lightly or not at all, and reset my heat tolerance.
I mean, that’s what we do on vacation. When we went to the beach, we turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows and doors, enjoying the sounds of the surf and the cool ocean breezes. We spent our days on the beach or the porch. When we visit my dad’s lake house, we open the place up and turn on the fans, and spend the day at the end of the pier. If I can go AC-less on vacation, I can do it at home, right?
Only, I don’t think it’s that easy.
Our house has small windows with no screens, and doesn’t let in the breeze easily. There’s no easy water to cool off in, unless I take multiple showers a day. And when we go elsewhere, we have to shiver in the 72 degree temperatures most businesses favor already. If I roll down the windows in the car, I risk bad air (caused in part by all that energy being generated to power air conditioning.)
Plus, well, electronics don’t take well to all of that humidity.
It seems a vicious circle. My need for air conditioning rises as others use more of it. The more I use it, the more I need it.
The Compromise? Notch It Down
So I don’t think I can easily live without air conditioning. Not here, not now. Life in a central North Carolina summer is pretty darn uncomfortable without AC, as we found out last summer when ours died for a week. (If I ever get that beach front cottage, I’ll be happy to reconsider.)
But we do try to notch the temperature up a little and notch the AC down. We leave the temp at 78-79 most of the time and dress in shorts and “bear’s feet.” We take the comforter off the bed and turn on fans. Jon opens the sliding glass door (albeit with the screen door shut) in the mornings, and tries to get just a bit more fresh air in the house. We cook on the grill or in the slow cooker and stay hydrated.
Even riding around in the car, we’ve been trying a bit more fresh air than air conditioning. We’ve moved errands to the morning or evening. Jon wants to get that gas mileage up, and that’s one of the ways we’ve been working on it.
Our goal is to reduce our use of air conditioning as much as possible while staying comfortable.
I’m glad I read the article. Maybe there’s more I can do to enjoy cool mornings and evening breezes and to reconnect with the outside world even as the temperature soars. I probably need to rebuild the heat tolerance of my youth.
But give up air conditioning entirely? Probably not.
Would you (or do you) live without air conditioning? What do you think about the social and environmental costs of staying cool?