AC DC: An Uncomfortable Truth about Air Conditioning

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Author Stan Cox Explores Some Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (Interview)
Is it me or is it getting hot in here?
by Mickey Z.
Stan Cox didn't write Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) on a whim. He's thought about, written about, and investigated these issues for decades. He explains:

"My concerns about air-conditioning built up over about the past twenty years, when I would find myself in neighborhoods—in Florida, Georgia, Kansas—in summer, and would find the yards, sidewalks, and parks devoid of all human life.
 
"It was a sharp contrast to the scene when I was growing up in Georgia, and neighbors, especially kids, would spend all day outdoors, together, all summer long. At the same time that the isolating effect of air-conditioning was becoming apparent to me (and, I assume, to others), we were all becoming aware of the threat of global warming. Here, air-conditioning seemed to play a pivotal role, since with hotter weather, we would be relying even more on air-conditioning, which, through increased fossil fuel and refrigerant use, would accelerate warming, creating even greater demand for air conditioning."
 
[For complete article reference links, please see source at Planet Green here.]


 
 
WATCH VIDEO: G-Word Online Clips: DIY Air Condition
Some of What I Learned from "Losing Our Cool"

    * In the United States, electricity usage for residential air-conditioning has doubled in just twelve years.
    * Air-conditioning is approaching 20 percent of year-round electricity consumption by U.S. homes, the highest percentage in history.
    * With rising temperatures, global demand for air-conditioning is projected to rise 65 to 72 percent in the next four decades.
    * Air-conditioning has been shown to help people in northern cities survive severe heat waves, but it has also been blamed for causing infections and increasing the rates of allergy, asthma, and obesity.
    * Air-conditioning, along with electronic entertainment and other technologies, is responsible for Americans spending more time indoors than ever before.
    * Six out of every seven gallons of diesel fuel U.S. forces haul into Iraq and Afghanistan are used to run air-conditioning.


My Conversation With Stan Cox

Planet Green: Was there a particular catalyst to you writing this book on this topic? Stan Cox: I wrote a couple of articles on the subject in 2006, and then, I think, I made the decision to write a book when, in response to the articles, a friend told me, “Look, Stan, you’re right about all that, but why don’t you take on some other issue? People are too attached to air-conditioning. You’ll never get them to change.” I interpreted that as a challenge of sorts. And now I’m seeing that there really is widespread concern about what air-conditioning is doing to us, in many ways. PG: Since aiming for more energy efficiency might only lead to more air conditioners, what other steps can be taken in the immediate future? What did you find out about greener design, green roofs, etc.? SC: I’ll focus on the home indoor climate here. In working on the final chapter, I learned a lot about comfort technologies that have been or could be used. I believe in giving priority to approaches that do not involve new investment in equipment or construction. Why shell out a lot of money for a newfangled technology when there is a lot to be done with what we have (and with the added benefits of fresh air, more human interaction, and possibly better health)?

PG: Like what?

SC: We should think more in terms of people-cooling than of house-cooling. I am a big fan of fans, which allow us to be comfortable at much higher temperature and humidity levels. A whole-house exhaust fan can quickly replace warm indoor air with cooler evening air. In dry climates, evaporative (“swamp”) coolers are a well-proven way to stay cool. We should get used to changing location according to temperature and time of day.
 
If the house is not air-conditioned, a screen porch in the early evening will seem a lot cooler. (It’s effect that was put this way by an interview subject in a study on comfort published in the 1990s: “We don’t use the air-conditioner because it makes it too hot outside.”) When it’s really hot, the best geothermal cooling method is to go down to the basement if you have one. It’s much easier and less energy-intensive to stay cool in a basement, even if it’s being air-conditioned. A room unit that cools only a basement or other room can be at the ready when needed, and a lot less wasteful than keeping three thousand square feet of air and structure twenty degrees cooler than the outdoors twenty-four hours a day (often with the house uninhabited for much of the day). The more vegetation and shade around the house, the better; the most effective place to have vegetation is on the roof, but that’s not feasible for most of us. A light-colored roof helps, but in a climate with cold winters, it can reflect energy that otherwise would warm the house.

PG: Is there a common thread in these ideas?

SC: In all of the above strategies and others, the most important systems requiring adjustment are ourselves. The “adaptive model of comfort”, based on data from research done around the world, says that the range of temperatures that we find desirable is not fixed; it depends on the range of indoor and outdoor temperatures we have been experiencing over previous days and weeks. Living with greater thermal variety makes us more tolerant of thermal variety. We even start enjoying it. But in the book, I do discuss some innovative lower-energy comfort technologies: building for enhanced natural ventilation, more shading, and greater thermal mass where needed; ground-source methods that use the deep soil to extract heat from a building; solar-driven dehumidifying ‘wheels’; fully solar ‘absorption’ cooling systems; wind towers; and others.

PG: What surprised you most while researching this book?

SC: I had thought of America as having been an air-conditioned nation for most of my adult life. So the very rapid escalation of energy use for cooling in recent years came as a big surprise to me. In just twelve years, from 1993 to 2005—a period in which the country’s population increased about 14 percent—electricity consumption for residential air-conditioning doubled. That was partly because of increased house size and construction of more houses with central air, but people were also just running the air a lot more.
 
While efficiency of home air-conditioners was increasing 28 percent during that period, the amount of energy consumed to cool the average air-conditioned home went up 37 percent! I was also shocked when I calculated that in just eight years, 1995 to 2003, energy used to cool shopping malls increased 77 percent. It took a massive economic bust to halt that growth, at least temporarily. In total, this country used as much electricity just for air-conditioning last year as it used for all purposes in the year I was born, 1955.
 
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but was, at the rapidity with which the rest of the world is taking up the cooling habit. Not long ago, air-conditioned cars were rare in Europe; now, most new cars have air, and 95 percent are expected to have it by 2020. Mobile air-conditioning has been cited as the chief reason that the European Union has failed to meet its Kyoto emissions targets. And I was astonished to learn last year while I was in India that 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air-conditioning.
 
This is a country in which only 1 to 2 percent of households have air-conditioners and probably 95 percent of people can never expect to have one. Nevertheless, residential and commercial use of air-conditioning is skyrocketing in India and all over Asia. In 2020, electricity use for cooling in India is expected to be twelve times what it was in 2005. It’s projected that if they can ensure that high-efficiency A/C equipment is deployed, consumption will increase “only” eleven-fold!

PG: Did you sit in an air conditioned room while writing this book?

SC: No, I made sure not to do that! The house in Kansas where which my wife and I have lived for ten years has a central air unit, and we run it for one day each year, to be sure it’s in good working order. For the first couple of months of writing the book, I was in India at my wife’s family home; I’ve lived through some past summers in India without air-conditioning; happily, this time, we were there in the less hot part of the year. The deadline to finish the manuscript was last August 1, and writing on this subject through the Kansas summer had a way of focusing the mind.

PG: What can Planet Green readers do—individually and collectively—to play a positive role in the re-shaping of our "air conditioned world"?

SC: I really did try to avoid making it a book about personal lifestyles; rather, I stress that we’ve now built air-conditioning into the structure of society, and we’ll have to be very creative, using old and new ideas, to work our way out of it, together. That said, we do always need to remind ourselves that comfort can’t be manufactured. We need to spend less time trying to create a comfortable environment and more time appreciating and becoming comfortable with whatever environment we happen to be in. Rather than closing up and turning on the air on the first warm day, we should experiment with other strategies.
 
Here in central Kansas, the high temperature was 97 yesterday. Today, while it was still hot in the sun, temperatures had moderated. In late afternoon inside the house, it felt very pleasant. I took a thermometer into the living room, and it was 84 degrees, with a breeze coming in through the window. In contrast, an air-conditioned house at 84 feels hot and stifling. Now if we had used air-conditioning yesterday and kept the house shut up today, as did virtually everyone else in this city, we’d be wasting energy and missing out on very comfortable fresh air. Back in early May, with highs in the 70s, we were walking around the neighborhood and noticed many central air units already running.
 
Leaving the house shut up year-round, the only switch being between heat and air-conditioning, generates a lot of unnecessary emissions. That’s more easily dealt with at home than it is in the world of work and commerce. Many of our workplaces would be almost uninhabitable without mechanical climate control. A good start there might be a general rebellion against overcooling. There is a common belief that employees work harder and customers spend more when it’s extra-chilly. But a lot of people are getting tired of having to take sweaters to work or the supermarket in summer and not being able to open a window at work on a beautiful spring day.  
 

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