Finding the Off Switch

I’m of two minds when it comes to air conditioning. At work, I set my air conditioner thermostat to 75 or 76 degrees. Since my office is compact, that setting keeps me cool and able to concentrate all day long. Except on the hottest days of summer, my workplace is a little box of bliss.

When I’m at home in my apartment, however, and not trying to finish a list of tasks with deadlines, I prefer to open windows each morning and night to catch any cool air or breeze. While in winter I follow the light around, moving from room to room, in summer I draw shades over the windows to block the sun and extreme afternoon heat and move toward the shadier backside as the day progresses. Sometimes I sit outdoors in a park to read under a shade tree. Sometimes I tie a handkerchief with a couple of ice cubes in it around my neck to cool myself off (yes it drips), a trick I learned in Atlanta years ago. I take a cold minute-long shower after I come in from outdoors sometimes, too. I’m hot-blooded.


But until it is hot—around 90 degrees—I prefer a good fan to circulate the air. Air conditioners are noisy, costly, have a slightly stale smell and poison the atmosphere. Of course, people differ in their preferences and tolerances regarding temperature. And where one lives has much to do with heating and cooling—I grew up in Phoenix. Summertime is the season to think about air conditioning.

Here’s a factoid: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, air conditioners use a quarter of all the electricity consumed in U.S. homes. What’s the environmental cost? The electricity used by an average single-family household emits almost 2 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Bringing in the Fans” by Michael Tortorello, noted that fans consume only a fraction of the energy that air conditioners do and release none of the harmful carbon dioxide. As I read on, this statistic zoomed off the page: “The E.I.A. has found that fewer than 4 percent of households with central air turn it off during the workday when no one is home.”

Ordinarily a thermostat automatically turns off (or turns down) the temperature at a set time, and turns it on again, say, 30 minutes before the family returns from work/school. Is it true that when no one is home, 96+ percent of households keep their air conditioner on anyway? I wonder what the national bill is for that. Why do it? To keep the parakeet cool? the cat? Because the thermostat is broken? I was stunned.

Then I grew cynical, wondering if the national common sense deficit were worse than the federal deficit, and in more urgent need of attention.

Do we need billboards and digital banners, public service announcements on radio and TV, and celebrity videos urging us to turn off the air conditioner when we’re not at home? Perhaps. If a public education campaign could reduce the national energy bill by even 1 percent, conservation of that sort could be helpful. It wouldn’t require Congress to do anything. Or a federal program or stimulus. It saves on energy bills and saves the environment. What practical ideas could remedy this needless squandering of energy? If you have a serious suggestion, please respond.

Not many problems in life can be fixed simply with the flick of a switch. But this one could.


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Martin Gallagher
7 years 7 months ago
Many utilities increase electricity charges during the daytime. You can get a programmable thermostat for ~$20.  Why anyone would want to waste money on needlessly high utility bills is beyond me.
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 7 months ago
It's amazing how people take for granted the whole infrastructure including the energy infrastructure.  It's a gift to be respected and conserved.  But decades of environmental nagging haven't made much of a dent.  Maybe it's the scientific ignorance.  It's all magic and it all arrives from the land of Oz if you have the enchanted greenbacks to pay for it.   And it will just keep coming out of that infinite well.
7 years 7 months ago
Not to sound like a cranky pants, but we don't seem to have the same concern about a furnace that is running during the winter time as we do for air conditioning in th summer time. 
I agree wholeheartedly with wise stewardship of resources - both in summer and in winter. Personally, I love when we have an invasion of cool, dry Canadian air here in southeast Michigan, in summer or in winter.  Both call me to conscious use of energy.  In our house, during the days of summer, when no one is home, the temp on the AC is set at 76, and that is when it is being used.  It has to be hot, and humid, for the AC to come on - and only after all the blinds on the eastern and southern parts of the house have been drawn before the sun rises in the morning.  In the winter, during the day the thermostat is set at about 60 during the day.  We count on some passive solar heat - when the sun is shining, and the blinds are wide open to keep the house warm.  For winter nights though, the thermostat is turned down to 56 - flannel sheets and a couple of golden retrievers keep us comfortable during the night.  Our AC is on a separate meter, which allows the electric company to turn off the electricity to the AC during the hotter days for 10-15 minutes each hour.  As such, that electicity comes at a cheaper rate, too.
I wonder though, why do we turn a blind eye to providing heat in the winter time?  Are there things we can do to conserve heat and energy in the winter?  Why does heating in the winter take a preference over cooling during the summer?  Heat stroke in the summer, freezing in the winter, seem like variations on the same theme.
I'm wondering what others think?  Tom Kay.
7 years 7 months ago
We personally pay up to six times as much ratewise for electricity during week day days, 10 AM to 10 PM as we do during the other times.  I am not sure if Con Ed is offering it anymore.  As a consequence we rarely run the air conditioning during the day except in our office.  We have a home business.  It has saved us a lot of money over the years as clothes dryers and dishwashers don't come on till after 10PM.

I listened to a radio show a couple weeks ago that interviewed people from a British company.  There will be a new service which is testing in Philadelphia.  The British firm has developed a detector that can sense heat loss in the winter by pointing the sensor at the house as a van drives by and show specifically where a house is leaking heat.  I assume it could be done for the summer to see where the house is leaking cold air.  The idea is to sell insulation and energy efficient windows.  This may be a green job that pays off.

From Wikipedia

''HeatSeekers was launched in Autumn 2008 by Energy Saving Partnership - a sister company to Mark Group. It gathers thermal images of homes showing where heat is being lost, therefore identifying where insulation could be usefully installed. HeatSeekers works with the agreement of local authorities to image houses and its vehicles can gather up to 1,000 images every hour.'' 
Todd Flowerday
7 years 7 months ago
78day /82 night in the summer when someone's home. 60/55 in the winter. Our programmable thermostat was $15.

Summer comfort is a matter of habit. 80 degrees is not really uncomfortable. And besides, the east view out the window is the nicest in the afternoon.

David does have a point. But many people, either for economic or green reasons already pare down their lives. He's not going to catch too many Greens in mypocrisy on this one.
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 7 months ago
David Smith, I agree with your outline as a goal but why so binary, why such all or nothing thinking?  Many people partially comply with your outline.  If everyone did such a partial compliance, the impact would be enormous.  I would love to take a bike to local venues but there are no bike paths and they give driving priveleges to idiots and nutcakes and I am not suicidal.  It's anti-Catholic.  Personal behaviour is not enough.  It will take restructuring our infrastructure layout.  I am now on my second hybrid since I realized that good men were being sent to battle for oil. I carpool to work.  If everyone on route 80 did so, they'd have a smooth commute all the way to New York. I have central air (heat pump) which I use rarely.  I hope to start a compost pile this summer. I can't heat one room at a time because it isn't physically possible but I do keep the temperature at 60F in the winter except when I'm sick. I hope to eventually build and move into a monolithic dome house with less square feet, which should reduce my heating and cooling needs by 75%.  Actually, as an engineer, I believe that a very comfortable existence and coexistence with nature is quite attainable.  Meeting the challenge of it can be fun and interesting.  It doesn't have to be so serious.
Martin Gallagher
7 years 7 months ago
In the South, most public buildings and many private ones (including many homes) are changing to geothermal heat pumps to give substantial energy savings in both the winter and the summer.  Of course in the North, you would probably also need a backup furnace for those sub-20F nights.  It would still use substantially less energy and save the owners $$ (typically a 5 year payback).  Hopefully, it will catch on.
7 years 7 months ago
''I didn't realize that utilities charged more for daytime use and I wonder if others realize it. ''

You have to opt into a special program to do this and I am not sure if Con Ed is offering it anymore to new customers.  We did it over 20 years ago.  Our rates vary by time of year and by time of day.  They have supply rates and delivery rates.  For example, in the summer we get charged twice as much for peak as off peak for supply.  They then add a delivery charge which varies substantially by time of day.  Peak delivery costs are 14 times off peak costs.  

So if we dry clothes it cost 4 1/2 times more in peak suppy and delivery charges than if done during off peak.  You quickly learn to turn the air conditioning off anywhere except where we are working during the day as well as lights.  The biggest energy drop came when we started using CDFs as we saw a sharp drop in electric usage especially during the winter.

There is potentially another huge energy saving idea out there.  That is power meter monitors.  A device is put on your electric meter and it sends a signal to a monitoring station in the house.  It provides the wattage usage at any moment and if you put on a light, the oven, the air conditioner it then tell you the difference and how much additional cost that particular device is costing you.  I have been bugging my electrician about installing one.  Here is a link if any technical people out there want to comment.
Liam Richardson
7 years 7 months ago
Well, I think one has to consider how long it takes to cool down a space if it's not kept somewhat cooler and drier during the day, because external heat happens to be at its max at the time of day when people come home (the opposite effect is true with winter cold, making it easier to leave heat down in the daytime), and it can take a lot more energy than if you kept the AC on, but at a somewhat higher temperature, during the day. 

I work from home. During the winter, I keep my my home at about 58-60F, and wear sweaters.

However, I cannot get to sleep in ambient temperatures over 72F, else I sweat terribly, and sleep is a serious medical issue for me; my body give off so much heat that it raises the temperature of the bed by 10+ degrees F over a period of hours. So I like to keep my bedroom at 65F (it takes a few hours to cool the air in the bed itself, not just the room). And, I keep my office and living room around mid-70s; if the temp is much higher, my core body temperature is that much more elevated when I go to bed.

So, can we please avoid generalizations that merely make us feel good about being Right-Thinking People(TM)? Thanks.



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