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.