Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity
The new Washington
Post Weather website
Jump to CWG's
Latest Full Forecast
Outside now? Radar, temps
and more: Weather Wall
Follow us on Twitter (@capitalweather) and become a fan on Facebook
Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 08/19/2009

To A/C or Not to A/C? That is the Question.

By Ann Posegate

Wx and the City

* D.C. Before A/C: A Weather Story | Full Forecast | UnitedCast *
* Tropical Storm Danny | Hurricane Tracking Center | Weather Wall *

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

From my observations, Washingtonians, like many Americans, are uncomfortable being uncomfortable. Take the new trend of "glamping" (glamour + camping), for example, or the prolific use of colder-than-necessary air conditioning (A/C) settings in buildings throughout the city.

As typical August heat and humidity have been working their way into our daily schedules again recently, I've been wondering what D.C. was like before A/C became commonplace. What was it like to work, sleep, exercise and travel without the comforting and coveted room temperature? And what about people even today who don't have access to A/C or choose not to use it? Do they ever get to the point of feeling comfortable outdoors, at least in the shade? Is a person's body stronger and more resilient if it's adapted to the weather?

I myself have felt less resilient to the elements since moving to the District and spending a lot of time in air-conditioned office and apartment buildings, which brings me to the following question.

Keep reading for more on A/C, including money-saving and environmentally friendly tips...

We should feel lucky to have the ability to control the temperatures in our cars, homes and offices with the push of a button. Since the modern A/C was invented in the early 1900s, it has no doubt prevented countless heat-related injuries. (And President James Garfield would have been much more comfortable and saved half a million pounds of ice in the two months before his death if he had had an A/C unit.)

I'm not against air conditioning. In fact, as an environmentally conscious consumer, I still admit to having indulged in A/C over the past few weeks. But one thing is for sure: Any device that uses energy takes a toll on the environment and our checkbooks. Even with the A/C turned on, though, there are tips for saving energy and money this summer, such as:

--Setting the thermostat to your desired temperature rather than to a lower temperature than is necessary;
--Turning the unit to a higher temperature or off when you're not home;
--Choosing an ENERGY STAR product; and
--Making sure your A/C unit is the appropriate size for your room or home.

Saving energy is especially important on cooling-degree days.

Also keep your eyes open for more energy-efficient (and environmentally friendly) A/C systems in cars. Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are testing these units, seeing as though passenger vehicles in the United States use 7 billion gallons of gasoline a year running their air conditioners.

Do you use A/C or not, and why? Let us know by commenting below.

By Ann Posegate  | August 19, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Posegate, Wx and the City  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Forecast: Light at End of Hot & Humid Tunnel?
Next: PM Update: Showers and Storms Into Evening


It is not the high temperatures but the humidity. I am in Provence right now and it is nearly 100 degrees in the sun but comfortable in the shade and indoors (no A/C) because it is DRY here. I think Washingtonians would tolerate the heat much better if we could dehumidify rather than cool our houses....

Posted by: robinshuster | August 19, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Robin, I think the humidity is more of an offender than heat. I hate that sticky, stuffy feeling of humid air, even when it's 75F.

I also run the A/C because the way my apartment is designed there's no cross flow. If I could open windows and get a nice breeze then I'd run the A/C a lot less.

That being said, I can live without it, but I'm much crankier.

Posted by: ana_b | August 19, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I spent a few days in the Mojave Desert, and yes, it was EXTREMELY dry heat. But we still had to adopt our daily routines to the environment. IMHO before AC became widely available, society moved much slower and people seem to have had more patience and stoicism than they do now.

Posted by: VikingRider | August 19, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

When I was growing up, air conditioning was optional (not standard) in many cars. My dad never opted to pay extra to get a car with air conditioning so I remember many summer trips having to peel away my sweaty clothes that were stuck to my body. Nowadays, it seems like everyone drives around in a bubble... you don't see too many windows down. My dad is also pretty frugal with the home AC. In addition to lower electric bills, his AC unit lasted for 31 years before finally giving out this summer.

At the beginning of the summer, I was enthusiastic about not using the AC at home and we made it through the April heat wave without AC but have been using it a lot lately. Once the streak ended, I'm not as motivated to avoid using the AC.

That's a good tip about turning up the thermostat when no one's home; you can just use your memory rather than a programmable thermostat. Interestingly, with some heat pumps, they say not to turn the thermostat down during the day in the winter because it can use more energy to heat the home back up.

Another tip is to go someplace cool when it's hot. Last Sunday, my wife and I cooled off in a swimming hole at Overall Run.

Posted by: spgass1 | August 19, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse

@robinshuster & ana_b -- I agree. Another perk to A/C is the drying effect.

@VikingRider -- True, people do seem to move slower in the heat. Also, I spent much of my childhood in Phoenix and I've always been amazed at the shear number of people in that sprawling desert city, despite the insanely hot summer temperatures (and lack of a sustainable water supply). Affordable and accessible A/C is largely responsible for the growth in AZ and other southern states. Still, residents do need to adapt daily routines to the heat, such as not exercising in the midday.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

As someone who has had heat exhaustion issues, I think of air conditioning as a health necessity. It is dangerous to be overheated, so air conditioning is not just about comfort, but safety as well.

Posted by: jn22 | August 19, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

One neat alternative for hot and dry regions is an evaporative cooler. This system takes advantage of the cooling effect of evaporation but uses much less energy. My family had one of these systems in our house in Phoenix when I was younger. Of course, we also had an A/C as backup for those 110-120 degree days. Unfortunately, these don't work well in humid climates like ours, though; the air is much too saturated and evaporation does not happen quickly enough.

@jn22 -- Agreed.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and here is more insight into what Washingtonians did before A/C: the city essentially shut down in August and they escaped to the countryside!

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I hate dry air, although I agree Washington (or any other city near water) can be 'over the top' when it comes to humidity. If I'm in A/C all the time, I have to take the same care of my sinuses and skin that I do when constantly exposed to winter's dry heat indoors.

@VikingRider - I agree with you, and I think that increased use of A/C has been both cause and effect of the shift to a societal pattern which does not acknowledge seasons, except in terms of recreation. Areas like the mid-Atlantic coast have a real problem here, since in the summer we would need the same sort of accomodation (different business hours, for one) that lets workers in South America and North Africa keep going in the summer, but then we have 3 seasons where the weather is largely irrelevant to doing the job.

Posted by: fsd50 | August 19, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Ann, the link is working for me.

Posted by: spgass1 | August 19, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I have my AC set at 78 and people think I'm nuts for having it set that high.

Posted by: hereandnow1 | August 19, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

@spgass1 - Here's the link.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I tend to set my A/C on the energy-conserving mode.

Daytime: 80F

Morning/evening: 75F

Bedtime: 70F

This seems to work well. It wasn't running so often in June and July, though.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | August 19, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to be a bit of a grump, but what's the point of this discussion? I daresay most American cities would still be sleepy backwaters if not for A/C (including DC). How would modern office buildings function in 90+ degree days in the summer without A/C?

In my office building, the A/C is turned off on the weekends. People complain every Monday in the summer that it's too hot, because it takes the building a day just to cool down. This is a modern Class A building in the West End of DC, built in the 90s.

So, I guess it's fun to philosophize about AC and the merits/demerits, but people are so used to AC and our culture and communities are built around it, so good luck changing things.

Posted by: jay4811 | August 19, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

My dad, who grew up in Houston (no slouch in the heat/humidity stakes), told me that they made something called a "swamp box." Basically, you take a pan full of water and place it in front of a box fan. The theory is that the air from the fan becomes cooler when it passes over the water. I suppose when you're desperate, you'll take what you can get!

Posted by: tamerlane | August 19, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

As someone with bad allergies, having the air be filtered before it is blown through the house is as important to me as the temperature.

FYI - for the issue with the heat pump that is mainly for dramatic changes in heating - because then the electrical resistance (very energy inefficient)heat kicks in. If you buy the correct type of programmable thermostat it will step the changes for you and you don't waste energy.

Posted by: mom_of_1 | August 19, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

@ana_b and others, anyone have thoughts on the preference in terms of lower the a/c during the day vs. turn it off completely? Which way is better, cheaper?

I too live in an modern apartment with very little cross-ventilation potential, so I must use A/C in the summer, more than I'd like.

Posted by: JackTrade | August 19, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

As much as I'd like just thinking snow would suffice for staying cool, I and family find AC a must.

On hot days we keep the AC set at 78. But, on relatively cool days and/or nights - but still very humid (dew points > 65) - it's necessary to turn down the AC to the lower 70's or so to keep the humidity at comfortable levels.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Ann beat me to the answer to her own question: what was DC like before A/C? The answer: empty! I know that at least the lawmakers and their staff were leaving DC when August hit even back in the early 1800s. So much for the "back in my day we gutted it out..." stuff!

One reminder I can throw out there is that you save your A/C a lot of work (and therefore energy, money and the environment) by keeping curtains and blinds closed in rooms during the day where (and when) you are not wanting the natural light. Leaving your patio door curtain open with the hot afternoon sun streaming in is a killer.

In fact, if you're of a mind to deal with artificial light rather than the sun, having that curtain shut and actually *using* compact fluorescent lighting I bet uses less electricity than forcing your A/C to fight the solar heating effect.

Of course, this mostly applies when you're not at home or in the other end of your house. Obviously the reason for having windows is to enjoy the sun - but it's much less costly to do so in the shoulder seasons than the hot summer.

Posted by: B2O2 | August 19, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Growing up in Baltimore, that we had a wonderful attic fans sucked the air through the house. It had a cooling effect. I remember we'd take our baths and lay down immediately. Our parents would remind us to lay still and feel that wonderful breeze blowing over our damp bodies. Now it seems the only choice is being sealed in a cool or hot box. I miss the attic fan.

Posted by: Abela | August 19, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

@JackTrade - According to the Alliance to Save Energy, there is a "persistent myth that an air conditioner must work harder to recool a warm house than it does to maintain a cool temperature."

Kansas State University Engineering Extension recommends: "If gone for four hours or more, more energy will be saved by turning off the air conditioner or turning up the thermostat."

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I have two, portable dehumidifiers but am reluctant to use them in my old house for fear that their heat exhaust will be counterproductive in this current heat wave. Any ideas on what to do?

FYI before AC, people left most east coast cities for the mountains or the sea. But I also know that houses built in the 19th. century were built to withstand heat and cold. They had foot thick walls, preferrably stone or brick, double windows,sometimes with screens, awnings over all windows, and wide proches. They also had high ceilings and plaanted trees for maximum shade. Now why can't builders go back to the future and build houses that are adapted to the local climate?

Posted by: VikingRider | August 19, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

@ VikingRider -- The Alliance also recommends: "Avoid running a dehumidifier at the same time as the A/C. The dehumidifier will increase the cooling load and force the air conditioner to work harder." Air conditioners not only cool the air, but also dehumidify it. I suppose an exception to this might be if there is a mold/mildew situation in the room (such as in a furnished basement) and you need to dry it as much as possible.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Ann...appreciate the links. That's what I've been doing (turning it off while away during the day), so glad to know that's the right approach.

Posted by: JackTrade | August 19, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Okay, I'll play and answer this question. I am a native washingtonian: born and raised in the city of Washington, D.C. I am 42 and the house I grew up in did not have central air conditioning. Older houses ( my house was one built about 100 years ago) had lots of windows and transoms to circulate the air. We spent a lot of time in front of fans, with a cold glass of iced tea. When I got a bit older my parents got a few room air conditioners that only provided cool air for the room they were in. None of us kids had any a/c in our bedroom. We would take cold showers or baths before bed and pull the shades.

I think the summers aren't as bad here as they used to be but maybe its because now we have air conditioning and you can escape it.

Posted by: soleil2000 | August 19, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

I also wanted to add that maybe Congress and federal workers deserted DC in the heat of August but those of us who grew up here just spent a lot of time at neighborhood pools and when we were lucky at the movie theater.

Posted by: soleil2000 | August 19, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

I am part of the A/C crowd.

Lived in the desert of So Cal for 13 years and though it was a dry heat it was still very hot -- near 100 or + 3 mo a year. A/C was a constant. After, was in N TX near Dallas, a little cooler summers but much more humidity. A/C always on. The decade in CT was toughest because we lived in the hills and our house had no A/C. Max temps any given year might have only hit the mid 90s but it happened enough and the house would get within a few degrees of outside temps. Too much. In D.C. I could not imagine living without it during most summers, though it has gotten some breaks this year.

Posted by: Ian-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 5:35 PM | Report abuse

If you run some indoor electric fans, that can add to the cooling effect and lessen (but not eliminate) the need for A/C.

Also, no matter what you do, the upper floors of the house will almost always be warmer than the downstairs or basement, especially upper-rooms that face west into the afternoon sun.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | August 19, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

I lived in this area, as a kid, without A/C, back in the 1960's (we didn't get it until 1966). I was young enough to be able to take it, but the heat and humidity here drove my mother nuts.

I know some people, even with A/C, who have moved away from this area simply BECAUSE of the mugginess in the summer, and for no other reason. They usually went west of the Mississippi to get into drier climates.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | August 19, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

I love air conditioning.

As a graduate student in central Illinois, where it is even hotter and more humid than here (and for a longer summer), I could not afford air conditioning. I can still remember lying in bed in a pool of sweat, thinking that, someday, the fruits of my labor would pay off and I would be able to run the air conditioning in my home and car as much as I needed to be comfortable.

And that's precisely what I do. I can afford air conditioning, and I'm going to use it. That's what my money is for.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | August 19, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for all the comments! Really interesting stories and tips.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 19, 2009 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Yeah I love air conditioning but I have to say I'm more sensitive and will be the first to shiver when the ac is on too much. It's like that at my place I'm staying in now. The two roommates love to have the ac running non stop so I usually just shut the vents in my room and hunker down after work.

Now a days it seems that homes are designed so that an ac is essential no matter what. I remember one weekend the ac broke down. It was only 70 degrees outside but still so hot in my room and opening windows did nothing. Those days I wound up hanging outside more simply because it was cooler outside than inside.

Posted by: TerrenceM | August 20, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2012 The Washington Post Company