Plenty of practical ways to use less air conditioning
Troy Media – by Benjamin Gillies
Every summer as the mercury rises, the debate over air conditioning heats up. Critics of A/C units claim they waste energy and actually create more heat than cool – exacerbating the problem they are meant to fix. Proponents of the cold stuff, on the other hand, argue the environmentally-unfriendly aspects of air conditioning are overblown; in fact, more carbon emissions are created heating a house than cooling it.
Supporters are correct in this assertion – Wired magazine reports heating a house in the U.S. Northeast emits 13,000 pounds of CO2 annually, while cooling a similar dwelling in Phoenix produces only 900 pounds of carbon a year in energy output – but just because it is not the largest energy consumer does not let air conditioning entirely off the hook.
As the New York Times points out, the coolant gases used in A/C units (called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs) have a warming effect that, pound for pound, is 2,100 times worse than carbon dioxide. In fact, scientists calculate that if all air conditioning devices entering the world market in the next few decades continue to use these gases, they will be responsible for up to 27 per cent of global warming by mid century.
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As well, a study undertaken in France found people working in air-conditioned offices were almost 2.5 times more likely to suffer asthma attacks, chest tightness, and other respiratory infections than those in naturally-ventilated buildings, thanks to the bacteria and fungi spread by recycled air.
It would be unrealistic to think air conditioning is going away anytime soon, but it is worth looking at ways to reduce demand in order to beneficially save money and cut energy consumption.
In many office buildings, the A/C has been set so low to keep men in suits comfortable that female employees bring sweaters to stay warm. While it would not be practical in all workplaces (like where short-sleeve shirts are a safety hazard), many businesses could relax their dress code in the peak of summer so that employees can avoid overheating without being forced to layer up when going to work. Where possible, it may also be worth giving greater control of the thermostat to office staff, instead of having temperature control centralized in the building.
At home, incorporating passive cooling measures is an affordable approach to beating the heat. Because warm air rises, installing an skylight that can be opened (often less expensive than an A/C unit for a single room) is an incredibly effective way to let heat escape while keeping colder air inside the house. Opening both skylights and lower-level windows creates an upward movement of air that not only cools down the building, but also improves air quality by flushing out moisture, odours, and pollutants.
On an active level, home and business owners can invest in modern thermostats to better regulate their heating and cooling needs. While there are ‘switch off’ campaigns for lights, there are few similar pushes for air conditioning – in no small part because thermostats have traditionally been onerously confusing to program.
Last year, however, a company called Nest Labs released a device specifically designed to easily and efficiently cut back on wasteful climate control. The thermostat learns past temperature settings and uses that information to adjust the temperature on its own in the future. So, for example, homeowners do not need to keep the A/C on when at work; for a few days they can just turn it up (from their phone!) as they head home, and the thermostat will recognize this pattern and automatically start turning it off in the mornings and back on at the end of the day.
As is so often the case when it comes to reducing energy consumption, one integral aspect of curbing A/C use is recognizing the short-term/long-term financial tradeoff. The Nest thermostat, for instance, does cost more up front than a regular one, but will pay for itself within a few years and can ultimately shave up to 30 per cent off a utility bill.
With heating and cooling accounting for over half of all energy used in the typical North American home though, finding ways of reducing this demand can save homeowners hundreds of dollars a year while easing the pressure on a planet already feeling the heat from our desire to stay cool.
Troy Media Columnist Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as an urban development consultant in Winnipeg.