Why One Professor Says Air Conditioning Is Like Heroin

The United States has an “addiction to air conditioning,” Gail Brager, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, told public radio’s John Hockenberry earlier this month.

That characterization refers not only to high consumption — though, indeed, air conditioning accounts for the greatest residential use of electricity in the U.S., coming in at 19% — but also patterns of use. “Air conditioning, she says, is like heroin,” Hockenberry summarized for Brager. “It takes more and more to give you that original feeling of comfort.”

Studies show that this so-called addiction may have serious health effects.

One Berkeley study found that people whose environments were cooled to 73 degrees or below suffered from more headaches, were more fatigued, and had more difficulty concentrating than people in slightly warmer buildings.

And, of course, increased levels of air conditioning have economic impacts as well. The General Services Administration has estimated that raising the thermostats in federal buildings by just two degrees in the summertime could save the country $1.87 million annually.

Research done at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business earlier this year found that rising global incomes are allowing more and more people to air condition their spaces — and that widespread air conditioning is placing stress on energy prices, public infrastructure and the environment.

Lowering the Costs of AC
Even if you’re not willing to give up your air conditioning altogether, there are numerous ways to be more responsible and sustainable (not to mention economical) in its use. Here’s what the experts recommend:

  • Upgrade Your AC Technology
    Some AC technology is simply better than others. High-efficiency units can allow you to cut down on energy usage without sacrificing comfort, and programmable thermostats can curb the impulse to keep turning the temperature lower and lower.

  • Keep Up With Maintenance
    A properly maintained AC unit or HVAC system will operate more efficiently. Regularly cleaning filters and checking coolant/refrigerant levels are good places to start.

  • Limit Use of Heat Producers
    Taking long, steamy showers or using the oven during the summertime produces extra heat that requires your AC system to work overtime. Look for alternatives (such as grilling outside or cooking in the microwave) whenever possible.

  • Take Advantage of Cooler Space
    Most homes have rooms that are naturally cooler than others, normally ones that are on lower floors or that don’t get as much sun exposure. Try to spend most of your time in these rooms, rather than trying to cool naturally warm rooms.

  • Check Ceiling Fan Direction
    Ceiling fans can be enormously helpful in controlling home temperature, both in the winter and in the summer. But you will need to change the direction in which your fan spins depending on the season. In the summer, fans should spin counter-clockwise, pulling hot air up toward the ceiling.

There are also numerous energy-saving products being tested that may soon see widespread availability. A two-year study in Australia, for example, just found that coating roofing in a special paint can reflect up to 88% of the sun’s energy, leading to a significant decrease in interior temperatures.

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