I recognize that we’re outliers, as 65 percent of U.S. households have central air and another 21 percent have window AC units. I don’t mean to criticize those 86 percent, but want to explain why I’m happy to be among the other 14 percent.
I grew up in Washington D.C., where the heat and humidity are legendary (the British had to pay their diplomats the same salary increment for D.C. postings as they did for Kuala Lumpur). After all, the city was built on a swamp (whose idea was that?). Most of my childhood we had no air conditioning, so New England summers have never seemed oppressive. Plus, as a weather buff, I actually like feeling the extremes of temperature.
I had no idea just how vast the gap between AC and fans is in cost and carbon before I did some Internet research. Running half the day, central air costs an average of $129 a month and a window unit costs $50, while a ceiling fan costs only $1.20. Air conditioning accounts for 25 percent of all electricity used in homes, and the average household uses 2,813 kilowatt-hours, which emits 1.9 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Americans spend $11 billion a year on air conditioning, which accounts for 5 percent of all electricity use.
We have nine fans, one for each room, but only two are usually on at a time during the afternoon and evening in July and August. We just bought a new pedestal fan on sale for $17. A quick scan of window air conditioners on line showed prices ranging from $122 to $579.
Fans move air over your skin to make you feel more comfortable even though they don’t lower the temperature. It’s the same principle as wind making you feel colder in winter (the “wind-chill factor”). According to researcher Edward Arens, you can be just as comfortable sitting in front of a fan as with an AC unit up to 86 degrees.
“When the Chinese start using (air conditioning) the way we do, we’re going to melt the ice sheets,” Arens said in a New York Times article in 2011. Maybe that’s already happening.
Don’t want to give up your air conditioning? Fine, you can still minimize the cost and climate impact by setting the temperature at 78 and then let fans do the rest, according to Consumer Reports. The average temperature setting for air conditioning is 74 to 76, and every degree you increase it by saves 10 percent. Another strategy is to get a new model if yours is more than 10 years old, as new designs are much more efficient.