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Air Conditioning: A Boon and a Burden

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Air Conditioning: A Boon and a Burden

We owe a great deal of thanks to engineer Willis H. Carrier, the inventor of crisp, cool, sacred, treasured, magnificent air-conditioning—despite the fact that he wasn’t trying to do anyone a favor. This week, 110 years ago, in July of 1902, Carrier developed the building system in an effort to control humidity at the Sackett & Wilhelms Lithography and Printing Co. plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., so that paper dimensions would remain constant during the printing process.

Once workers felt the chill during the hot months, though, there was no going back. Carrier’s “dew point control” unit, which cooled air enough so that it reaches saturation and loses moisture, was first installed for people at Graumann’s Metropolitan Theater in Los Angeles in 1922. In the 1920s, a commercial building in San Antonio, Texas, installed the first commercial air-conditioning system. Other early adopters included candy-making companies and textile mills. Air-conditioning progressed with the development in the 1930s of low-toxic and relatively safe refrigerant gases that the Frigidaire, General Motors, and DuPont companies branded Freons (more familiar today as chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, a compound many scientists say is linked to ozone depletion). By the mid-30s, railcar trains were using A/C to cool off passengers. In the 1950s, the building system was finally packaged for individuals in the form of compact units.

Carrier’s invention came after others had experimented with their own air-cooling systems. John Gorrie, a doctor from Florida, worked on a mechanical cooling system in the 1830s by blowing air over buckets of ice hanging from the ceiling at a U.S. Marine hospital. (A jury-rigged version of this system is sometimes used today, even by a fellow ARCHITECT staffer here—whenever traditional air-conditioning systems are out of order.) Gorrie intended to lower the body temperatures of those suffering from malaria and yellow fever; he went on to patent the first ice-making machine. President James A. Garfield even got in the game: In 1881, he used fans and 436 pounds of ice to cool his bedroom in the White House.

But it was Carrier’s eponymous system and company that went on to chill the ice for ice hockey at Madison Square Garden, cool the inside of Chicago’s Sears Tower, and make Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest comfortable. And similar systems now cool off your bedroom and my hatchback. Carrier’s system is now the primary comfort-inducing building system used the world over, producing what the Carrier company once dubbed “manufactured weather.” (Today, air-conditioning units pass air over evaporator coils filled with refrigerant, which evaporates and absorbs the heat from the air; the moisture then condenses on fins over the coils, and drains while a blower pushes the cool air into the room.)

This refreshing gift does have its unintended consequences, though. Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (The New Press; 2010), recognizes that air conditioning does what Carrier meant for it to do—preserve paper (and rare books)—as well as even save lives. But Cox says that air conditioning also has helped enable our built environment to grow in ways that have had unintended consequences. “Cities, homes, and offices have become less livable without air conditioning because we built them on the assumption of A/C, while older people have moved to places like Florida and Arizona where it is important for them to have it in summer,” he says.

We have become conditioned to air conditioning, to manufactured weather, and have abandoned the strategies that undeveloped and developing countries in hot climates still use. This is for good, certainly, or mostly: air conditioning makes for better economic productivity, and certainly helps preserve lives during heat waves. But in forgetting the ways that we used to cope with high temperatures, we may now be dependent on Carrier.

“The deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995,” Cox says, “caused a higher death rate than either of two even more intense heat waves in the 1930s, before people had air-conditioning there. In the 1930s, people were able to sleep on roofs or sleeping porches, and neighbors looked after one another more.” In 2003, some 70,000 people died during a heat wave in Europe. The August timing, when many European government officials are on holiday, and the lack of air-conditioning units in many residential buildings from Paris to Moscow exacerbated the disaster.

Journalists were some of the first to sound the bell for us to take a look at how air conditioning had affected our culture and society, wrote Raymond Arsenault, a professor of southern history at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Fla., in The Journal of Southern History in 1983. In a 1970 editorial for The New York Times, Arsenault writes, “Because the air conditioner, the airplane and television have smoothed out harsh differences in climate, nearly abolished distance and homogenized popular taste […] Americans are becoming much less regionally diverse. . . . The census sketches a nation that has become one people with much the same problems and expectations everywhere. The regions fade. The urbanized nation strides on.”

And Arsenault reminds us that in 1979, a TIME magazine columnist name Frank Trippett wrote that scholars had studied the effect of the car and TV on American society, but “for some reason they have not gotten around ‘to charting and diagnosing all the changes brought about by air conditioning.’”

The architectural and engineering solution had become a ubiquitous amenity, changing the way that we build buildings today. “In 1951 the inexpensive, efficient window unit finally hit the market, and sales skyrocketed, especially in the South,” Arsenault writes. “Within a year the Carrier Corporation had set up model tract houses in Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia in an effort to convince consumers that the air conditioner had made porches, basements, attics, and movable windows obsolete.” Arsenault notes that by 1955, one out of every 22 U.S. homes had A/C, but in the South, that figure was more like one in 10. The 2009 Residential Energy Consumption Survey showed that 87 percent of U.S. households now have air conditioning.

I am also a journalist, and choose to spend my hot, muggy Washington, D.C., summers without air conditioning—to save money and to feel connected to the outdoors. Friends, of course, think I’m crazy. And I do admit to going to watch a movie in a theater and bringing a sweatshirt during the summer. My kind of voluntary Ludditism is one thing, but Cox proposes a system for government regulation of air-conditioning reduction.

“We need firm society-wide limits on resource consumption and ecological impact,” he says. “We will then have to ask how much of each practice or technology we can support and still stay within those boundaries. That will require trade-offs,” he concedes. “We can’t give up cooking our food or heating in winter, and we will always need to expend resources in manufacturing of essential goods (and preserving rare documents!).”

But Cox argues that the pain felt in reducing air-conditioning use will be outweighed by the benefits, including reducing our dependence on energy and saving money. “We can gain far more by reducing its [air conditioning] use than by improving its efficiency,” he says. “From 1993 to 2005, efficiency of residential AC equipment improved 28 percent, but consumption of electricity for AC, per air-conditioned household, increased 37 percent (and total consumption doubled).”

We’ve created our monster, and it certainly does have its benefits—all of our collective rare books might live in a cool climate or underground otherwise—but controlling it is another thing entirely. In any case, Cox’s prescription is unlikely to be carried out. In the run-up to this summer’s heat waves, stores sold air-conditioning units faster than they could restock them. One Target owner sold out of a shipment of 400 units in May; a shipment that was supposed to last well through the dog-days of summer.


Written by vaphc

July 20, 2012 at 5:40 am

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