An American Love Affair with Air Conditioning (AC)
Summer is here. Time to rev up the air conditioning units. Or is it? Americans are addicted to AC. We DEMAND it in our homes, our offices, our shopping malls, our cars. According the U.S. Dept. of Energy, about 90% of U.S. homes have air conditioning. By contrast, only 47% of U.S. homes had AC in 1973.
Admittedly, I’ve become a bit spoiled when it comes to air conditioning. I have a very hard time sleeping comfortably unless it’s about 72 degrees or less. It can get pretty muggy in Michigan. Ever since I was about 10 years old, I have lived with air conditioning. The one exception was in college when I was in the dorms for two miserably hot, muggy, and often sleepless years.
But an article in the New York Times that got me thinking a bit about our wasteful ways, my wasteful ways – “Bringing in the Big Fans“. And it made me want to run some numbers on the cost of air conditioning versus a simple old fan.
The Cost of Air Conditioning Vs. Fans
According to the article:
- a good window AC unit runs on 1.2 kilowatts and costs 14 cents an hour to run
- a three-ton central air unit (a common cooling system), runs on about 3 kilowatts and costs about 36 cents an hour to run
- a good ceiling fan? It draws only 30 watts to run, costing about 1 cent per three hours of use
One penny for every three hours?!
I knew that fans used less energy than AC units, but to use less than 1% of the energy? Hmmm….. maybe I need to re-think my love for air conditioning.
Running the AC versus Fan Cost Figures Over a Month
Putting these hourly costs into more practical terms made sense, so I decided to run the math. If you assume that your unit is running half of the day during summer months,
- a window AC unit would cost $50.40 per month
- a central AC unit would cost $129.60 per month
- each ceiling fan would cost $1.20 per month
I could potentially be saving over $128 per month by putting up a ceiling fan in my bedroom and weening myself off of AC? Amazing!
Heck, even just installing a window unit in my room so that I can sleep well (the biggest reason I’m addicted to AC in the summer) would save me $78 per month, probably more if I only use it at night.
Additional Benefits to Getting Rid of AC
I love AC, don’t get me wrong. But lately I have been opening the windows more often and going without. I like the outdoor sounds and really like the fresh air.
And when you consider that 17% of all electricity consumed at home in the U.S. is to power AC units and that most of that electricity is coming from carbon-rich coal, maybe it’s time we re-thought our love for AC. It’s hard to justify AC if you call yourself an environmental steward.
Whether you switch to a ceiling fan, a window unit, a whole house fan, or some combination of, you may want to start thinking about your love of air conditioning. I will. Stay tuned.
Air Condition Versus Fans Discussion:
- How do you keep yourself cool, especially at night?
- Have you switched from AC to another method of staying cool? What did you do?
We had passed the average number of 100 degrees days (12) for the year, before summer even began this year. If it weren’t for A/C I wouldn’t live in this part of the country. Then again it rarely gets below freezing in the winters…
Having a ceiling fan in each “bedroom is a must, as it allows you to set the A/C higher with little noticeable difference.
Your comment brought up an idea….. if you’re a northerner who can get by in northern winters without significant heat expenses or a southerner who can get by in southern summers without AC expenses, your heating/cooling bills are going to be virtually nil.
Just a question to ponder. What is the approximate cost of setting the AC system’s fan from auto to on? This would give air circulation throughout the entire residence, but should be cheaper than running the AC?
That’s funny. I just read the article in my email (glad to see full articles back in there) and got on the blog to post a comment about this being my first summer in Austin. (today was day 17 in the triple digits)
Back up in Michigan, I could and did go the entire summer without AC by opening windows to let the cool air in at night, and then before I left for work, I’d close the windows and curtains to block the sunlight from heating up the house while I was gone. Come home, turn on a fan and open the windows back up.
Down here, its still 80 degrees until midnight and the windows in my apartment face west, so I would boil without AC. (June’s bill just came in at $75 for my small 1 bedroom apt that I only keep at 75)
Admittedly my house in central Florida (and it too boils) is insulated with icynene insulation which is great, I have my 2500 house AC on auto mode (it only kicks on when the humidity gets over 50%) and run my ceiling fans and my last month’s bill was the highest at $148 in addition to having a pool which sucks about $30/$40 of that bill. I invested in good ceiling fans. Yes they were a bit pricey, however you can pay now or pay later. Regardless it really depends where you live and what your electric company charges so to make a comparison is a bit difficult.
I live in Augusta, GA where we have very long hot and humid summers with heat indexes regularly in the 100’s. We run our AC at 80 (sometimes 82 if humidity isn’t that bad) and always have a ceiling fan running on in whatever room we are in. If I get too hot a wet towel or cool glass of water usually does the trick.
Having the huge shock of going from cold 70 degree AC to the very hot/humid conditions outside just makes things worse. I find whatever cooling method keeps me within about a 10 degree swing is noticeable enough and sufficient.
Too funny. I’m in Newnan, GA and I do exactly the same thing!! A cool rag around my neck and a glass of water keeps my pretty content. When outside, everybody always asks me how am I not sweating like crazy but it’s because my body temp stays close to the same instead of going from drastically cool to the total opposite and this also makes it to where I’m not miserable outside lie everyone else is!! It’s called being smart!
My husband and I decided in May to make every effort to keep our A/C off (we live in NC). We were looking for a cost-saving measure to allow us to save additional money toward a future purchase. We installed a ceiling fan in our one remaining room without one and it’s been working pretty well so far. We both work in over-air-conditioned buildings throughout the day so it’s actually a relief to be without it for a time. In the evenings we often sit on our screened-in balcony or open windows, and at night we sleep with our bedroom fan on under just a sheet. My husband grew up without A/C (in southern CA) using just fans so he knew of their wonderful attributes from his childhood.
You may want to look into an attic or whole house fan too.
We live in an apartment. :) Only three rooms total.
My parents came from Taiwan and somehow everyone there is just accustomed to the hotter and more humid climate. Even when you go into department stores, it’s probably not much cooler than 80. Because of this, I guess my body is just used to (and most comfortable) around 78-80. I would actually find it quite cold and need a comforter to sleep at 72.
Since my work place runs around 72, I come home quite cold and can go for a couple hours with the temperature around 83-84 with fans on. I live by myself and in the dead of Texas summer (100+) my electric bill was only about $50 for a small apartment, no gas.
I wonder if you can train your body to be comfortable at a higher temperature?
I think so. Most Californians can’t take Northern winters and most northerners can’t take southern summers. Your body grows accustom to your climate, I think.
i think your body can easily become accustomed to a climate after a few years of being in it. as a californian i have a hard time adjusting to cold weather (cold being 72), and my parents who relocated to alaska 5 years ago from california now find 80 way too hot and suffer in california summers where before they were tolerant of the heat.
Now I understand why my parents don’t like to turn on the air conditioning all the time! Thanks for the great info, I’ll definitely be using my fan more often.
NPR has an interesting article about the costs of air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan war: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/25/137414737/among-the-costs-of-war-20b-in-air-conditioning
thanks for sharing the article, Alex.
Here in Houston you just might suffer a miserable death if it were not for central A/C. That and everything you own would be rusted and ruined in one summer from the 99% humidity we get here every morning about 5am. I even have to keep my tools in the house unless I want them to be ruined. My bike is dying a slow, painful death because I have no room in the house for it. Poor guy.I grew up in Michigan though, and never had A/C and it was fine….box fan in the window was all you ever needed.
I’m in Michigan and July/August/Sept. are pretty miserable without some form of AC or a serious fan. You can get by, but 90 degrees and muggy is no walk in the park.
When my DH and I moved to Buffalo, NY from Ca we discovered we really did not need air conditioning. In fact, I find going inside on a nice day annoying because I need to bring layers. I think we should start making our houses/malls/movie theaters closer to the temperate outside instead of trying make it one temperature year round.
Agreed. Although a muggy, 100 degree movie theatre does sound pretty miserable.
I live in Las Vegas, where air conditioning is considered essential for survival, but I’ve done some experiments. I definitely use my central ac during the months where it is over 100 (June-September), but I set it to 78 degrees. One day I was staying a my mother-in-law’s house when her ac broke. It was over 100 degrees outside but the internal temperature never rose above 86. I managed to get through the day by keeping a wet rag around my neck and a fan on me. I admit I was uncomfortable, but I could get by. If I lived in a place where it rarely rose above 100 degrees, I could probably do without. Where I live, it gets above 115. It would be uncomfortable for half the year and dangerous for a few weeks in the middle of summer. I keep my ac, but I set it as high as I can adjust to and still be comfortable (i.e. not dripping sweat).
If you want to set your ac to a higher temp, this is what I do and I’m rarely uncomfortable. I start in March (when it starts to warm up here) with my ac set at 72, I then increase by just one degree at a time once I feel comfortable with the current temperature. This usually gets me to 78 by the beginning of June. I’ve found that a higher temp keeps me sweating all day, so I stop there. Keep in mind that I hate the heat and keep my thermostat set to 65 or less in the winter. I also keep the doors open for more than half the year.
Good points. And I think what’s more is that we don’t need to cool 2,000 sq. feet when we could get by in cooling 100 or 200. In Vegas, I don’t think anyone would blame you for using AC. =) On the flip side, would anyone be living in Vegas these days without AC? It’s interesting that most major city and economic growth has come in the South in the last 25 years, and I have no doubt that is partly due to the proliferation of AC.
Modern society has allowed us to do a lot of things we probably shouldn’t. Las Vegas is a great example. We need climate control, ship in all our food, and we’re running out of water. My dream is to one day live in a small town in western Oregon, where I can grow a garden without having to supply all the soil and water.
People did live in Las Vegas before modern conveniences, including Paiute, but it was a much smaller population.
I live in Oregon, where I’m fortunate enough that even in the hottest parts of the summer it usually cools down at night. I keep my A/C use down by putting a dual fan in each of the bedroom windows. Once it starts to cool down for the day I put the fans on so that one is blowing in cool air and the other is blowing out air. When it’s time to sleep I change them to both pulling in the cool air.
In the morning as it starts to warm up, I pull out the fans and close the windows to keep in the cooler air. I also make sure to keep blinds and curtains closed on the side of the house that the sun is hitting during the day. I find that I do use A/C sometimes during the day, but never need it at night when using the fans.
Rachel – that is downright brilliant planning and execution. Props to you.
I inherited a chinchilla and it cannot tolerate high humidity and temperatures over 75 really well (I have had him live with 78 and that doesn’t seem to bother him much).
I wonder if I could make him a box that has temperature and humidity control because frankly at 75 degree setting I get cold at night (the thermometer says 72 when I wake up and 77 when I go to bed)…
I thought chinchillas were native to Mexico? You’ve spoiled your chinchilla! =)
Lol, Chinchillas are native to 28-64 Fahrenheit Bolivia’s and Chile’s Andes.
A poor chinchilla wouldn’t survive in Mexico for 12 minutes, much less in the blazing United States’ summers!
I think my favorite thing about the townhouse I’m renting is that it’s the middle of 5 units. That means the longest two sides are extremely well insulated! I’m in Indianapolis, so we get both high highs and low lows, both humid, but I’m usually fine turning on heat or AC for a max of 15 minutes when I get up and 15 when I get home. That keeps it tolerable the other parts of the day when I’m actually home! My electric bill is seldom over $20 for 865 sq ft.
Im all about being eco-friendly, but just because you can do a cost comparison between AC and fans, it doesn’t mean their desired effect is even in the same ball park. For the most part I will crack the windows, throw on a fan to circulate the air, but if it’s 100 degrees outside and humid, it’s not going to be any cooler in your house using that method. AC is almost a necessity for me, and I didnt grow up with it. My hayfever is pretty severe, and sometimes leaving the windows closed is the only relief I get.
I know you live up north, GE, where it is possible to live without AC. Here in Austin, TX, we’ve already had consistent days over 100 (I’ve lost track of how many). It is not feasible to live without the AC. I do understand my great-grandparents did so, and I’m not sure how they did it. However, I imagine body odor wasn’t as much of a social issue back then. We keep our apartment at 78-79* and use fans while we’re home, and that’s as high as we can go with the temp. When you come in from 105* weather, that 20+ degree difference helps. We are lucky that our winters aren’t cold. I think we turned the heat on in our apartment 3 or 4 times last winter. And that was only when our apartment got below 60*.
I hear you Alyssa! I live in Houston, TX and it is very difficult to live without AC here. I’ve tried to have only the fans on in my home, but then I feel like I’m in a convection oven!
We have to live with a nice mixture of fans and higher AC settings. There’s a second part to the story in Houston though. It is so humid here that we need the AC to dry out our homes. So many people forget that the AC serves more than one purpose. It not only cools your house, but it also lowers the humidity!
I think some of these points were touched upon above…
Anywho, keep up the great posts G.E. and I’ll see you on Twitter!
I live in Atlanta in a 3 story townhome (1900 sq ft) and keeping the thermostats at 75 was costing ~200 every month (kept top floor @ 80). I’m in an end unit so that doesn’t help from with insulation (more windows). I love my AC, but that was just too expensive. Last month I’ve bumped all the thermostats up to 80. I’ve gotten used to it now.
I use a variety of different methods to cool my space during the summer months, when temps easily reach 100+. I use the ceiling fan most of the day, window air conditioner for about 3 hours prior to bedtime so it’s comfy to start sleeping, a fan at night set on a timer for about 2-3 hours, and during the day I use blackout curtains and keep blinds and windows closed. It’s dark inside, but stays cool and these measures also help protect my pets. I find that A/C isn’t needed with all these steps, but is a luxury I use when on vacations and such at hotels.
I don’t have an air conditioner, so it’s not hard to save money in the summer! I use a regular $25 fan from Home Depot. I move it around my house to whichever room I am currently in.
Yep. I bought a $36 fan from Home Depot and I haven’t had to use the AC since. I just move it from room to room. And I live in Houston but I somehow have managed!
Dose it cost more to run the.fan in an a/c unit over night in cool temps than the a/c unit its self..?
Yes, the money, in this case, talks. I highly recommend weaning oneself off AC, especially anyone who tends to get colds or who likes outdoor sports, etc. There is a transition time. Once you get acclimated to the climate (ha), hot isn’t as hot as it first seems. Personally, I find I don’t get sick nearly as often and am able to hike outdoors without it being exhausting in the way it is if you’re not used to higher temperatures. I do run a box fan in my 900 sf townhouse, but that’s it for all but maybe 5 days a year, and I live in the Central Valley of California!
Another, cheaper, option is a “swamp cooler.” I don’t like them because they seem to make the air “muggy,” but some folks love them.
We use box fans. We put them in the windows in the morning to blow in cool air. Later in the day, when the temperature outside begins to get to high, we close the windows and switch to rotating fans in the living room. The two biggest problems are (1) our cats don’t sweat and therefore can’t stay nearly as cool as we do, and (2) our computers begin to overheat, lowering their performance, shortening the lifespan of their components and causing occasional shut-downs.
To deal with the first problem, we shave all of the fur off the cats with a pair of ultra-quiet trimmers that we bought a few years ago. This doesn’t just keep them cooler, it’s also very good for their health because it keeps them from swallowing lots of shed fur which is damaging to their digestive system and even potentially lethal (they can get life-threatening blockages, some of which aren’t apparent and even go unseen in vet x-rays). We also regularly fill up a 1-liter bottle with warm water and pour it all over the cats. We have to use warm water because the cold water is too shocking for them and they absolutely hate it. They’d rather just cook in the heat than have cold/cool water poured on them.
For the computers, we switched to water cooling and we make sure the water coolers’ fans remain free of dust. That has helped but the computers still get much hotter than they should.
I think pretty much everyone prefers air conditioning. It’s an issue of the large amount of electricity they use.
I kept the central sir on between 75-77 with two celing fans on and st night a small fan blowing on me in the bedroom one months electricity for June in Florida was 88.67 total a small price to pay for total comfort!!! Two bed two bath
Thank You for writing this article it has inspired me to move forward with my life and write my own blog about how I build websites.
I’ve lived in Chicago, in Iowa and in Florida. When I was up north, I needed AC from Mid-July to first frost for my allergies. And I needed to change the filter often. Here in Florida, unfortunately there are various allergies all year. Some days I’ll have to turn it on, others I don’t need it on. Has nothing all that m uch to do with the temperature for me, and everything to do with what the darn plants are up to!
I have a two story home just did a lot of updates to new siding we currently are cooling with fans in every room with is about 7 fans all day and nite would it be cheaper to run two window units
I live in Florida. There is NO way in this world I could live though a summer with out AC of some sort! Haha!! I have been having major issues with my AC. First, it would never ever cool correctly and was running 24/7. The house would not get below 80 during the day and 72 at night not mater what I set it on. I lived like that for about three years thinking it was just because it was so scortching hot out side. I finally had someone look at my ducts and evaluate the entire system because I got so tired of sweating. It turned out I had air leaks in my ducts, my ducts were way too small, and there were not enough air vents in the one room I particularly had issues with ( my sitting room). I had all of that repaired and now, my house will stay around 73-74 during the day and 68 at night with out the AC running 24/7. I was still having issues in my sitting room because it is an add on and has French doors and four large windows that lead out side. So, I invested in some room darkening / solar curtains. That helped ALOT! The room still gets warm but not near as warm. In order to keep that room in the comfort zone I have to set my AC down to 68-70 during the day. That causes the rest of my house to be unecesaarily cold and my AC to never stop running from about noon to ten at night. I am wondering if I buy a portable AC for this room and put my house AC 2-3 degrees warmer if it will save me money on my AC bill.
I don’t switch on the AC until i have too. Until then I run one main window fan blowing in from dusk to dawn and three other window fans pushing hot air out and pulling the cooler air through the house.
How do these numbers compare with a normal fan? I have a Holmes fan about the height of my bed, and I’m fine without air as long as I have that!
I have a 1,000 sq ft condo in Alexandria , VA with two fairly new HVAC units — one to cool the left half of the condo and the other to cool the right half plus the bedroom. As you can imagine, the bedroom gets pretty stuffy and warm over the summer.. As I’m looking to another hot D.C. summer, I’m pondering for the bedroom either a ceiling fan or portable ac unit — what would you recommend as most efficient and cost effective? Thanks!!
I live in Los Angeles and have never lived with A/C. I’ve always closed up the house in the mornings to keep the sun out, and then opened up the windows in the late afternoons once the outside air feels cooler than the inside air. I run fans to circulate the air. This works pretty well except when the heat (90 +) lasts several days in a row and the heat builds up. The house tended to stay warm at night and sleeping could be difficult. This year I decided on a whole house fan which has been a marked improvement. I still close the house up during the day. Around 4 or 5 I open the windows, turn on the whole house fan, and in a short amount of time the house temperature has been pulled down significantly. There is a nice breeze throughout the house and it is comfortable all night. Because the fan runs all night there is no accumulation of heat in the walls so the heat waves are not problematic. The fan costs about 3 cents an hour to run and is very quiet. I do use portable fans during the day when the house is closed up to move air in the house. all in all a very satisfactory and energy efficient solution. The whole house fan is not a good solution in very humid climates or in places where nighttime temps don’t drop. Here it’s often 100 during the day and then down in the low 70’s at night, and the humidity is generally manageable. I recommend the whole house fan as an environmentally friendly solution in the right situation.
I’m in a dry area of southern California, average rainfall is 12-14″ a year, end of March it’s not unusual to have 80 degree days but gets down to high 50’s at night . but by July and ending mid October it’s not unusual to have 95-100+daytime temp. and get not cooler than 80+ at the coldest part of the night. A/C is pretty much a must then, but we have found the whole house fan that is connected to the A/C it pulls air into the intake for the A/C and therefore pulls in outside air through our open window or sliding glass doors and it comes out the a/c vents in each room a GREAT help and I hope a GREAT saving on our electric bill. I think electricity is pretty high here even without A/C or house fan going no pool, gas for dryer, water heater and cooking our bill is never less than $150.00 a month and gets into the $300 at least in the heat of the summer with A/C use.
My house runs on window ac units. I also rent part of my house out, and it can be a turnoff for some renters to only have window AC units because they are not as aesthetically nice, and many people are worried how effective they are. I find that they keep the individual rooms nice and chilled, although they’re not a great on larger rooms. I also was afraid I couldn’t sleep because of the extra noise from the unit, but now I find that I kind of like the sound of the ac unit in my room, because it provides a nice constant white noise!
The fact of the matter is that ceiling fans help but AC is still going to be necessary and used in most of the country. So if you have to use AC – here are some things you can do to improve cooling and save on AC costs if you have floor vents. Put your thermostat in the “auto” position, close your basement vents and doors (basements are usually cool anyway) and use a new very inexpensive product called the Ecoflap vent cover on your upstairs floor vents which helps keep AC air upstairs. The Ecoflap works by automatically closing the floor vent it’s attached to when the AC and/or furnace blower fan shuts off. This prevents AC air in the room from backflowing down through the floor vent and into the basement which is where it goes because cool AC air is heavier than ambient air. Putting plastic seal strips on your basement door bottom(s) and perhaps other doors in the house will also help. Running ceiling fans upstairs on the low setting and in the counterclockwise direction will also help and will use much less energy (about 25 watts) than the system blower fan which uses about 500 watts. And perhaps best of all is that your AC unit won’t kick on as often which will save you even more since the AC unit itself uses about 3500 watts.