Bundle Up! Summer’s Coming!

“The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” Mark Twain said that a long time ago, and having lived there for six years, I can affirm there is quite a bit of truth in it– whatever the people who still live there tell you. (If any of my San Franciscan friends beg to differ, I would simply ask you to open up your closet or your dresser and count how many pairs of shorts you own. If you count two or less, our argument is over.) But I’m sorry to say that in the hundred-plus years since Mr. Clemens’ one-liner began its long march to cliché, San Francisco has lost its hegemony over cold summers.

That’s because air conditioning, once the greatest invention in the history of mankind, has become so ubiquitous and overused that, like car alarms, it’s now officially doing more harm than good. I am writing this in an office building in lower Manhattan. Right now it’s 76 degrees outside, a beautiful day. I know this because I just had to go outside for a bit and warm up.

I can’t find a thermostat anywhere on this floor — believe me, I’ve looked — but my best guess is that it’s set for 65 degrees. I keep a sweater at my desk because without it, I cannot sit here without shivering. I bought a space heater to keep under my desk during the winter. I originally used it to keep my feet warm, but I had to move it up to my desktop and run it for a couple of hours a day. Yesterday. In addition to the sweater. It’s colder in here now than it was during the winter.

And this is what I don’t understand. I am not some kind of anti-AC zealot. I love air conditioning. I have two window units at home. But just how cold does it need to be? In the wintertime, if you checked your indoor thermostat and it read anything under 72 degrees, you’d turn up the heat. Right? So why does 68 seem to be the default indoor temperature in the summertime?

In a couple of weeks, it will be 85 degrees plus outside every day of the week here in New York. Naturally, I will want to wear as little as possible whenever I go outside. Shorts and a t-shirt is generally just fine. But if I go to the movies, a restaurant, or any kind of office building, I’ll have to bring at least one additional layer with me if I want to avoid hypothermia. Either that, or suffer through the trip to wherever I’m going sweltering in clothes that are totally seasonally inappropriate. I am seriously considering leaving a pair of pants at the office (to complement the sweater), so I can commute to work  in normal summer clothes and not freeze to death when I get there. Or maybe I should just get a Snuggie.

How is this not sparking some kind of popular uprising? Surely I’m not the only one who has this problem. My wife has long called summer the coldest season, and with good reason: her lips and fingers start to turn blue whenever she goes indoors in a public place after Memorial Day.

If my appeal to our common comfort doesn’t sway you, how about a little hippy-dippy environmentalism?  Because air conditioners just absolutely devour electricity. They are always the biggest power draw in your house. (Unless you’re using a hair dryer.)  Again, I’m not anti-air conditioning. Again, I have two window units at home. If it’s hot in your house, I don’t see anything wrong with making it bearable. It’s what separates us from the animals, after all.  But a little moderation might be in order, considering the whole dependence-on-foreign-oil thing we have going on right now.  And the fact that my wife’s lips are blue.

I think it’s possible that some (but by no means all) of this problem is caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of how air conditioning works. It seems to be a common misperception that, if you walk into a really hot room, if you set the air conditioner to a really low temperature, the room will cool off faster. People do this all the time and it doesn’t work.

An air conditioner does not vary in its output. It puts the same temperature air out all the time, whatever it’s set to. (For the sake of argument let’s say it’s 55 degrees, because I don’t know the real temperature.) In other words, when you set the AC to 72 degrees, that doesn’t mean that it blows 72-degree air; it blows 55-degree air into the 80-degree room until the overall temperature in the room, as measured by the thermostat, is 72 degrees. So when you set a thermostat, set it to the temperature you actually want the room to be. Setting it lower is not going to make the AC blow any colder or work any harder — it’s just going to ensure that it keeps running until the room is the temperature you set it to. If you set it to 72, it will turn off when the room is 72 and no sooner. Got that? If not, feel free to email me with questions.

Those of us with window AC units don’t have this problem, because window units don’t work nearly as well as central air systems, but I have to point out a couple of common misuses of these units as well. My upstairs neighbor has a curious habit of running his window AC units with all the other windows in the apartment wide open. Do I have to explain why this is not effective? I don’t, right? Maybe he’s just a fan of higher ConEd bills. It takes all kinds, I suppose.

I’m also amazed to see how many people leave their window AC units in the windows all year long. Forgive me if this comes off as pedantic, but leaving an air conditioner in the window all winter is the same as leaving your window open all winter. When it’s running, it pulls air from outside, cools it, and pushes it inside. But when it’s not running, the vents that it pulls the air through are still open. So the cold air outside can come right in, making it colder in your house or apartment so you probably have to turn the heat up. To an acceptable 74 degrees. Because anything cooler than that would be too cold, right? Unless it’s summertime and everyone’s wearing shorts. Then we have to keep it at 68 all the time. Aaaagh!

Of course, they don’t have any of these problems in San Francisco. They don’t even have air conditioning. You know why? I think Mark Twain said it best…

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