Central Air: A Luxury or a Necessity?

Baby, it’s *hot* outside!

This summer’s unusually hot weather has me constantly complaining about: the heat and humidity, my lack of central air conditioning, the noise and inefficiency of the window air conditioning units, and let’s not forget my frizzy hair. [And, uh, no. I feel no need to post a photo of said frizzy hair!]

All this complaining brings up the question: is Air Conditioning a necessity or is it a luxury?

In 1950, air conditioning of any kind was extremely unusual. In those days it was common to retreat to “the country” for the summer if it was in the budget. Those who couldn’t afford the luxury of a full-summer escape slept on fire escapes, hammocks, front porches, or anywhere they could catch a breeze. An evening walk around the neighborhood was also common — as a means of escaping the oven-like temperatures inside. My mother, who grew up in the city, describes sitting out on the sidewalk under a streetlamp playing cards until 10:00 in the evening, because it was just too hot to be inside.

Air conditioning only started to become common in office buildings, stores, and public buildings in the 1960s.

Researchers studied the effects of air conditioning on productivity, and found the increased output was phenomenal. Ranging from about 25% for factory labor to 20-50% for office help, air conditioning made a big difference in productivity.

Another study compared two communities of similar-sized homes, one with air conditioning and one without. In the cooler homes, family members spent more time together and also were healthier (fewer colds and viruses). And, get this: the rate of pregnancy was significantly increased in the homes with central air. [I have a hunch as to why, but the researchers offered no opinion on the matter. :-)]

Which brings me back to my original question: is air conditioning a necessity or it is a luxury?

Obviously, the answer to this is somewhat dependent on where you are geographically located. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, Oregon), where even during a hot spell temps are usually comfortable by nightfall and the humidity is relatively low. In places such as Mississippi or Arizona, for example, the heat levels are very different. However, even in those hot climates, air conditioning has only been available in the last 50 years, or less. Before that, people lived with the heat.

In my un-airconditioned 3rd floor bedroom, the evening temperature in the summer is easily 95°F, sometimes nearly 100°F. This is a result of our non-existant insulation and the difficulty of getting a cross-breeze. And the third (top) floor is, of course, the warmest in the summer. And the humidity? Don’t ask. Really. I don’t want to talk about it.

Am I just being whiny when I say that I can’t live one more summer without central air? When I complain about getting out of the shower and being immediately soaked in sweat, is that just more evidence of my prima donna nature? I am convinced that getting dressed in the intense heat does not add to my professional appearance. [Nor does my frizzy hair!]

A 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 70% of Americans considered “home air conditioning” as a necessity.  I found this graph to be sooooooo interesting:

And this quote from former Secretary of Commerce Frederick H. Mueller (from sometime in the late 1950’s I think):

It’s hard to explain the wide acceptance of air conditioning on its money values alone [referring to the drop in cost], I think people have just decided that it’s part of the American standard of living, something we’re all entitled to, just as we’re entitled to heat in the winter and food on the table.

Obviously, our idea of what’s a luxury and what’s a necessity changes over time. In some areas, clean drinking water is seen as a luxury, and air conditioning is not even in the realm of possibility. In 1900, a bathtub wasn’t a necessity, nor was indoor plumbing. Anyone care to do without those, now?

As for me, I’m still living without central air. And I’m still complaining about it!

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3 Responses to Central Air: A Luxury or a Necessity?

  1. Shira Adatto says:

    You are not being whiny. Climate plays a huge role in quality of life and mood. After 3 weeks in Israel, I could not wait to get home to California. Why do you think people put up with $Million shoe-box sized houses and all the traffic in California?

  2. Katy says:

    Us Portlanders are heading into a heat wave here, with temperatures in the high 90’s, but it’s just not the same.

    It’s all about that humidity.


  3. Yes, we were in Chelan (eastern Washington State) for our camping trip, and the kids and I were laughing our heads off at the people who were complaining and complaining about the heat. It was hot, OK, around 98 degrees F, but to us it was still quite comfortable because of the lack of humidity.

    Now, back to reality: work, routines, schedules, and that lovely east coast humidity. I’m soooooo glad to be back (NOT!).

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