There is something raw and unsexy about sweltering heat with suffocating humidity, but I didn’t let the muggy air cloud what I have based this entire year around—a brief trip to the Colombian coast ahead of turning 40.
A marker for me, the trip was to add more dives to my scuba diving logbook and time in biodiverse natural spaces.
As I stood in a tropical forest both in naïve wonderment of a 200-year-old tree and actual wonder if I was going to melt into the dirt and become human porridge for the many circling hawks to consume, I thought, “God…it’s really f*cking hot.”
After a couple more hours hiking alongside wild cows and turning my face up at congregations of frog eggs in lakes—“Umm, ¿Qué es eso?” I asked my Colombian guide with both curiosity and a case of the ickies—I threw in the towel in hopes that I wasn’t going to disintegrate into the stifling heat. Climbing into a canoe and heading back through mangroves in the sticky morning air, I felt like I could swim through its thickness.
I arrived back to a beautiful eco-lodge, hungry with probably-cow-but-maybe-horse-poo on my shoes and extremely sweaty. Even the locals grimaced up at me with looks of discontent, “Que calor,” they muttered. After a scrub and some breakfast, I fell into my room’s hammock for a nap. And it was….even hotter than before. Like, hotter-than-f*ck hot.
The eco-lodge I stayed at was aesthetically pleasing, a postcard picture of an eco-lodging experience. They walked the talk of what it takes to be green and kind to the environment while boosting the local economy. Their explanation at check-in really had my wheels spinning—they had a special water filtration and reuse system, prohibited the use of plastic, were constructed of natural materials, and designed with supreme ventilation in mind. Their menu consisted of sustainable, seasonal foods, and the private bathrooms were stocked with earth-friendly products for hygiene and cleaning. All of course, sans air conditioning.
But despite well-designed ventilation and fans, there is only so much that can be done in 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) with high humidity.
What I wouldn’t have given for a burst of cool air.
I felt guilty about it. In New York City, I spend many days dashing off to work to a building that’s so cold with central air conditioning, I sometimes use a space heater in the middle of summer. Wasteful and disconnected from the consequences of our actions.
It isn’t fair to run off to the beauty of nature without acknowledgement of how our everyday urban lives affect those ecosystems.
While I lay guilt-trodden in the hammock, I realized that I didn’t entirely understand why air conditioning is such a huge problem for the planet since I live in a culture that just won’t exist without it. As quoted in the book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, “The notion of comfort is as cultural as it is personal.”
As an admin in a business office by day, I can tell you that the bratty complaints start rolling in the moment the indoor temperature hits 73 or 74 degrees F (about 23 degrees C). A temperature that the small coastal town I was vacationing in would absolutely scoff at.
AC (air conditioning) usage = fossil fuel emissions
What I understand now is that the inefficient power consumption of AC units drives up electricity usage and consequently fossil fuel emissions. On a planet that’s only getting hotter, the demand for cooler air consistently rises. Aside from the power utilization, the liquid coolant used in most AC systems leaks into the atmosphere. HFCs (Hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants) are a major contributor to climate change, many times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. It seems manufacturers in search of an alternative to HFC and power consumption have made some progress via the Global Cooling Prize. Still, this is a work in progress.
My life slightly upgraded recently and I now have an actual bedroom (yes, in NYC this is a for real upgrade), and a lack of ventilation (downgrade) that landed me two ACs—one each for the main space and the bedroom. Talk about a guilt trip while I was swinging in the hammock thinking I was dying. Did I really base my whole year around a trip exploring nature along the Caribbean coast only to go back to my two-AC-unit, power-consuming lifestyle?
Energy Star Ratings actually mean something
After going down the rabbit hole of recent air con innovations (and believe you me, any type of eco research is an absolute Alice in not-so-Wonderland rabbit hole), I discovered my AC units are Energy Star certified. First, I breathed a mild sigh of relief. Then I thought, “What the heck does that mean?”
Aside from the fact that I’ve always ignored this stamp of recognition on appliances, one thing I understand is that it seems to communicate money saving to the consumer in addition to eco consciousness.
“ENERGY STAR certified central air conditioners have higher seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) and energy efficiency ratio (EER) ratings and use 8 percent less energy than conventional new models,” the definition of the label states. Room cooling models (versus central air) use 9 percent less energy according to their website.
Aside from rhyming acronyms, I wondered what optimal SEER and EER ratings were.
I learned that the higher a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating is, the less electric an AC unit uses to cool a space (a good SEER rating is supposedly 14 and up). These units might be more expensive up front but could save us money on our electric bills in the long term.
The energy efficiency ratio (EER) is an AC unit’s “peak load efficiency” and ideally the EER is 12+.
This is all new, helpful information for me.
I turned back to Losing Our Cool, which, while published in 2010 is loaded with depressing facts about air conditioning and the environment that are still relevant over a decade later. “Undoing some of air conditioning’s harms could require no more than turning switches to “off,” opening windows, and going outdoors,” a key piece of advice read.
Since the top nine hottest years on record all came after 2010 (the 10th hottest was 2010 itself), I’m going to guess air conditioning usage has only increased.
I hope to take many more scuba diving trips and hikes through forests spotting horses and dodging animal poo. So, I consider how to curb the AC habit aside from the obvious, which is to turn a fan on.
And this is what I found:
>> Turn the temperature up
Keeping the temperature just a little bit higher on an AC unit by a couple of degrees uses less power. When I hear about this, it does feel a bit like grasping at straws, but I think it’s one of those things that if everyone does it can make a big impact. Whatever I think the temperature should be, I can practice setting the unit a few degrees higher.
>> Use a timer
Setting the unit to turn off after a set amount of time allows the space to cool down maybe for only as long as we need it to. This is something I’ve been practicing at night since keeping it on left me with nightmares of being lost in the Alaskan wilderness in the middle of winter. Lesson: if I’m using my comforter or dreaming about scaling glaciers, it’s too cold in the room and the power could easily be saved.
>> Use exhaust fans to remove heat
I have both kitchen and bathroom, very loud, exhaust fans. Advice across the web suggests that these can be effective in helping to remove warm air from a space using less power. In conjunction with fans and open windows as temperatures drop, I am interested to see how this feels.
>> Draw shades to keep the sun out
I recall on a trip to Mexico that I had no choice but to do this when I was in an Airbnb without an air conditioner. Keeping the shades drawn all day to block the hot sun from pouring in meant coming back to a little bit of a cooler space in the evening. That in conjunction with a ceiling fan took me all the way through the night comfortably.
>> Test personal limits
My friend recently admitted to me that she hasn’t replaced the AC unit that crapped out on her last summer because she “really likes having a window” in her apartment. An improvement in the view from her place has been enough to push her temperature limits. “I use two tower fans and I’m honestly fine,” she told me. Sometimes, we just need something to die to figure out that we will not.
NYC nights in apartments with tenants on all sides and a lack of cross ventilation do little to tout the appeal of forgoing cool air in a hot-garbage-smelling summer. Likewise, the aforementioned complaints that come from coworkers on a muggy afternoon in August are enough to cause a ring-style fight in the conference room.
In a culture that is “physically addicted” to air conditioning according to the book, I know I am better than that and I can push my limits. After all, the best time of my life this year was melting in that hammock at that eco-lodge on the Colombian coast.
And I prefer to dream of that at night than anything else—guilt-free.