Turn down the AC — or better, turn it off!

My uncle and aunt who live in Ottawa are dedicated environmentalists. They’ve been thinking about local food and sustainability longer than most of us. Hugh, my uncle, writes for the community paper and I always enjoy reading his pieces urging people to reduce their demand on the earth’s resources. I appreciated his last article about air conditioning so much, I thought it would be nice to share it.

The inevitable smog days of summer with their high humidex levels will soon descend
on us. But before hiking up the air conditioning, there are some alternatives that will help both your bank account and the environment.

Although the coal generating plants in Ontario are gradually being phased out, they are frequently still cranked up to full power to meet the demand for air conditioning on hot summer days.

If there is insufficient generating capacity in Ontario, our power authority has to import expensive electricity from the US. The imported power usually comes from the coal fired plants in the Ohio Valley.

Coal fired electricity increases ground level smog and ozone and exacerbates global warming in the upper atmosphere. Because of the prevailing winds, most of the air pollution created in Ohio blows into Ontario. So we are importing both health problems and global warming in addition to electricity.

Fossil fuel use for air conditioning triggers what scientists call a feedback loop. The more air conditioning we use, the more fossil fuel electricity is generated, creating increased emissions of greenhouse gases which increases summer warming and that in turn increases the demand for air conditioning. And so the cycle continues, poisoning our air and heating up the atmosphere.

To cool the interior of our homes, heat must be transferred outside: this is the basic principle of air conditioning. The transfer of heat further warms the outdoor air. It is estimated that air conditioning probably increases the ambient temperature of Toronto in the summer by 2 degrees. This phenomenon is another example of a feedback loop.

Unless we break this cycle, Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers and other important environmental books, warns that indiscriminate air conditioning will cook the planet.

Let us not look to nuclear energy to fuel our air conditioners. The tragedy of Fukushima is sufficient evidence that the health, environmental and financial costs of nuclear power are too frightening to contemplate.

We can only break the air conditioning feedback cycle by reducing our summer demands through conservation measures. More efficient air conditioning units are not a solution because research shows that more efficient machines, such as automobiles for example, simply increase our consumption of energy through greater use. It is behavioural change not technological innovation that will mitigate the health, environmental and financial costs of air conditioning.

Another reason to cut back on air conditioning is that “time of use pricing” for electricity will be introduced later this year in Ottawa and excessive use of your air conditioner will send both your hydro bill and greenhouse gases soaring.

Instead of purchasing an air conditioning system or replacing your present unit, consider installing awnings over south facing windows and patio doors.

Close blinds and curtains during the day to keep the sun’s rays out.

Use overhead, oscillating or box fans to move the air around.

You can keep cool outdoors in the evenings under an awning in a screened porch by using a portable fan.

Open windows at night to allow cool air to flow through the house.

Suck night air through the house by installing a box fan at one end of the house blowing air out while leaving only one window open at the opposite end.

If your roof needs reshingling, consider light coloured shingles that will reflect the heat of the summer sun.

If you have to replace your driveway, consider a light coloured surface to reduce ambient temperatures around the house.

Inadequate ventilation and insulation in your attic space will increase
temperatures in the house.

A well insulated house will hold cool air better.

Minimize the indoor use of any appliance that generates heat in summer.

Turn lights off during the day, especially incandescent bulbs.

Don’t use an extractor fan because it will draw hot outdoor air into the house.

Cook in the garage on a hot day using a slow cooker or an electrical element.

Alternatively, cook outdoors on a solar cooker or a barbecue.

Avoid using barbecues on smoggy days because of their particulate emissions.

Serve cold buffets in warm weather or prepare a picnic meal.

Some foods, such as cold soups and granola, can be cooked in winter and stored in the freezer for summer use.

If you must cook indoors, use a microwave.

Wait until the evening and open the windows before turning the dishwasher on.

Bathe or shower in the evenings when the windows are open.

Use an outdoor line or an “umbrella” to dry clothes.

Iron clothes on a cool evening with the windows open.

Sleep in the basement on hot nights with the windows open and secured.

Set your air conditioning thermostat no lower than 26 degrees.

Join Hydro Ottawa’s peaksaver! program to reduce your electricity bills and to ease pressure on the environment. Visit www.hydroottawa.com for details.

If you need to replace your air conditioner or purchase a new system, consider buying a small unit and only cool one room.

If you have to use your air conditioner, use it sparingly. There are probably only10 days in a summer that are excessively hot.

Be considerate of your neighbours before turning on your air conditioner, especially at night, because some units are noisy.

There are health concerns about the quality of indoor house air and because we spend so much of the winter closed in, summer provides an opportunity to reconnect with nature and enjoy the fresh air flowing through our houses. It also provides an opportunity to reconnect with our neighbours instead of being isolated in our summer igloos. – Hugh Robertson