The Air Conditioning Trap

We really tried to tough it out and do all we could afford to do to avoid the air conditioning trap, but smog and asthma made it impossible.

By Michelle Martin
Published July 07, 2008

It broke our hearts (and our bank account), but we did it.

On the first day of the first serious heat wave of summer, we bought two window air conditioners. We needed one for the top floor and one for the main floor of our ninety year-old urban home.

Actually, we need more than that. Central air conditioning would be ideal, but the cost was prohibitive. Window units were our next best alternative.

We really tried to tough it out and do all we could afford to do to avoid the air conditioning trap. We bought some high-tech heat-deflecting window blinds for our south and west-facing windows.

We planted a fast growing native tree to eventually shield the screen door in our kitchen. My husband built a pergola over our back porch and started training a vine to shade it from the morning sun.

All the light bulbs in our house are energy saving compact fluorescent bulbs which generate far less heat than ordinary incandescent ones. Heat producing appliances, even including the coffee maker, are not used during the dog days of summer.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The trouble is, by the third day of humidex readings passing 105 degrees, our brick house (built like an oven to withstand Canadian winters) is simply unbearable even with these precautions.

The kids can't sleep, and though I can keep the younger ones home from school (during the May and June heat waves) to recover, those in high school still have to show up and write their final exams. My husband and I still have to go to work.

Going to work on less than a good night's sleep isn't what pushed us over the edge, though. What got us in the end were the smog days. The number of smog days last year in Hamilton was 31, and most of them occurred from May to September.

There are three mild-chronic asthmatics in the house (my husband and two of the kids). Leaving the windows open on a smog day during a heat wave is, simply put, a bad idea. Yet without air conditioning, we had no choice.

Lately we found we could afford those two air conditioners. We brought them home to spare our children poor air quality.

Our poor air quality worries had increased dramatically after the Shared Air Summit of 2006. This summit was held three years in a row in Toronto, from 2005 to 2007. Its main purpose was to increase awareness about transboundary air pollution. Both American and Canadian speakers participated.

I happened to be there in 2006 because my oldest daughter had taken an environmental science project to the national science fair and so had been invited as a youth delegate. She sat in the front with students from across the province. I sat at a table in the back with some other parents.

Mid-way through the morning Dr. Kenneth Chapman, a respiratory physician from the University of Toronto, began a presentation with a joke about how his academic speech may cause drowsiness.

The fact is, I was already a little drowsy from listening to US Senator John Kerry via satellite and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty in person; Dr. Chapman's presentation woke me right up.

Information he gave about the effect of air pollution (specifically ground-level ozone) on the lungs of patients with asthma had the combined effect of an alarm clock, a slap on the face and a bucket of cold water.

He quoted a study, published in Lancet in 1991, which exposed asthma patients to ozone for only six hours at a level comparable to that present on a typical, hazy summer day. These patients were then exposed to an allergen.

It took a much lower concentration of allergen to produce wheezing in this group, compared to the concentration of allergen necessary to produce wheezing without prior ozone exposure.

In other words, air pollution (of which ground-level ozone is a significant component) increases the risk that asthma sufferers will have an attack ? perhaps one serious enough to land them in a hospital emergency room.

Because there are five coal-burning power plants in Ontario, and our air conditioners are of the plug-in variety (unlike, say, the west coast rainforest canopy), we will be contributing to the burning of coal and the increase in smog in order to spare ourselves the effects of ... smog.

It's pretty galling, but at least now we can close the windows when we must. The best we can do (in the short term) is to keep our home as cool as we can with all the practical tricks we can muster and reserve air conditioning use for the days when it is absolutely necessary, while remaining vigilant to prevent our threshold of necessity from lowering.

How else are we going to keep ourselves clear of the air conditioning trap, without chewing off our own feet ? or in this case, coughing up our lungs?

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 29, 2008 at 11:44:49

A few tips to avoid wasting any more energy than you have to on air conditioning:

a)Fans, fans and more fans. b)Avoid living on the top floor of a poorly insulated building (my last few appartments have been top floors, and both have been able to wilt candles). If you have trouble sleeping in an upstairs bedroom, consider sleeping downstairs or in the basement (if possible) on warmer nights. c)Air condition one room or a few rooms (the floor with all the bedrooms, ideally), and only turn it on when you need it. Kitchens, closets and foyers can get warmer much more comfortably than bedrooms. d)Grin and bear it. I know, it sucks, and past a point it isn't really practical, but up to that point (and it's hotter than you think) your body WILL adjust. You'll be able to get by on far less cooling than you would otherwise, and have the satisfaction that you're tougher than your friends. Billions of people around the globe get by every day in climates MUCH warmer than Canada's without ever having experienced air conditioning. e)When all else fails, strip.

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By Katie (registered) | Posted August 08, 2008 at 13:08:40

Another tip that works well with old brick houses (I live in one): open the windows at night-after dark when it's relatively cool BUT (this is where people get suspicious) close them early the next morning (like 5 or 6:00). That brick oven you live in is probably well insulated (maybe with horsehair), which is why it bakes and gets your through freezing winters. However, this can be used to your advantage by letting cool air in at night and closing it out during the day. Any 'breeze' you get through open windows on hot days is usually a false breeze - the movement of hot air outside expanding into the cooler air inside the house. This technique works best if you can stand to keep dark drapery covering windows during the day all summer to keep the sunlight from warming (what can be) your dark, cool brick cave.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted September 09, 2008 at 08:19:38

I made it the whole summer without my A/C! Bought myself one of those 60 dollar fans on sale at Canadian Tire with the remote control... Worked great.

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