“It was luxuries like air conditioning that brought down the Roman Empire. With air conditioning their windows were shut, they couldn’t hear the barbarians coming.”
We recently received a letter from CL & P that provided normative data from our immediate neighborhood on our electrical consumption. If the letter was to be believed, we were consuming enough power to light several small Midwestern towns. Our failing grade suggested we had a carbon footprint larger than Paul Bunyon’s boot.
While our environmental “F” offended my anti-global warming spouse, it enraged my green teenaged son who had chided me over the past year for my failings as an environmentally conscious citizen. If I were to succumb to all of his Greenpeace demands, I would be composting everything, urinating in the woods, and drinking from a perpetually dented metal water bottle. My house would forever register a refreshing 58 degrees in the winter and 80 degrees in the summer. I had already turned over the keys to my car and password to my ATM. I was not going to turn over control of my thermostat without a fight.
I admit to being distressed over the last year as our energy bills soared. I repeatedly circled the house wondering if one of my neighbors was perhaps pirating electricity from the tangled tightrope of wires that snaked down through the tree line and fed our voraciously energy dependent home. I did notice at night that my neighbor’s houses seemed darker and vacant while our home was lit up like a Christmas tree. TVs were on with no one in the room. Computers were perpetually hibernating but very much alive. Every room was illuminated yet every kid was downstairs in the basement.
There was a problem. As my conscientious spouse would be turning off the air conditioner and opening a window to welcome a warm, woolen summer night, our teenaged son was upstairs recreating winter and burying himself under a three-foot pile of buffalo blankets. In the adjacent room, his eco-friendly brother was opening his windows to allow fresh and humid summer air to circulate and releasing an Alberta clipper of expensive AC into the soft night.
Our energy efficiency is complicated by a home that is a patchwork quilt of miniature ecosystems containing rooms hot enough to support desert succulents and frigid areas capable of doubling as a meat locker. Some spaces are simply haunted – – defying logic with cold spots and odd drafts. The notion of removing or donning clothes to regulate our own body temperatures is anathema to California transplants that prefer a world perpetually set at 72 degrees. I try to explain to my energy leeches that only Heaven and San Diego routinely reach meteorological nirvana. We are, as humans, meant to suffer and through this suffering we find humility and tank top shirts. These insights are always met with blanks stares and silence. As if to mock me, I hear the air conditioning unit kick on.
I am also part of the problem. I often need to turn on the AC at night to avoid waking up feeling like a malaria patient stuck in some POW camp near the equator. I go to bed early, only to wake up as if a fever had just broken. In fact, the energy czar has turned off the AC and opened a window. Overheated crickets are now serenading me with soft derogatory thrums, “lo-ser”, “lo-ser”, “lo-ser”.I move like a cat burglar and twist the thermostat. Optimal ambient temperature should be calibrated not in degrees but to the weight of the heaviest person in the room. My wife likes to set the AC to 105 lbs. I need it reset to 230 lbs. I am a large man and throw off more heat than a January pot-belly stove.
She is asleep but stirs when she hears the thermostat. “I opened the window,” she murmurs in weak protest. I stand still, holding my breath, waiting and then move to close the window. I ease slowly back to bed. At 6 am, I awaken to a soaked tee-shirt that looks as if I had shoveled coal in the bowels of some great steam ship. I glance at the thermostat now set to 78 degrees. The window has been reopened.
The AC wars have been waged for decades. In 1971, my parents gathered us for a rare family meeting to vote on whether to put a pool in our back yard or install central air conditioning. Summers in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley could easily hit 100 degrees — often with air pollution that would squat like filthy humidity – causing health problems for infants and the elderly. The debate often raged in every middle class house between swimming pools and air conditioning.
My older brother clearly saw the social advantages of a pool that included parties, skinny-dipping and Jacuzzi encounters that he had only read about in Penthouse Forum. My middle brother and I clearly saw the benefits of air conditioning as we had a number of friends with pools. We saw how most had lost interest in their own kidney shaped swimming holes. On hot evenings, their windows would be filled with a hundred whirling fans – desperate to cool the inside of the home to a temperature equal to the outside air. Air conditioning sounded boring but I knew there was nothing more reassuring than to hear a Carrier central air unit whirl into high gear.
My youngest brother voted for the pool and we were officially deadlocked. My mother would be the deciding factor. We were certain she would opt for the pool as she knew very well that my father believed that air conditioning weakened the constitution. These modern conveniences were the first rotation to the left in the cycle of dependence. With dependence, poverty of character would soon be in full motion. Suffering led to insight and strength. Strength led to freedom. And freedom led to a good job with a country club membership where the men’s locker room had air conditioning.
Secretly, my mother’s greatest fear was that my father would not allow us to actually use the air conditioner. His frugal fanaticism was legendary and at least with a pool, which he would probably refuse to heat, the water would be cold. Yet, the Gods were kind that summer delivering a withering heat wave that broke our deadlock. In a shocking last-minute reversal, everyone opted for AC.
Almost immediately, the AC wars began. There were fights over windows left open and $200 monthly electrical bills. There were fiats, moratoriums and bizarre brown out periods. Inevitably, the AC advocates and the utilities who faithfully delivered their electricity prevailed. Consumption triumphed over common sense.
It is now midnight and I am once again creeping over to turn down the temperature. Brody, the dog has shifted from the carpet to the cool, wood floor – a sign that even man’s best friend is not willing to accept this pea soup summer night. I am turning the tumblers of the thermostat like a safecracker hoping to avoid the energy czar’s wrath. I hear the whirl of the AC unit and feel the cool, artificial air course through the floor ducts. Brody sighs with approval.
Tonight, I have won a small battle but I do not delude myself. This is war and I fully expect a counter attack before dawn.