Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

The Divisive Effect of A/C

By Cam Mather

I don’t have air conditioning and I’m not sure I ever will. Air conditioning is a major electrical load and I’m not sure if I have the juice to power it in our off-grid home. It’s a possibility since heat waves are generally accompanied by sunny skies (not always though – we’ve had heat waves during very hazy, cloudy weather and the solar panels don’t produce as well as usual).

Right now when we have more than one day in a row of bright sunshine, our batteries are fully charged by the second day. Rather than waste the output from the solar panels at that point, I use this “extra” juice to heat an electric hot water tank. Right now our EnerWorks Solar Domestic Hot Water Heater is heating our first hot water tank, and then our excess electricity is heating our second tank. It doesn’t take long before we have way too much hot water. And it’s scalding! What a pain. Who wants hot showers during a heat wave? So we end up just wasting electricity because I can’t use it for the hot water tank, and our usual loads like the kettle and convection oven still can’t use it up.

All this to say that a small window A/C unit is a possibility for us, but I’ll never have central air. This is OK with me.  I like being in the groove with the weather. People who live in air-conditioned homes and drive air-conditioned cars and work in air-conditioned offices have no excuse to change their routines. Some of them even seem oblivious to the heat wave until there’s a blackout, like the one that Toronto experienced on Monday after an explosion at a power station that was working at a high capacity trying to keep up with the air conditioners. I don’t have that luxury. I have to slow down during a heat wave. I simply can’t accomplish as much. I get up early to water the garden before it gets too brutally hot. Then once it gets too hot I head to my home office and it gets hot. Yesterday it was 33°C in the office. Sure I’m just sitting and working on a computer, but even my brain slows down in this heat.

I don’t sleep as well during a heat wave either, which starts to catch up with you after a few days. Our bedroom is upstairs and gets way too hot for me so I’ve been sleeping downstairs in the living room. I threw a single mattress down on the floor at night. The cats love this change in routine and it’s a battle to keep them from trying to share my bed on the floor!

I can remember sleeping in the basement as a kid during heat waves and thinking it was pretty cool. It was an adventure. Heat waves have lost some of that romance for me, but it’s interesting to see the affect air conditioning has had on North American society. I guess the most obvious effect has been where people live. Texas and Arizona and some of those areas sound like they would be unbearable without air conditioning. Like all technologies, air conditioning has done more to drive us apart and separate and isolate us.

Norm Chomsky wrote about how that in the 1930s and 40s people actually got together and shared ideas in the evenings. Many of these meetings were communist and socialist gatherings, but they were all based on spreading the wealth of society around more evenly. Those in power were starting to get concerned about groups like these actually getting power and then low and behold, television arrived. And suddenly everyone was sitting in their own living rooms being hypnotized by the box and no longer talking to each other.

There is a wonderful scene from a 1990 movie starring Aidan Quinn that is called “Avalon.” It follows an immigrant family in Baltimore through the early 20th century.

In the scene I’m thinking of they are experiencing a heat wave. Many families headed to the parks around the bays to take advantage of the cooling water effects from the Atlantic Ocean. The scene shows thousands of families in PJs sleeping on blankets by the water. What a concept. It’s amazing. Can you imagine this today? Actually I’m sure today if you were in your PJs in a public park after dark you’d be arrested. You sure would be in Toronto, or was that just during the G20?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating we ban air conditioning, I am just observing its effect on civilization. It isolates and puts bigger gaps between people. Someone at work who has central air conditioning can’t empathize with their co-worker who is exhausted because they aren’t sleeping well in their hot apartment. It’s a microcosm of the “have” vs. the “have-nots”. Whether its money, or healthcare or air conditioning, having huge chasms between groups in a society can be dangerous.

OK everyone, we’re sleepin’ in the basement tonight!

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1 Comment

  1. Lynne

    Energy Efficient comfortable central air cooling for less than $35 a year! That’s geothermal for ya baby!
    Sorry Cam… won`t work on off-grid…though I saw a write-up in a magazine about a net-zero home with geothermal…. he only had 80 solar panels and two turbines! crazzzy!

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