New York and Air-Conditioning: Summer Never Felt So…Arctic

September 27th, 2010 by Bianca Seidman

As notorious as New York summers are for humidity and stifling, hot air outside, what may be even more shocking is the blasting air-conditioning found almost everywhere inside.  Though a little A/C may sound nice on a damp, 90-degree day, a lot of New York stores and offices run the units ferociously, blasting icy currents of arctic-like air.  It may be bathing suit season at the beach, but it’s chunky sweater weather in the city’s businesses.

The term air-conditioning as it’s used today refers to cooling systems that not only “refrigerate” the air they blow, but also reduce humidity. New York surely has plenty of both, so it makes sense that people want that A/C.  But the question is, how much air-conditioning is too much?

There’s no question that air conditioning has changed our society in many ways, both positive and negative.  Air conditioning is a massive force, which has transformed our habits since it began to spread in the 1950s (see Time Magazine’s history).  Here in New York where the climate can be extreme not only in winter, but also for a few months of scorching summer, air-conditioning is truly everywhere.

There is so much air-conditioning, both central air and window units, running at the same time in New York City that Con-Edison regularly warns people that the massive demand can and has caused power outages.   They recommend setting the thermostat to no lower than 78 degrees, but the average office worker or store shopper can attest to chilly temps that feel more Spring in Anchorage.

According to John Hockenberry of NPR’s, ”The Takeaway,” many stores use ice-cold air-conditioning as an incentive to shop there.  One of his guests on the show, Stan Cox, wrote the book, ”Losing Our Cool:  The High Price of Staying Cool,” where he argues the many social and environmental impacts of air-conditioning.   He says the massive amount of energy required to run it is one of the biggest issues.  The U.S. is about 85% air-conditioned, according to Cox in his New York Times interview.  Other places around the world are also guzzling energy for the convenience, like Mumbai, India, where 40% of energy is from air-conditioning use that is reserved for only the wealthier class. Have a listen to their discussion:

Though most people feel a great benefit from the comfortable temperatures air-conditioning can provide, there are a few health risks.  According to the CDC, Legionnaire’s disease and other bacteria-related illness can be spread through air-conditioning ducts and because the units have standing warm water in their system.  Stan Cox says there is also increasing thought that air-conditioning can make obesity worse because the constant cold feeling makes people crave more food and a bigger layer of fat to stay warm.

Yes, there is even some thought that air-conditioning has affected politics.’s Edward McClelland makes the argument that air-conditioning has also changed the distribution of our country.  He wrote the essay, “Does Air Conditioning Make People vote Republican?” McClelland says more work and more living could be done in the extremely hot South and West of the U.S. after Carrier popularized air-conditioning.  As a result, those states have grown and wield more political and financial power than they otherwise would have.  Carrier was from Syracuse, New York, but apparently his home state has lost 14 electoral votes since the 1950’s because of migration to warm climates.

But air-conditioning isn’t just about statistics and history or even health concerns.  It’s almost as American and as New York as (big) apple pie.  The question isn’t whether the city should do without air-conditioning because that won’t happen.  Maybe New York City just needs to go on a low-calorie air-conditioning diet?

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