Playing It Cool

Should Air Conditioning Be a Basic Human Right?

Our city owes its life to A/C, and raises the question: is the unconditioned life worth living?

By Catherine Matusow May 31, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

It was one of the last balmy spring days before the inevitable arrival of Houston’s heat (scalding) and humidity (crippling). Going outdoors and not sweating is a privilege no Houstonian takes for granted, which is how we found ourselves spending an entire afternoon at our customary West Alabama Ice House picnic table, enjoying a beer, shooting the bull and luxuriating in our undrenchedness. Soon, compressors all over the city would begin working overtime, blowing heat off liquid refrigerant, which would turn curvy metal coils cold as it evaporated, and condition our air before getting compressed back into liquid, an ingenious cycle that would continue without fail, God-willing, for at least the next few months. 

But that was all in the future. Today was the sort of day in which you could sit outside with UH professor Martin Melosi, also not sweating, and pontificate about air conditioning. Melosi is a specialist in environmental and urban history, as well as co-editor of Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast

Should cool, conditioned air be considered a fundamental human right in hot climates, we wondered, just as heat is in colder ones? “I think it’s what you become accustomed to,” Melosi said. This seemed a lukewarm endorsement of our cause, and one we attributed to the professor’s childhood in the Bay Area, where “there was no weather. It was always 70 degrees and pretty.” He lived refrigerant-free both there and in Montana, where Melosi went to college and also met his wife. When the couple came to Texas in 1971, however, things changed. “From that point on in our life, A/C became essential,” he said. 

Having settled here in Houston in '84, today Melosi is a Houstonian through and through, and by that we mean he has lost any illusions he once had of playing tennis at noon in July, along with the un-air-conditioned 1964 Chevy that first brought him to Texas. It was only right, as he ended up making a life in the city that gave the world its first air-conditioned car. 

Or so wrote historian Raymond Arsenault, in his 1984 book The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture. The car was a 1930 Cadillac owned by a man about whom Arsenault says little, describing him only as “a wealthy Houston businessman” and “chronic hay fever sufferer.” The cooling system was, it must be said, primitive, with a trunk-mounted refrigeration unit powered by its own gasoline engine. Still, the man “cruised the Texas highways in pollen-free comfort,” says Arsenault. 

Not so the city’s founders, whose pre-A/C existence was by all accounts nightmarish. Among the more visceral accounts is one from the 1830s penned by the editor of the Morning Star newspaper and republished in Stephen L. Hardin’s book Texian Macabre:

“We are weary of throwing open all the doors and windows, and placing ourself in the draught, in hopes to catch one breath of cool air to cool our fevered brow. We are weary of staying at home in the day time, lest we should be scorched with intense heat…We are weary of feeling the perspiration coursing down our cheeks…We are weary of this lassitude, and languor…which incapacitates us alike for mental and physical labor.”

We hear you, brother. 

That our city owes its life to the invention of air conditioning is debatable, although there is general agreement that life without it would pretty much suck. What air conditioning blew in was cold air and fresh possibilities, as the New York Times noted in a pair of 1955 stories on A/C and Houston (“probably the most air-conditioned city in the world”), calling this a place where the “man of affairs” only suffers from the heat during “the mercifully brief moments when he is ducking from house to car, from car to office, and vice versa.” 

As for the 120-plus years between hell and heaven, the most important of these was 1902, when Willis Carrier patented his “apparatus for treating air.” Melosi picked it up from there. “You begin to see some inklings in the ’20s and ’30s in a lot of public spaces like movie theaters, which sold tickets by saying, ‘We’re air-conditioned,’” he told us, sounding every bit the professor as he took a swig of Bohemia. 

But things really heated up—er, cooled off—in the ’40s, a decade in which enormous advances in A/C technology coincided kismet-like with Houston’s post-WWII construction boom. “The technology was fortuitous,” Melosi said, “because energy was relatively cheap and the climate was terribly hostile. And in order to attract people here and attract business and so forth, things like A/C do make a difference.” 

How would Houston be different without the invention of A/C, we wondered? “I can’t imagine it would look the same,” said Melosi. “Whether it would be as big, my sense is it would not. It would not have attracted the kind of people and business that it ultimately attracted.” 

Many structures built during the last 50 years would have been impossible otherwise, chief among them the Astrodome, which opened in 1965. A/C also “fundamentally changed the way houses were built,” Melosi said. “You no longer had to worry about southern exposure”—which typically gets the most sun—“about the size and placement of windows, or the air flow through a house.” 

And this disconnect between architecture and environment carries risks. “We’ve become quite vulnerable, because if the power goes out, there you are,” back in the lassitude and languor, something Melosi learned first-hand during Hurricane Ike in 2008. (Then again, during the two weeks their Meyerland home was without power, the Melosis finally had a chance to go outside and speak with their neighbors, mainly because they had no other choice.)  

But while there are far more pros than cons to air conditioning, the cons are worrisome. Many units use ozone-depleting Freon as a refrigerant, although the government has mandated that manufacturers stop producing air conditioners containing it by 2020. In addition, according to the Department of Energy, America’s air conditioners collectively emit 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, which contributes to global warming. Reducing emissions, Melosi said, will require restraint at the thermostat, green building practices and improved technology. “My view is that the quicker we do this, the more able we’ll be to make ourselves less vulnerable and also…leave a smaller environmental footprint. That’s always the goal. Whether it’s attainable, I don’t know.”

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