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Life without air-conditioning? Could you do it?

Lisa Finkelstein, who lives without air-conditioning in her Tallahassee cottage, says, “You acclimate to it.”

New York Times

Lisa Finkelstein, who lives without air-conditioning in her Tallahassee cottage, says, “You acclimate to it.”

To many Americans, abstaining from air-conditioning is a masochistic folly akin to refusing Novocain or renouncing the dishwasher. • Yet as this particular summer finally heats up, even citizens who believe that climate control is a God-given right may be questioning whether it has become a luxury they can no longer afford. They are probably also wondering how they can survive without it. • Those who've done just that like to point out that air-conditioning is a relatively recent boon to humanity: The Allies won World War II without it, and the great pyramids of Egypt were built al fresco. Today, fans of the unchilled life say it is not only possible to turn back the clock and live as one with summer, but to do it while maintaining a high quality of life.

Lisa Finkelstein, a freelance editor, stopped using the semifunctional air-conditioning unit in her rented cottage in Tallahassee two years ago, mostly for economic reasons.

"You live with your windows and doors open, you use fans, drink lots of cold liquids and take it easy," she said. "You come to realize that winter and summer is going to be kind of a bear but you dress for it, and you enjoy fall and spring very much. What's interesting is you acclimate to it."

She said that if she didn't work from home, the adjustment would probably be harder. "It's miserable when you come out of a nice air-conditioned place," Finkelstein said.

This summer, she probably has more company in the choice she has made. Shipments of window air conditioners from manufacturers to distributors were down 39 percent in the first half of this year compared with the first half of last year, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., and shipments of central air-conditioning units have been down 10 percent a year for the past few years, according to the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute in Arlington, Va.

Those who plunge into a warmer world for economic reasons sometimes find that there are advantages that they hadn't anticipated.

Genma Holmes, a 42-year-old mother of three in Nashville, and her husband, Roger, declared their house a no-air-conditioning zone last summer. Their children were not amused, given that average summer temperatures in Nashville are in the high 80s.

"They didn't look at it from our economic point of view," said Holmes, who ripped the thermostat from the wall after her offspring repeatedly turned on the air while their parents were out. "They thought mom and dad were going through some kind of midlife crisis, like when we recycled before everyone started doing it."

It was when the family put up an awning and fan over their patio — effectively transforming it into their living room, where they spent about three hours a night grilling, playing games and talking instead of going their separate ways — that they discovered the upside of an uncontrolled climate.

"We spent an entire summer getting to know our kids by sitting outside trying to keep our electricity bill down," said Holmes, who estimated savings of $2,100 last summer. "We also got thinner — all of our diets changed because we were eating a lot of grilled food. And by the time fall came around, with the change in the economy, we had learned to live off less."

Like the Holmeses, many choose to go natural during the summer for economic reasons. Others find that this is a point on which finance, politics and habits intersect.

"In our social circle, use of the air conditioner is extremely limited," said Martin Focazio, who lives in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., and commutes into Manhattan four days a week to his job as a digital media strategist. "It's not like we're health-nut crazies or a bunch of dirty hippies dancing naked around the fire. We're all white-collar geeks living an exurban lifestyle. We just all share the philosophy of rolling with the seasons if you can."

Five years ago, Focazio, 44, dismantled the central air system in the 1,600-square-foot ranch house he shares with his wife and three young children. He left the blower motor in the attic, which the family turns on at night to draw up hot air and vent it outside, lowering the inside temperature by a few degrees but leaving the humidity unaffected.

"If you sweat it out, drink water and let your body adjust with the seasons, you'd be surprised," he said. "There's a few days where you feel like you're walking into a wet shower curtain, but it's amazing how your body will adapt."

Houses built before the 1960s, when widespread use of window air conditioners began, tended to incorporate many of the elements that make it easier to stay cool: higher ceilings, alignment of windows for cross-ventilation, more windows on the north side of the house than the sun-exposed south, and a large covered porch to shield the sunniest part of the house.

But even those who live in houses without the ideal design can fight summer heat. At night, open windows let in the cool air (window fans help). But windows should be closed in mid morning, along with drapes or blinds, to prevent sunlight from heating up the rooms.

Although those techniques work, not everyone is comfortable using them. Drawn drapes in the daytime can be a bit gloomy, and open windows at night can admit ambient noise — and intruders. Finkelstein, the freelance editor who also co-writes an antiwar blog, deals with that problem by keeping a loaded shotgun and revolver on hand.

"Crimes of opportunity are a fact of life in Tallahassee," she said, "and open windows and doors provide entree."

The sultry life is not for everyone. Guests tend to object. Heatstroke is a risk for the very young, the very old and infirm.

There is also the matter of other, ancillary living creatures. Pests like cockroaches thrive in the heat; pets do not.

Whether pulling the plug on air-conditioning on a temporary or long-term basis, those who have done it advise patience (along with a window unit to fall back on in dire circumstances).

"Stick it out longer than you might feel comfortable with it and sooner or later you'll start to feel more used to it," said Timothy Honse, a 27-year-old chaplain near Kansas City, Mo., who stopped using air-conditioning several summers ago.

"The first summer was really tough and we really were tempted to turn the air on," he said. "But when it starts to cool off in the fall again you're like, wow, I made it. It's actually not that bad."

Life without air-conditioning? Could you do it? 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 4:30am]
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