In America’s least air-conditioned cities, brutal heat changes some people’s minds
Carl Rocha, left, and Patrick Plummer, with Bill’s Heating & A/C install air conditioning and a new furnace at a home in Spokane, Wash., on June 23, just before a heat wave hit the state. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review/AP)
By Marc Fisher, Carissa Wolf and Michael Hingston
Today at 8:00 a.m. EDT In Boise, Idaho, where the temperature topped 97 for a stretch of 14 out of 15 days this month
, Sarah O’Keefe refuses to give in. With the mercury repeatedly soaring into triple digits, she started waking up hours earlier, added afternoon siestas to her routine and installed a sprinkler to cool her hot metal roof. The AC stays off. In Edmonton, Alberta — nobody’s idea of a sweltering summer spot — Ellen Campbell no longer mocks neighbors who own air conditioners, but she’s not about to buy one herself.
When highs topped 90 degrees for a few days before returning to the more ordinary 60s, she checked her grandkids and herself into a local hotel for the AC and the pool. But she will not buy her own AC unit. That’s not the kind of place where she lives. In Portland, Ore., however, the heat finally got to Vivek Shandas. He’s lived in the Pacific Northwest for 21 years and had resisted buying an air conditioner until this summer.
“This thing broke us,” he said. After highs hit 108, 112 and 116 degrees on successive days last month, he bought a portable unit, put it in his bedroom and crowded in with his spouse, 11-year-old child and two dogs. The bedroom never got down below 87 degrees, but the AC bought them some sleep. From the cool coastal cities of the Pacific Northwest through the heavily forested northern states of Idaho and Montana and up into western Canada, places where air conditioning is anything but standard are suddenly confronting a new weather reality — persistent, painful heat spells that have many people questioning the identity and culture of the place they’ve chosen as home.
In a region where people take pride in their embrace of nature and where key elements of the economy are based on temperate summer days, this year’s triple-digit temperatures are clouding the self-image of people who see buying an air conditioner as a sign of weak character.
“This is a place that is so ill-prepared for what we’ve just experienced,” said Shandas, founder of the Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab at Portland State University.
Heat waves are dangerous. Isolation and inequality make them deadly.
Until this summer, Shandas, like many others in the region, had gotten through short hot spells by going into his basement or closing windows by day and then opening them to the cool evening breezes.
In the last heat surge, though, “there was really no escape in your home,” he said. “A lot of people move here because they appreciate outdoor culture. When that outdoor environment becomes oppressive and you have a culture that’s not equipped to spend our days inside in air conditioning, that really throws us a curveball.”
Shandas and his family ended up spending hours bobbing in a local river — the only outdoor relief they could find. Back in his lab, Shandas studies what pushes people to their tipping point — what makes them go to a cooling center or, like him, give up on lifelong antagonism to AC and buy a unit.
How people in the Pacific Northwest — and everywhere — choose their individual responses to extreme weather will play a vital role in determining the global approach to the changing climate, Shandas said.
“Many people get past a week like we had and say, ‘Phew, we’re through that, let’s hope another one doesn’t come,’?” he said, “but others say, ‘This is a wake-up call to get serious.’ We’re trying to learn what leads people to each conclusion.” In the areas that have baked through much of July, many can’t quite bring themselves to become one of those people who seal their families into artificially cooled rooms for the season.
Campbell used to mock people who owned air conditioning. “Why would anyone invest in that kind of infrastructure?” she’d say. After all, her home of Edmonton was known for its bone-chilling winters, not its moderate summer temperatures.
These days, AC is starting to sound like a less frivolous choice. When the heat dome first descended in late June, Campbell, 64, had plans to take her grandkids on a road trip to a nearby dinosaur museum.
Instead, she checked herself and the kids into a hotel in Edmonton, where they could enjoy not just the hotel’s high-powered AC but also its pool, which they could book for private one-hour slots.
“I felt like a human being again,” she said. “An imprisoned one, really, because we’re just staying in this darkened room for four days. But it was livable.”
Back home at her apartment on the top floor of a three-story building, Campbell realized she needed to make changes to get through the heat. Her fans wouldn’t cut it.
Campbell, an ESL teacher who lives alone, bought blackout curtains from Ikea. She started sleeping on the couch in the living room, which gets marginally better airflow than her bedroom. Sometimes, she drapes wet bedsheets over a drying rack in front of her fan, hoping to add moisture to the dry prairie air.
But Campbell draws the line at buying an AC unit. Yet she recognizes that AC is now an occasional necessity, so her new plan is to escape as needed to a hotel, or to her daughter’s air-conditioned apartment. Campbell’s concession to the new reality is a result of a persistent shift in weather that has produced an extreme run on AC units this summer, according to appliance providers. And home builders in the region have been including central air in new houses at sharply increased rates.
From 1971 to 2000, Seattle averaged three 90-degree days per summer. By this past decade, that number had jumped to 10 scorchers each year. As a result, the portion of Seattle homes equipped with air conditioning shot up from 31 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2019, according to the U.S. Census’s American Housing Survey.
Although Seattle remains the nation’s least air-conditioned major metropolitan area — Houston is at the other extreme, with 99.4 percent of housing units cooled — what the Seattle Times called “the unimaginable” is coming soon: an air-conditioned majority among Seattle homes. (Nationwide, about 87 percent of homes have AC, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)
Portland is already there. Though the city is about an hour inland from the ocean, it still ranks third nationally among least air-conditioned metro areas, but census data shows that longer heat waves have pushed the percentage of people with AC at home from 44 percent in 2002 to 78 percent in 2019.
Just as the widespread installation of air conditioning redefined life in much of the Sun Belt, leading to a population explosion from the 1970s onward, the Pacific Northwest’s “natural air conditioning” has always been a core of its appeal.
“Seattle’s pride has centered around the idea that we have all the advantages of California, without the heat or lack of water,” said Matthew Klingle, a historian at Bowdoin College in Maine and author of “Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle.” “The chamber of commerce’s pitch was always that summers aren’t so hot and you don’t need air conditioning.” From the city’s earliest days, business and government leaders “relentlessly marketed the weather,” Klingle said. In 1924, a local meteorologist published a pamphlet titled “In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine” that touted the city’s “sunbreaks” — a euphemism for incessantly cloudy conditions — that helped keep summers cool and pleasant.
In the early 2000s, Seattle’s boosters marketed the city with an ad campaign called “Metronatural,” showing a kayak atop a car on a downtown street to sell the idea that the great outdoors was elemental to life there. The region’s weather has shaped its culture and economy. Pleasant summers made possible the lifestyle choices that led to local start-ups: Eddie Bauer, REI, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Jantzen Swimwear. Even huge corporate employers such as Boeing and Microsoft made the region home partly because of the weather — Boeing because it made for better flying and was easier on the spruce used in early stick and wire aircraft, Microsoft because easy summers and mountain and sea access were advantages in the competition for tech talent.
But now, with heat domes intensifying the summer and the jet stream shifting to deliver greater temperature extremes, the Pacific Northwest’s self-image is threatened. On a practical level, drawn blinds and those box fans up in the attic — often family heirlooms still spinning after decades of only occasional use — are turning out to be inadequate.
When Carl Abbott moved to Portland from Norfolk 40 years ago, he asked about the summer heat, as any Virginian might.
“People said, ‘You don’t have to worry about it,’?” he recalled. “And we didn’t. Even on the hottest day, you go to a movie, go out to eat, come home and it’s cooled off and you’re fine.” Then came this summer’s heat dome. The one window AC unit in Abbott’s house couldn’t stand up to the sun’s power. “For three awful days, we thought we were in Death Valley,” he said. “This is the first time it’s felt like a crisis rather than an inconvenience.”
Cool and wet “has always been central to Portland’s and Oregon’s image,” said Abbott, a retired urbanist at Portland State University who wrote a history of the city, “Portland in Three Centuries.” “To think now in terms of hot and dry rather than rain and snow — that’s something for back there, back East. Now these cities are going to have to start thinking of themselves as less special.”
This summer’s intense heat — it melted power cables, caused some roads to buckle, and in Portland, halted streetcars and closed some public swimming pools — has created problems beyond anything air conditioning can solve.
“The heat is one more symptom of the larger challenge the Pacific Northwest faces from climate change,” Klingle said, noting the declines in salmon and orca populations, a rise in red tide and toxic algae in the waterways, and the increasing number and severity of wildfires.
That concern about the broader impact and meaning of the heat waves has stopped some residents from embracing AC.
After 25 years away from her hometown of Boise, Idaho, Sarah O’Keefe paused her academic career in 2016 to move back to care for her ailing parents. She saved during her years of working and can afford to run the AC unit in the double-wide manufactured home she shares with her partner. But they choose not to.
“Why don’t we use the AC and live like the rest of America?” she asked. “Because it costs money. We try to protect Mother Earth. .?.?. I like to think that me being careful with my chunk of the resources makes up for the people who are not.”
So O’Keefe, 46, has rearranged her schedule to get some sleep and get stuff done. Instead of staying up late, as she usually does, she awakens at 6 a.m. to garden before the heat builds.
She figures she saves hundreds of dollars each month by using cooling techniques she learned from work and travel around the world. She rode out the triple-digit afternoon on Sunday inside with a long afternoon nap — a habit she picked up in Italy and Spain. Pakistani and Indian neighbors she met at Louisiana State University taught O’Keefe to rely on handheld fans and loose, light clothing. Her colleagues from overseas “thought Americans used too much air conditioning and it made them uncomfortable,” she said. “I came around to their way of thinking.”
She putters around the garden in cotton overall shorts that she soaks in water. She lingers by the Boise River a few blocks from her home, where canopies of trees and a river breeze provide some relief.
The sprinkler O’Keefe and her partner attached to their metal roof helps cool the inside of the house to a manageable 80 degrees, with an assist from fans and the frozen two-liter bottles she places in front of them.
But such measures aren’t nearly enough for many.
Rocky Frazin thought she left heat and humidity behind when she moved from Florida to Montana in 2017.
This past month has proved to her that even the Northern Rockies can roast. “Opening the windows at night to cool the house down and then closing them in the morning just isn’t cutting it anymore,” said Frazin, 30, an account executive for a marketing firm who lives in a little two-bedroom home in the woods in Coram, Mont., not far from the entrance to Glacier National Park, where her husband is a park ranger. Last weekend marked 21 consecutive days of 90-degree or higher heat in parts of Montana, breaking a record set in 1904.
Frazin had a window-mounted air conditioner in her bedroom for a few years. This summer, the couple moved it into their 1-year-old’s room. That left Frazin and her husband sweltering.
“We were like, ‘We just can’t live like this anymore,’?” she said.
At the Home Depot in Kalispell, they bought two more air conditioners, one for their room and one for the living room. Frazin still loves Montana, “with all my heart,” she said. “At least we have seasons here. Florida is a year-round heat.”
As air conditioning becomes more standard in new homes in the region, Shandas, the urban heat researcher, warns that it cannot solve the larger problem. “We can always throw more AC at it, but can our electricity infrastructure keep up with that?” he asked. “We’re going to need to look at building materials, the geometry of buildings and other changes in the code. It’s continuing to get hotter.”
That reality leads some people to rush out to the appliance store. Rosalie Grafe, a retired librarian, has lived in Portland all her life. With succinct pride, she said, “I didn’t think an AC merited the investment.”
During the heat wave, Grafe, 78, figured her basement would keep her reasonably cool. But she was too uncomfortable and had to retreat to her couch upstairs to ease her back pain.
Friends brought her a fan and an ice necklace, a plastic gizmo filled with water and frozen to wear as a body cooler. The necklace was nice but Grafe has conceded to the elements. She’s ready to buy an AC. “A friend is going to help me get a good deal,” she said.
Six-hundred miles to the east, in Gardiner, Mont., on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, Doug Burgess lives above his hardware store, which he built out of a 1930s movie theater.
The place had zero insulation and in winter, people used to “bring blankets and sleeping bags to keep themselves warm while watching the movies,” he said. Burgess added insulation and moved into what used to be the theater’s balcony. There is no AC.
So when it was 92 degrees outside last weekend, it was 82 inside. Fans were Burgess’s only defense against the heat. As the temperature outside climbed to just shy of 100 degrees, the air inside became punishing.
Burgess, 64, has always resisted buying AC. In the past, “if it got too hot, I’d just close the store for the day,” he said. He’d head up into the nearby Beartooth Mountains to hang out until the evening cool.
But now the heat is lasting longer, overpowering whatever relief the evenings bring.
“I might have to rethink,” Burgess said. Eight weeks of extreme heat is a different story. Still, for now, he’s holding out. “Hey, we live in Montana,” he said. “If I think it is hot now, I just think about February.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/extreme-heat-no-air-conditioning/2021/07/22/110f5c0e-e66a-11eb-a41e-c8442c213fa8_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F3435877%2F60f997239d2fda945a1201de%2F5d3078d0ade4e259568cac81%2F13%2F70%2F60f997239d2fda945a1201de