Which AC does the least damage to the environment?
If you consider yourself fairly green and knowledgeable by now you know that running your air conditioning all summer is not healthy for the planet.
A common refrigerant, a coolant called R-22, is one of the worst destroyers of the ozone layer. A newer alternative, R410-A, is less damaging to ozone but contributes to greenhouse gases which cause the earth’s atmosphere to retain heat.
Plus there’s a general warming effect: The more we run the AC, the more heat we expel into the air and the hotter the planet. And the heavier your carbon footprint.
So what are we supposed to, swelter all summer? Not necessarily. There are things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint while staying pretty cool.
Some hope on the horizon
In the medium- to long-term future, there are new technologies in development: cheaper solar power, heat exchanges that use the ambient temperature of the earth, wind turbines that replace dirty coal in producing electricity, to name a few.
The government and industry have jumped into the green energy business with both feet– more enthusiastically, in fact, than major utilities, which have an investment in the status quo. From the biggest investor, Warren Buffett, to crowd-funding by 10,000 individuals, solar is starting to attract financing.
But your options are subject to geography. Solar might be viable in San Diego or Dallas; not so much in Seattle. The northwest has wind and hydro. Wind is big in Texas or Alaska, and there is a large new wind project under development off the coast of Rhode Island.
There are promising new advances– such as an AC system that doesn’t use coolant, but uses a drying substance like rock salt to remove humidity from the air– but it will be a few years before these products are available at the local Home Depot.
In the here and now
In the meantime, are we supposed to die of heat stroke? Again, where you live will make a difference in your options.
Most areas of the U.S. have a fairly temperate climate, which means even in the summer the air will cool off at night (most nights, anyway). So you might be able to get by without AC at night. Or try setting the thermostat higher from bedtime till morning.
If you live in a moderate climate, you might check out a heat pump. This uses the natural warmth of the earth to heat or cool the inside of your house. Heat pumps are a bit expensive to install, but you’ll save money on electricity.
If you live in the far north, you can probably get away with just using the AC during the hottest days of summer; turn it off at night and open the windows.
Ceiling fans, too, can help cool the house and move air around, especially in the more moderate climate zones– or during winter in the south.
Your personal carbon footprint
But even if you live in Dallas or Phoenix, there are ways to help reduce the impact of AC on the planet. Here are a few suggestions:
- Buy the best system you can afford. Central AC is now available in high-efficiency products. (Efficiency is measured in SEER ratings– a low of around 5 and a high around 28; the higher the number, the less power you need to cool your house.) Here’s a government website that rates the best AC systems: www.energystar.gov/AC. The same website has information about rebates and tax credits.
- Make sure your AC is tuned up and well maintained. Have your air conditioning contractor do an annual cleaning and maintenance, preferably before the start of the cooling season. (Daylight savings time is a good cue to schedule an appointment, before the AC people get really busy.) Ask your tech to show you how to change the filters. If you detect any leakage or malfunctioning in the system, call your tech right away.
- Buy a programmable thermostat. This is a small investment that will start paying off right away. You can set it so the temperature is allowed to rise a little when you’re not home. Close the drapes during the heat of the day, and plant shade trees around your house. Close off rooms that aren’t being used. If you use your AC wisely, you can help mitigate the negative effects. And still stay cool.