Why We Need To Rethink Air Conditioning

Why We Need To Rethink Air Conditioning

When the temperature rises, we turn the air conditioner on straight away — and drive our electricity bills up in the process. Four Australian academics explain why our addiction to home cooling is causing a major problem.

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As the recent Energy White Paper and Senate Committee report confirm, Australia’s electricity prices are going up. The Productivity Commission states that they have risen by 50 per cent in real terms over the last five years, mainly due to the rising cost of poles and wires. In fact, around one quarter of retail electricity bills go towards meeting around 40 hours of critical peak demand each year.

So what are we doing during these 40 hours?

It is no coincidence that the penetration of domestic air-conditioners has almost doubled in a decade: over 70 per cent of us have one. Many Australians (at least in the southern states) still reserve the use of their air-conditioners for those very hot (or cold) days of the year — some 40 hours in total — when temperatures soar (or plummet). Air-conditioning use at these times creates much of the peak load that costly infrastructure is being built to cope with.

There is no denying that it gets hot in Australia. Temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius for several days in a row.

How then did Australians manage without air conditioning? Climate change might be causing more extreme temperatures and heat waves, but this alone doesn’t explain why, in a little over a decade, cooling an entire home has become the normal and necessary thing to do.

Australia’s situation is not unique. In many developed and developing nations around the world, air-conditioning is making its way into more and more homes and workplaces. Even countries like the UK are increasingly embracing the air-conditioner, despite being considered cold in comparison to Australia.

Policy makers are well aware of the financial and environmental costs of this recent and rapid spread of air-conditioning, and have focused their attention on improving the efficiency of air-conditioners and Australia’s housing stock, and delivering behaviour change initiatives that ask householders to turn their thermostats up (or down).

However, trends such as open-plan designs, the increasing size of residential floor space, central cooling installations, and changing house designs have often outweighed efficiency and behavioural improvements.

As prices continue to rise and pressure to act on climate change becomes paramount, it is a good time for policy makers to ask if the trend towards air-conditioning indoor spaces is necessary, desirable or even possible. Taking these questions seriously, where might we look for inspiration and alternatives?

Our research, respectively conducted in Australia and the UK, is asking those very questions. In Australia we have looked at alternatives, such as cooling bodies rather than the environments they inhabit, and turning public facilities, such as libraries and community spaces, into “cooling centres” during heat waves.

We have also studied and reviewed responses to dynamic peak pricing and rebates, where households are provided with an incentive or disincentive to reduce electricity during a four-hour peak period. In these situations the malleability of cooling practices is revealed, as householders turn to a range of other methods of cooling their homes and bodies.

In the UK we have found that air-conditioning is becoming established in different settings for different reasons. There is no one story of diffusion, nor is it always the case that air-conditioning is about keeping people cool.

In the hospitals and universities we studied, air-conditioning was introduced to maintain standard operating conditions required by other technologies including computers, server rooms, and the specialist equipment now packed into intensive care units.

By contrast, upmarket hotel rooms were increasingly likely to have air-conditioning not because of any sudden change in the climate, but because cooling has become associated with quality.

In the UK, cooling is not (yet) critical for peak load – heating is still more important. But the balance is changing, and is changing in a direction that implies increasing energy consumption, and increasing CO2 emissions as well.

As governments seek to address climate change and costly peak demand, it is timely to start thinking not only about efficiency and behaviour, but about different ways of managing the relation between indoor environments and the technologies and people they contain.

Yolande Strengers is Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. She receives funding from Australian electricity utilities for energy demand management research. Cecily Maller is Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University. She receives funding from the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and has previously been funded by RMIT University’s Global Cities Research Institute. Elizabeth Shove is Professor, Sociology at Lancaster University. She receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. Gordon Walker is Chair in Environment, Risk and Social Justice at Lancaster University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • Just stop allowing stupid houses to be built!

    My home is 2 stories, with the living area upstairs, with massive non-tinted or double glazed windows/doors across the main living area. Any kind of sunny day results in 30+ degrees in the living area. Then combine that with the face the doors and windows have no fly screens or security doors means you’re either left with the option of running the air conditioning or filling your house up with bugs. Why on earth was this house ever approved to be built let alone rented out???

    • In my experience most councils and building groups have rulles in place to prevent the problems you mention and enforce good design. The problem is you have a 50/50 or worse chance of getting a designer who cares about putting in the effort, especially if you go with one of those ‘”cookie cutter” house and land packages in a big new suburb. If your unlucky and get somebody who doesn’t set thing up properly many of the people working in local councils who approve building applications aren’t well trained in environmental design or are limited in what they can do because the local coundilors want a big show and dance made of their green credentials but don’t actually wan’t to annoy any of the local development companies be enforcing good design.

      • That was a lot further down the list. The highest priority was actually getting a place to live. Any place. After 50 or so applications in 3 months, you take what you get.

    • This sounds exactly like my house. It’s so frustrating. We got a split system aircon downstairs but there’s no logical place upstairs to put it or any kind of cooling so if you’re up there you boil.

  • I took advice of friends, my builder, etc. They all said “get ducted”. I paid over $10,000 for airconditioning in an open plan house. They were as WRONG as WRONG could be (note: the builder is a family friend). I would take back that decision in a heartbeat if I could. One of the few building mistakes I made.
    Here’s the smart tips.
    1. Put water at the front or back of your house. Add bay windows near the water to create natural cooling.
    2. Tell your builder to STFU – then put extra insulation in. When I was building, I put 3x the depth of insulation across my entire ceiling, which cost me about $500 extra. This has made a phenomenal difference, despite the advice I received from everyone at the time.
    3. Get high ceilings. Again, I was advised that I was smoking pot. High ceilings make a HUGE difference for cooling.
    4. Get yourself some whirly gigs for the roof to suck out excess heat. They make a big difference.
    Now i’m no frigging expert on this stuff, but my place is cool most of the time. Yep, it’s a bitch to heat – but boy does it stay cool.

    • +1 to this. My parents did all of that (minus the water) and it made a huge difference. Insulation was probably the single biggest factor – they actually put up insulation inside all of the walls as well as the roof and ceilings. It was this “Astrofoil” stuff that was actually really easy to work with, kept the house warm and cool, really neat stuff.

    • I’m with you Dan. I have high ceilings, in addition to insulation in the roof, I added it to all my internal walls – huge difference my house rarely gets hot.

    • 3. Get high ceilings. Again, I was advised that I was smoking pot. High ceilings make a HUGE difference for cooling.

      – and as you said in the next point, it is a bitch to heat. In the middle of winter, my house is FREEZING. Massive pain in the ass to heat. In my opinion, I would in my next house attempt to obtain a happy medium between high and low ceilings, and look into putting extra insulation in, like you have said above.

  • It used to be that we built our houses to suit the environment they were in. Think of the old Queenslander style house that were built out of timber with little thermal mass, up high on stilts to catch breezes and let cooling air flow all around the house. Wide verandas to keep the sun off the walls and create cooling shade areas and high ceilings allowing heat to rise out of the habitable area of a room.
    Now we build houses that have big thermal mass that suck in the heat during the day and release it at night, they have very small or even no eaves to keep the hot sun at bay, very little space between houses stifling natural air flow – and then we spend huge amounts of money and electricity to try to control the hot environment we created in the house. I think sometimes they were a bit smarter in the old days…

  • A lot of people still don’t have air conditioning yet pay for others to have it. Let the houseowners that have it pay significantly more for electricity once they reach a certain amount. Don’t punish those that can’t afford to buy an air conditioner.

      • It makes perfect sense.

        Households that install and use air conditioning pay for it directly through the electricity they consume in running it. However all households also pay through increased tariffs, because every air conditioning unit installed adds to peak demand, which necessitates more generation capacity be added to the network, which pushes tariffs up. Indeed, as much as 25% of the retail price of electricity goes to pay for capacity that is only used for those peak times when everyone turns on their aircon.

        • It’s a great idea in theory, but then you just create a black market of air conditioners on the sly, plus instead of people using 1 air conditioner to heat in winter, they’ll pick up 5 x 2500W fan heaters, despite the extra cost in running them (which they wouldn’t realise at the time). Same thing for those air conditioner on wheels units you can buy for $200 or so. 5 of them vs 1 reverse cycle unit could make a big difference to emissions.

          Charging less to people who use less in peak demand periods is a much smarter idea and I hope that gets up. The problem with that is elderly people suffering heat stroke so they can have a few extra $’s, although anacdotelly that’s already happening with the huge prices we pay for eleccy.

          • How will it create a black market on air conditioners?

            Doesn’t matter where they buy their aircon from, once they reach a certain amount of electricity, they’ll still be paying the significantly higher c/kWh price.

      • Why don’t I? A large portion of the c/kWh now is caused by elecritcity companies being forced to build new generators to cater for homes with aircon. That’s why there’s so much discussion now on how much the cost of electricity has gone up. Not just the total price but the c/kWh.

        There was a recent study done in QLD that showed homes without air conditioning are subsidising homes that do have air con $300 a year,

  • What is this article trying to achieve? The answer to it’s question is in its second paragraph: because it is making electricity more expensive. The rest of the article is a mess of observations: Australia is hot, the UK isn’t, but they’re putting in lots of air conditioners anyway, here’s some stuff about the UK situation that probably isn’t relevant to anyone in Australia, and policy decision makers somewhere need to consider a variety of things we mentioned in passing.

    If this is the quality of academic research in the area, no wonder policy decisions are all over the place.

  • While Queenslanders have low thermal mass, mentioning misses the point. What we need to discuss is: thermal inertia.
    In summer, a cool house needs to take a long time to heat up, and [hopefully] costs little to cool. In winter the reverse happens. Get it wrong and you boil through summer, or freeze through winter – or both.
    Anyone looking at their electric bill will agree WHY. I look forward to a series of articles discussing HOW. Is switching to gas heating considered a valid electricity saver in winter?

  • Instead of bitching about electricity costs and problems and blaming AC…build better houses and invest in green energy.

    In Canada, where I am from, temperatures peak at +40C in summer and dip to -50C in winter. At my parent’s house in Canada, AC or heating is pretty much on 24/7…it’s all ducted and the house maintains a stable 20C all year round controlled by a thermostat.

    The electricity and gas prices are dirt cheap too…they are pretty much almost a small fraction compared to what I pay here, in a house less than 1/3rd the size. $150/3 months is considered expensive for electricity where I’m from…think about it that way…and my family really doesn’t pay attention to electricity usage, multiple computers on 24/7 (2 per person usually, one office, one media, fileserver etc) tvs, lights kept on, even extravagant Christmas lights on…I tell my parents the cost I have here and they freak out…they can’t even begin to comprehend why the cost of electricity is so expensive here, esp when coal power is supposed to be the “cheaper power”

    “green energy” is very expensive in Australia compared to Coal…but where i’m from 100% of the energy is form hydro.

    IMO split systems seem less efficient than ducted heating and cooling, get proper insulation, double or triple pane windows…and get the government to properly regulate power prices (it doesn’t matter who is in power, as long as they get it done, which…based on my experience they won’t do)

    Don’t blame Air conditioning for high electricity costs…the blame is set to be elsewhere.

    • Actually the air conditions are the primary cause of the higher prices. A typical $2,000 air condition requires $7,000 worth of new infrastructure to be added to the grid to allow it to run on the peak hot days of the year. The problem is the air conditions are being used when there is the greatest demand and the network (wires, transformers) are already under the greatest strain.

      Generally the houses in Canada have much better insulation that even the typical new six star house in Australia.

      You can’t compare the cost of hydro in Canada to coal in Australia. Australia just doesn’t have any significant hydro options, plus hydro is now seen as being very bad for the environment, not from a green house effect, but from what it does to the river system(s).

      The problem with the power prices is that consumers don’t pay the real cost of electricity at the time it is delivered. That is the price of electricity in the wholesale market changes with demand (hot day air cons on demand goes way up), but consumers pay an averaged price. This removes the pricing signals from the market. If people paid the market price, then on the hot day the price would go up in the afternoon. On a really hot day the price would go really high. If you run an air condition at those times it will be much more expensive.

      This drives people to reduce their air conditioner use, reducing the strain on the network. It also makes people look at some of the other ways to keep their house cool without running an air con, such as shading windows, up grading windows, more insulation, etc. Under the current pricing model many of these alternatives are not economically worthwhile.

  • So ask your landlord if you can hang some curtains and ask them to install fly screen sliding doors.

    Not the end of the world if you use you’re brain, or don’t move into the house in the first place if you don’t like it…

    • So ask your landlord if you can hang some curtains and ask them to install fly screen sliding doors.

      Not the end of the world if you use you’re brain, or don’t move into the house in the first place if you don’t like it…

      If only it was that easy. It will be a cold day in hell when my landlord actually does something to this house. There are parts of it literally rotting away that he’s aware of, yet done nothing about (considering it’s a brand new house it should have been able to been fixed by the builder anyway).

      As for not moving into it in the first place, clearly you’re not a renter. If renters actually had a choice of what house they moved in to the world would be in a much better state. Instead we’re forced to apply for every house that comes on to the market, before even seeing it, bidding against other potential tenants. That’s why investors don’t care about these houses, why they build them without any thought on practical heating and cooling, they chuck air-con in because it adds $50 pw to the price, something practical, but not visible, like say insulation, that costs money without anything in return.

  • It is already clear that sun-powered air-conditioning is possible and yet there are no sun-powered air-conditioners on the market. A professor at one of Australia’s best universities has pointed out that if the government pay for a sun-powered air-conditioner to be installed in every Australian home the government would save more than that amount in providing grid electricity!

    Stupid, ain’t we?

    • The sun powered air conditioning which the CSIRO and others have been working on isn’t market ready. They generally are very expensive to install (high capital cost).

      • couldn’t you just take a regular ac switch the motor our for a brushless DC (like the do with solar powered pool pumps) so then your ac will run based on available sun and your house will prolly get pretty cool during the day, so much so that once the sun has gone down the house itself will be so cool it wouldn’t matter that the AC is no longer running

  • A big part of the problem is the type of houses being built today. Gone are the double-brick houses with pitched tiled roofs, replaced by houses with thin walls & corrugated iron roofs with minimal insulation. Corrugated iron is the worst material for preventing the house from heating up as it absorbs so much heat.

    • Sadly the formula for the McMansions is the largest house footprint possible on the block of land, using the least materials possible. Windows are cheaper than bricks, “Open plan” translates to less materials needed for the internal walls, but in reality means a huge internal space to heat and cool. Most of these areas have very few trees – if any. So they sit there in the blazing sun – with their colorbond roofs, minimal insulation and a very large space to cool. Pretty much like a car in an open car park. With all that against them and Gerry harvey spruiking cheap conditioners all the time, no wonder they all reach for the remote and power up the AC.

      • Actually some of the colorbond roofs have the best thermal reflection characteristics of any roof surface. Certainly much better than the extreme dark titles that others are suggesting as a good solution.

    • I live in a rented double brick – tiled roof house…. Let me tell you they heat up dreadfully after more than 2 days of hot weather and take ages to cool down. We don’t have any air-conditioning.
      I can’t understand why more people don’t have solar panels on their roofs. I would in a heartbeat if I owned my own place.

      • If you’re in Perth, the easy answer is “it’s not cost-effective”.

        Our house (heavily-insulated and using about 1/2 the average amount of power of other homes) was literally 2 days away from getting solar panels installed a few years back but Garrett changed the rules with a few hours’ notice and the cost blew out.

        Every State and Federal government policy change in recent years has served to move panels further away from viability, even s the price of PV systems comes down.

        The current model means we pay 40ish c/day for the supply charge and about 25c/unit used.

        The feedin tariff for solar is 7c and is net, which means when I’m at work and the house is using very little power but the panels are pumping out heaps, they pay me 7c … then I get home and it’s still in the high-30s so I turn the aircon on and get charged 25c for every unit more than the output of the panels.
        In a hypothetical day when we use 7 units and generate 7, this could still mean a bill of more than a dollar a day, even though our net balance for the day is zero.

        When you add the cost of a new meter and such to the cheapo package deals, and depending on exactly when power is used, this means a payback period of at least 8 years. I also have little confidence in government not changing policy again and pushing this payback out to longer than the lifespan of the panels.

        Other states have varying models but political incompetence in WA for decades means our power situation is a mess.

  • To avoid the need for aircon I’ve installed locks on most windows. After a hot day, I lock the windows open with a 15cm gap. The house is then cool enough by morning to tackle another hot day. A few days a year it doesn’t work well enough, so it’s off to the pub I’m afraid. Good solution for people living in melbourne.

  • It’s going to be 41C here today. I’m running my AC all day and night to stay comfortable, and I’m perfectly willing to pay for it. If you don’t like it, STFU and screw yourselves.

  • …”How then did Australians manage without air conditioning?”….
    Easy, … went for a swim … sat under a tree … wore less clothing … drank more beer … simply perspired more … just got used to the hot weather in Summer and the cold weather in Winter…
    Yolande et al you tell us, you are the researchers!

    I am 57 and grew up in Sydney with no air cooling in Summer… and only a single bar heater in Winter (which we moved from room to room) … all the neighbours were the same … we all were OK … yes some people suffered more than others during heat/cold spells … but people still do today.

    The question I would propose would be something like this … “Why do Australians think they need such cooled environments?” And … “if we rethink the ‘norms’ or actually change the acceptable levels of our comfort zones (i.e. put specific limits on how cool/warm spaces could be) … would that not at least lessen the rising ‘need for cooler/warmer’ spaces?”

    We had to re-think our use of Ozone depleting gasses … so now, yes Time to re-think and question our abilities to become even more resilient than our ancestors … build more efficient/smarter spaces … think more about how we are impacting our environments …. THINK MORE!

  • Our house is a poorly designed 70’s disaster, we’ve been in it for three summers now though and still have no AC. Despite me suffering badly when temperatures start to soar.

    Close your windows in the heat of the day, and if you can’t afford sunblocking curtains put a damn blanket up. We have one $25 fan in the loungeroom and replaced the carpet with vinyl floor tiles. That combined with the dark and fan has kept our place cool enough in this 40 degree heatwave Perth is experiencing at the moment for us to sit comfortably indoors.

    Even without a sensibly designed house, bulk insulation and whirly birds on the roof all it takes is a bit of common sense.

  • My house is brick built on a slab, lower NSW (Wagga), summer days see many weeks with 40+ temps, my house is insulated (just redid my ceiling insulation), but has small eves, so my external walls cop a hell of a lot of sun. I am getting a 4.5kw solar grid installed this week, which will help offset running my swampy (evaporative aircon) throughout the day. I have no real idea on how much power my a/c uses, but all it consists of it a fan blade and a water pump, not a very high powered water pump at that, so I can’t see it drawing a whole lot of power. The power drawers are the reverse cycle wall/window mounted a/c, which yes do cool a lot better than evap, but cost an arm and a leg to run, not to mention the space they take up. Evap cooling is great as long as it is dry, cause once it gets humid, the house becomes sticky and hot, and you just turn the water pump off, up the fan, open some doors and windows.

    I would go sit in my pool right now, but at the moment it feels like a warm bath and is actually warmer in the pool than outside, the sun, she be a harsh mistress!

  • We don’t need to rethink air conditioning. I want to be cold and I’ll pay whatever. I don’t care if the bills go up – at some point some other poor sucker can drop out of the AC party, but it won’t be me. Price regulates supply and demand and makes sure people who have money still get what they want. If you’re poor maybe you shouldn’t run your AC. Cutting back on AC is stupid. This isn’t fucking 1950.

  • I know that this is an older article, but I found it and the comments very interesting. On the one hand I am a big believer in taking advantage of technology whenever possible; otherwise what is the benefit of living in this modern era? On the other hand, running the AC all day can get expensive, but how else are you supposed to stay cool when it’s a scorcher outside? I would love to see more tips and tricks for how to avoid using my AC, or for keeping my house cooler longer when I do run the AC.

  • When I lived in Sri Lanka, my mother in law would sprinkle the floor outside open doors and windows with water. This cooled down the air that entered the house.

    We used a very think damp cotton muslin scarf draped around the shoulders to provide instant cooling wherever we were .The best thing is you can always rewet it wherever you are. Aircon on the move!

    We stayed indoors whenever it was very hot. All floors were either marble, terrazzo or polished cement. No carpet, vinyl etc. Bare feet. Ceiling fans.

    All showers were with cold water, usually poured over yourself with a dipper from a bucket. It actually feels much nicer than a showerhead, and I have often debated getting something like that built into our shower rooms. It somehow feels cooler. And saves water.

    Clothes were always cotton, light and loose. We drank lots of milky tea and had a shower in the morning and at night. My mother still has three showers a day in Sydney when it is hot. Usually cold ones.

    When you came into the house from outside, you washed your feet at the door from a bucket there, and came in with bare wet feet. Cools you down again.

    I dont remember ever being as uncomfortably warm as I have been in Australia, even in the north of Sri Lanka which gets very hot. Walls were generally thicker there too ,which may help.

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