Is My A/C Really That Bad for the Environment?

It's not great, but it's better than dying.

All politics aside, the earth is getting warmer.

The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The four warmest years on record have all occurred since 2014.

Scientists estimate a temperature rise of up to 10 degrees over the next century.

That makes technology like air conditioners important, since heat can kill you. But it’s complicated.

Air conditioners can save us from our ever-warming environment. But they’re also contributing to the warming in the first place.

“Generally speaking, air conditioning units use hydrofluorocarbons,” said Kyle Baker, who runs the environmental blog Green Coast. “Which are significantly more powerful and harmful than carbon dioxide.”

Hydrofluorocarbons, used in refrigeration, building insulation and aerosol cans, are “greenhouse gasses,” which means they trap heat in the atmosphere.

The most common greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, released from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal.

Illustration of woman sitting next to a fan with her cat. Air Conditioning pbs rewireCredit: Adobe
On not-so-hot days, don’t turn on your A/C unit. Get a few window fans to cool out the space and circulate air instead.

Hydrofluorocarbons are nowhere near as abundant. They only account for about 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, compared to carbon dioxide’s 82 percent.

But as Jenny Fisher and Stephen Wilson write for The Conversation, they’re super-potent — thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

That makes them an environmental concern. In 2016, 197 countries, including the United States, agreed to cut down the use of hydrofluorocarbons starting this year.

Fisher and Wilson say some groups are experimenting with substances that could replace hydrofluorocarbons.

But until then, it’s not like you can stop refrigerating your food, or let yourself die of heat exhaustion on a 100-degree day.

But there are some things you can do that are more environmentally minded in the meantime.

1. Look for an Energy Star-certified unit

Aside from the greenhouse gasses, air conditioners are also big energy suckers, responsible for about 6 percent of the energy use in the United States each year.

If you’re buying a new window or wall unit, look for an Energy Star certification, indicating the unit has met strict guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA, Energy Star-certified units use about 8 percent less energy than conventional new models.

2. Pick the right size and type

Not all A/C units are equal. It’s important to buy a unit that not only fits your window, but is also the right size for your space.

“If you purchase a small unit for a large room, you’ll likely overwork your system and waste more energy,” said Kealia Reynolds, sustainability editor at House Method.

If you have central A/C, it might be worth the investment to install a programmable thermostat that can allow you to set a different temperature when you’re away from home.

This way, you can keep it really cool when you need it, but you won’t waste energy in the meantime.

“You can keep the temperature higher when you’re at work or on vacation, saving you money on your monthly utility bills,” Reynolds said.

You can save about 10 percent on energy costs each year by turning your thermostat 7 to 10 degrees warmer for eight hours a day. Since your bill is directly tied to the amount of energy you’re using, that means you’re doing your environmental part, too.

If you’re in the market for a new place to live, deciding whether to live with central A/C or a window unit also has environmental consequences.

A central air conditioning unit uses much more energy to cool your home — 3,500 watts for central air versus 500 to 1,440 for a window unit.

That’s because a central air unit isn’t just cooling a larger area. It’s also using the furnace to push air throughout the home. That all adds up to a bunch more energy used.

[ICYMI: Heat and Cool Your Home the Cost- and Energy-Efficient Way]

3. Look for alternatives

Since humidity makes it feel much hotter than the actual temperature, you might find that a dehumidifier is a great alternative option to an air conditioner.

On not-so-hot days, don’t turn on your A/C unit. Get a few window fans to cool out the space and circulate air instead.

Unlike other fans, which cool you down by circulating air and speeding up your body’s natural cool down process, window fans can actually push colder air from outside into the room. That can drop the temperature.

In addition, keeping your blinds closed during the day can make a big difference.

“Sunlight coming through your windows can heat up your home quickly,” Reynolds said. “Draw curtains and blinds between (noon) and 4 p.m.”

Believe it or not, even the light bulbs you use can help keep it cool. Certain light bulbs give off more heat than others.

“Incandescent bulbs can turn 90 percent of the energy they use into heat, making rooms in your home warmer,” she said. “Swap them out for LEDs that operate at a lower wattage and produce half as much heat.”

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.