Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Air conditioning: Making the heat hotter

August is hard without air conditioning.

The first few months of summer aren't bad. Throughout May, June, and July, a few trusty fans and some strategically opened and closed windows ensure a decent level of comfort - bolstered, of course, by the monthly bonus of the lowest energy bill on the block.

But August is a different story. Almost to the day, on the second day of this month, an oppressive blanket of 100-plus degree heat settled over the rolling hills of North Carolina, bringing with it a tinge of desperation. Hot days are bearable when the nights are reliably cool, when a fan can whirl in gusts of 70-degree silky night air over your sleeping body.

But on nights like tonight, when it's still 90 degrees at 10 PM, a person gets ornery. In our house we've taken to desperate measures. Nego taught me to wet a bandanna, place it in the freezer until it hardens, and then wear it around my neck as a blessedly icy collar. Isabell was seen yesterday with a plastic bag of ice cubes clipped to a string around her neck. "I tried putting it under my shirt at first," she confessed, "but the plastic felt gross." It dripped slowly on her shirt as she read contentedly on the couch.

After two sweaty and sleep-scarce nights, I've begun taking fan management more seriously. For the past few months - such child's play! - I was too lazy to bother opening and shutting the windows as the temperature changed outside, much less rearranging the fans inside. My fans sat at awkward, inconvenient angles in the corners of the room.

Last night, however, I stole an extra fan from theliving room, and placed it in the window directly above my bed. A pleasing breeze ruffled the sheets. I cranked it up to level two; the humming grew louder,a corner of the sheet flapped half-heartedly. Level three: a poster came unstuck from the wall and flew across the room. The sheet blew off the bed. I smiled and climbed into bed.

Throughout the day today, I carried the fan aroundwith me wherever I went, plugging it in at the nearest outlet. Playing the fiddle, fan on the dresser. Studying French, fan on the kitchen table. Writing on the computer, fan at my back. I think I am developing a relationship with this fan.

And still, at 3:00 we had to stage an emergency evacuation. Isabell and I staggered down the street to Larkin's house and ducked into the chilly respite of cool, merciful, conditioned air. "It's like a different world in here!" Isabell said, staring out the plate glass window. "I can't believe we're on the same planet as our house."

But we are. And unfortunately, the heat wave swamping our city is a problem that the entire planet is facing. As global temperatures rise, cities are getting hotter than ever. On a hot day, a city becomes an urban heat island - a massive conglomerate of asphalt, metal and other heat-absorbing materials. When the sun finally goes down, these man-made structures release the heat that they have soaked up all day long - preventing the city from ever really cooling off. When the sun rises the next morning, even more heat is absorbed by buildings, streets, and rooftops, only to radiate out into the next summer evening.

Miserable as this is for city inhabitants, air conditioners aren't the answer. Not only do they guzzle electricity, contributing to the global warming that makes them necessary, but they also prevent your body from handling the heat on its own.

After all, the human body knows what to do about heat. In hot conditions, your body begins to create heat shock proteins, which help your cells weather extreme temperature or stress. The composition of your sweat also changes, allowing your body to conserve more salt and prevent dehydration.

In the end, I'm inclined to let my body do its job, strengthened by the knowledge that my sweaty afternoons - however ridiculous - are not contributing to this ominous trend.

As evening fell, Isabell and I shuffled home again. I thought affectionately of my fan waiting patiently by my bedside. The air conditioning was wonderful for a visit, but Iwouldn't want to bring it home with me. After all, what would we complain about then?

by Sadie Kneidel

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