After record temperatures scorched the Pacific Northwest in June, there is one question everyone is asking: will air conditioning soon be required for property owners?
116 Oregonians perished from heat-related causes during that unprecedented heat wave. The majority of victims were elderly and alone in their homes with no AC.
While 91% of U.S. homes have working AC, the PNW trails behind with only 78% of Portlanders having air conditioning, and 44% of Seattleites.
“The Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains, has a history of very mild summers, so the need for cooling has not been a very strong driving force,” director of technical services for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Wes Davis, told NPR.
Is it Getting Hot in Here?
Global warming is here – and has no plans on exiting peacefully anytime soon. According to science, the PNW will likely see many more 105+ degree days in the years to come. Additionally, 90+ degree days could reach 37 per year by the end of the century. That is roughly five weeks of roasting temperatures per summer.
“…[As] the world warms, we see that summer heatwaves are coming earlier, lasting longer, and becoming hotter and more intense,” Nature Conservancy chief scientist Katharine Hayhoe told CNN.
If Oregonians do not utilize AC in future summers, how many more will fall victim to the sweltering heat?
How Much Does AC Cost?
Although the idea of mandating air conditioning may sound appealing on paper, it realistically would not be an easy feat.
Window AC units are the cheapest way to cool spaces, starting at roughly $170 on Amazon for a 5,000 British Thermal Unit (BTU) model. However, since they typically only work with small areas such as bedrooms, would an AC mandate even allow these types of units? What about large family homes – would everyone cram into one room to stay cool?
Central air is the most effective way to cool an entire home – however, the price tag can be a doozie. For a 1,700 square-foot home, a Lennox air conditioner at Home Depot – plus installation – starts at nearly $5,000, and can rise significantly depending on multiple variables. If you are a property owner who rents out five homes of that size, that means spending — bare minimum – $25,000 on AC, not including monthly energy costs and maintenance. Do your tenants need new carpets? Unfortunately, they will have to wait a while. What about fixing a leak on the roof? Hopefully it will stay dry enough until next year. Since Oregon property owners cannot legally increase rent more than 7% (plus inflation) per year, budgeting will have to come from somewhere else.
This will ring especially true for landlords whose tenants fell under the statewide eviction moratorium and may not be paid backlogged rent until February 2022.
“We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” Portland landlord Carl Dunlap told the Oregonian last November. At the time, two of his five tenants owed around $16,000 in total backlogged rent.
Short-Term Relief Versus Long-Term Damage
Despite their comforting and sometimes life-saving abilities, air conditioners can be extremely damaging to the environment.
Freon – the refrigerating gas that powers AC units – ruins the ozone layer and actually warms the earth over time.
“A one percent decline in the ozone layer’s thickness results in thousands of new cases of skin cancer,” said a recent article by Time magazine. The article continues, “Greater depletion would lead to crop failures, the collapse of oceanic food systems and, eventually, the destruction of all life on Earth.”
If Oregon mandates air conditioners in the future, what will that do to the state’s conservation efforts? Perhaps nothing – but are we willing to risk it?
Protecting Our Planet While Staying Cool
On the bright side, there are ways to mitigate some environmental risks while keeping your home cool. You can efficiently control your thermostat by raising temperatures while you are away and while you sleep. It is also important to ensure your AC is correctly installed and maintained each year. If you have a larger home, consider designating certain rooms for cooling by using a zoning system. Finally, before purchasing your unit, check the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rating, as units with higher ratings are more energy efficient.