WattDoesItUse? The Evolution of Air Conditioning’s Power Consumption

Air conditioning is still the number one use of home electricity despite the evolution of air conditioning's power consumption. Source: Unsplash

Who doesn’t have nightmares about his or her electricity bill spiking as temperatures rise and the air conditioning flips on? And yet, those of us who have it can’t imagine braving the summer without it. Ever wonder when exactly air conditioning even became a thing? Or the evolution of air conditioning’s power consumption to where it stands today? Find out in this second installment of our “WattDoesItUse?” series!

Air conditioning as American homes experience it today developed during the 20th century. Along the way, its technology and energy demands have prompted moral, economic, social, and environmental discussions. But efforts to cool hot, humid spaces trace back to the ancient world. Ding Huane in China invented a rotary fan during the 2nd century. Emperor Elagabalus (r. 218-222) had slaves haul a mountain of snow to his palace one summer. And President James A. Garfield (d. 1881) slept in wet, icy sheets during the final summer of his life. 

The “Invention” Of Air Conditioning

During the mid-18th century, William Cullen (1710-1790) developed one of the earliest forms of artificial refrigeration, an ether-based technique that influenced future scientists. Applying refrigeration principles to whole room cooling, however, was slow to develop. In 1851, Dr. John Gorrie patented a compressor-based ice machine to bring relief to individuals suffering from tropical illnesses. 

Dr. John Gorrie’s Ice Machine. Source: Wikimedia

As a physician in Florida, Gorrie reduced his patients’ fevers by placing them in rooms cooled by his machine. Gorrie tried to get his design into circulation, so to speak. But he met resistance by objectors who accused Gorrie of playing God. Making cool air was, to religious fundamentalists, an abomination. 

Gorrie tried to market his design but never enjoyed widespread appeal. During the second half of the 19th century, public facilities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean experimented with techniques to cool their buildings. Theaters frequented by the social elite lead the charge in these efforts. And many imitated the techniques used by Gorrie. It wasn’t until 1902 that engineer Willis Haviland Carrier developed a system to mitigate humidity at the printing plant where he worked in Brooklyn, New York. His invention cooled air by running it through cold coils, removing moisture in the process. Haviland’s design would lay the foundation of the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. 

Air Conditioning Finds A Home

Considered the “Father of Air Conditioning,” Carrier was the first to develop and manufacture industrial air-conditioning systems used in public facilities and factories. He introduced air conditioning to individual railway cars as well. And, by 1933, he began installing cooling systems into individual business offices and homes. 

The cost of one of Carrier’s air conditioning units was prohibitive for most consumers. But imitators and innovators soon found ways to meet public demand. During the 1930s and early 1940s, H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman patented an air conditioning unit that could be mounted in a window. But, at $10,000 to $50,000, it, too, remained too expensive for consumers. The development of a smaller, more affordable window cooling unit by Henry Galson in 1947 finally opened home cooling to the masses.

By the 1960s, newly constructed homes began to feature air conditioners. But, until the 1980s, most households in the United States did not have air conditioning in any form. As a result, air conditioning’s power consumption was largely relevant only to the manufacturing sector. Increased attention to energy consumption during the 1970s drove subsequent concern surrounding air conditioning’s power consumption. That concern intensified as more and more homes installed cooling systems. 

By 2005, 82 percent of homes had air conditioning—mostly central air. And individual homes were consuming 37 percent more energy each year than they had 12 years earlier. This change was largely driven by newfound air conditioning. That said, on the national level, churches, retail establishments, and schools accounted for much of the increase in air conditioning-related energy consumption increases. In 2010, “commercial and public buildings together…use[d] two-thirds as much energy for cooling” as residences in the United States. with.

The Evolution of Air Conditioning’s Power Consumption & The Environment

Air conditioning’s power consumption naturally varies by time of year. During the 1960s, when window air conditioning reigned supreme, summer afternoons and evenings grossly exceeded winter energy demands. With the proliferation of central air conditioning, “summertime peak demand exceeded the winter peak by 144,000 megawatts” by 2007. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there was a 19 percent increase in energy consumption from air conditioning between 2002 and 2010. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest growth was in the American Deep South.

Calls for air conditioning efficiency prompted air conditioning manufacturers to revamp design around the turn of the century. Government agencies put forward regulations to standardize air conditioning’s power consumption and the types of materials used in cooling units themselves. In 1990, the Clean Air Act articulated a plan to reduce air pollutants derived from refrigerants used in air conditioners, namely chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs). CFCs were banned in 1996 and the EPA has implemented a phase out of equipment that contains HCFCs. This is largely as part of an ongoing effort to prevent further depletion of the Ozone layer

As materials used in air conditioning units came under increasing scrutiny, so did energy usage. As part of an effort to reduce energy consumption in the United States during the 1970s, air conditioning manufacturers were brought under a unified federal standard. In 1992, the U.S. Energy Department issued standards specifically for residential central air conditioners and heat pumps, with further standards implemented in 2006

Regulation Makes A Difference

Today’s standard central air conditioning unit is far more energy-efficient than that of even a decade ago. But there is still a long way to go. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) considers several factors when assessing air conditioner efficiency. The U.S. DOE uses seasonal energy efficiency ratios (SEER) and energy efficiency rations (EER) to calculate overall consumption rates. The SEER measures total cooling efficiency of air conditioners as they compare to total energy output. The EER rating assesses cooling system efficiency as it relates to outside temperatures. Both federal and regional standards for SEER and EER have gone into effect over the last decade. It determines specific energy efficiency guidelines (defined by manufacturer or installation date) by location. 

Increased efficiency of course lowers carbon emissions. But it also brings down energy costs for consumers, which can be equally variable by municipality and state. In 2017, the Consumer Federation of America calculated, “Combining benefits of past and present standards, has provided over $1.5 trillion in savings, with less than $300 million in costs, for an overall benefit cost ratio of about 5-to-1.”

The State Of Air Conditioning Around The World

Modern air conditioning units have become more efficient, using 50 percent less energy since their counterparts in 1990. Despite efforts to reduce energy consumption, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that air conditioning energy will be the fastest-growing energy user between now and 2050

Despite the evolution of air conditioning's power consumption, experts predict a sharp increase due to increased volume of use over the next three decades.
Despite the evolution of air conditioning’s power consumption, experts predict a sharp increase due to increased volume of use over the next three decades.

As global demand for air conditioning has increased, countries around the world have followed suit in their efforts to quell air conditioning’s power consumption. Japan, Greece, Australia, and the European Union have taken different paths to handle the widespread adoption of air conditioning. But, according to Dr. Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency, “air conditioner ownership will skyrocket, especially in the emerging world” in the coming years. 

Birol continued, “While this will bring extra comfort and improve daily lives, it is essential that efficiency performance for ACs be prioritized. Standards for the bulk of these new air conditioners are much lower than where they should be.”

What Can You Do?

2020 has shown us how individual action adds up to powerful collective action. Similarly, changes in each of our homes can add up. Use the WattDoesItUse Energy Use Calculator to identify the best energy-efficient air conditioning unit for your home. And stay tuned for our upcoming piece on the best ways to save energy and money on your air conditioning while still staying cool as a cucumber!

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