Sense is recognizing National Air Conditioning Day on July 17 with a look back at the invention of air conditioning and a look forward to new innovations. Today we expect to stay cool in our offices and homes in the summer, but our attitude is thoroughly modern.
Air conditioning was invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier to dry out paper in a printing plant. His “apparatus for treating air” worked, and Carrier soon found new uses for his invention, but air conditioning didn’t become a common household appliance until the 1950s. Today 90% of homes have air conditioning. And while air conditioning makes the hottest summer days bearable, it comes at a price.
The average US homeowner spends $147.82 to stay cool in the summer months of June, July, and August. But your home size, local climate, and utility rates all have a big impact on your bill. Homes along the country’s southern coast devote nearly half (46%) of their summer utility bills to cooling, while along the Canadian border, staying cool takes about a quarter of the typical summer bill (28%). To see where your home falls in the average cost range, check out our ranking of cooling costs by state. If your home varies significantly from those averages, you might want to take a deeper dive into your air conditioning to see if you can make improvements.
So how did we get from drying paper to offices that are so cool you need to wear a sweater in the summer? Air conditioners caught on with businesses first and then became affordable enough for consumers — but the changes took decades.
Air conditioners were a hit in the 1920s with department stores that wanted to keep their summer shoppers comfortable. Their basement units could weigh 195 tons!
And air conditioners are responsible for the summer blockbuster. The Rivoli Theater in New York City was the first moviehouse to offer cooled comfort in 1929 and it quickly caught on with other movie theaters. Soon office buildings were cooled, too.
In the 1950s, affordable window air conditioners debuted, sweeping the country. Now everyone could stay cool in their homes on the hottest summer days.
According to Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything, the advent of air conditioning prompted broad cultural and demographic changes. They enabled windowless offices and made living in the Sun Belt bearable — shifting jobs, population, and political power.
Air conditioning has become as necessary to our day-to-day lives as the car, mobile phones, and the internet, but anyone who has paid a high summer electrical bill knows that they use a lot of energy. With wider AC adoption around the world, greenhouse emissions released by coal and natural gas plants when generating electricity to power those air conditioners could nearly double, from 1.25 billion tons in 2016 to 2.28 billion tons in 2050. That’s a grim thought — but new technology promises to help.
Researchers have proposed an innovative solution: air conditioners that capture carbon dioxide and water from the air, then turn it into oil. The resulting “crowd oil” is carbon neutral and can fill the gaps in power supply from intermittent renewables such as solar and wind power.
Current innovations like smart thermostats can automate cooling from room to room and while residents are away, so energy is not wasted. Home energy monitors like Sense provide insights into the energy your home devotes to cooling, so you can save energy, rightsize your current system, and make smarter decisions about updating older systems to more efficient ones.
Whether you live in Alaska or Florida, the air conditioner is an amazing invention that is part of nearly everyone’s daily life. At Sense, we look forward to future innovations that make cooling even more efficient and better for the planet.