It's cool to leave the air conditioner off

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It is August. It is sweat-dripping, shirt-staining, turn-the-a/c-up-to-11 hot and, very soon, it is going to get hotter.

Those are the facts of a Pittsburgh summer. Combine that with tens of thousands of 19th-century rowhouses scattered throughout the city and mill towns up and down the rivers, and there's a whole lot of window-shutting going on.

I grew up in a Cape Cod house and so had no knowledge of the cavelike coolness of an old rowhouse. In my boyhood summers, B.C. (before central air), we'd throw open every window hoping for any breeze to supplement the big General Electric fan on the living room floor. What we mostly got was more humidity.

Rowhouses are different. For thousands of native Pittsburghers, the old-fashioned, heat-beating amenities of their homes are second nature, the rhythms of the season inbred. But for me, the morning and evening rituals they demand still feel fresh.

"It's much cheaper to be in a rowhouse,'' says Tom Armstrong, the former chairman of the city planning commission. He lived in a Mexican War Streets rowhouse before moving his family across town to Squirrel Hill a decade ago.

The tall side windows of that War Streets house face south, great for winter sunlight. In summer, the sun comes through the narrow eastern side in the morning and so can be handled by drawn curtains. In his "infinite cheapness,'' Mr. Armstrong was able to hold out in that house without air conditioning for more than a decade before he finally cracked in the summer of 1988, when the temperature shot to 107.

His house's orientation is more fluke than design; homes in the neighborhood face north, south, east and west. But the chimney effect of the central staircase, which takes heat up and out of the tall narrow homes if the resident has any sense of timing at all, is commonplace.

In our three-story house, which faces south, upper floor windows are thrown open just before bed. When I awaken each morning, I climb to the little third-floor window at the top of the stairs, which overlooks our side yard to the east. If the sun has risen above Allegheny General Hospital, the window goes down. The window across the hall, on the western side that overlooks our neighbor's roof, can stay open until after breakfast.

By then, my one-and-only has opened the side door to catch the morning breeze from the yard. As the sun kisses the kitchen windows, we flip the blinds up and do the same in the living room. We'll close all windows and doors once the outside temperature climbs near 70 degrees, which we don't need a thermometer to judge.

With ceiling fans turning, the house will stay comfortable all day, not Frigidaire cool but at least as cool as the other side of the pillow. We have air conditioners in the living room, the kids' room and our bedroom, but we haven't turned them on more than three times this year and, whenever we do, it feels like something of a defeat. We don't like losing to the sun.

It's like what Andre Gregory said in the movie "My Dinner With Andre'':

"What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold don't in any way affect us? I mean, we're animals after all ... I think that means instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we're living in a fantasy world of our own making.''

To which Wallace Shawn essentially says yeah, well, it gets cold in New York, and there's no way he's giving up his electric blanket.

I can see Wally's point, but it's more satisfying when you can dance with the Earth instead of fighting it, particularly when all those air conditioners seem to be heating the planet. Talking with Mr. Armstrong as the temperature climbed toward 90 yesterday, he could still wax eloquent about his old rowhouse's virtues.

In the evening, he'd throw open the door on his third-floor deck and that breeze coming through the kitchen's screen door would push all the hot air up and out of the house. Not that he was immune to the siren call of the air conditioner once he finally stuck one in a window at the top of the stairs.

"It made the first floor feel like Kaufmann's department store, and it wasn't working hard.''

Truth is, yesterday morning, my wife flipped on the a/c in our room since she'd be home with our daughters.

Does it kill all I've said here if I admit, as defeats go, that felt pretty good? It is August, after all.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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