The technology began to spread. Frigidaire sold the first “room cooler” for the home in 1929. H.H. Schultz and J.Q. Sherman marketed an air conditioner that leaned against the windowsill, but the first window-mounted unit, as we know it today, was the 1932 Thorne Room Air Conditioner. It looked like the grill of an old car shoved through a window. In her book Cool Comfort: America’s Romance with Air-Conditioning, Marsha Ackermann recounts a radio interview in which Carrier announced his vision. He imagined a world in which “the average businessman will rise, pleasantly refreshed, having slept in an air-conditioned room. He will travel in an air-conditioned train, and toil in an air-conditioned office.”
Air-conditioning’s major public debut was at the 1939 World’s Fair. Carrier hosted the Carrier Igloo of Tomorrow expo, where 65,000 visitors would experience air-conditioning for the first time, boosting consumer interest. Over the next decade, as the air conditioner shrank in size, advertisements for the machine shifted their appeals from men in the workplace to women at home. In some early ads the air conditioner sits in the window among a proud family admiring their machine like a spacecraft that had landed in the living room.
Basile points out another, less obvious move that increased the device’s popularity: In 1959, the U.S. Weather Bureau created its “discomfort index”—we know it today as the heat index, a measure of temperature and humidity combined. The discomfort index gave an unexpected boost to air-conditioning by, as Basile says in his book, putting “people in mind of cooled air.” Now the public could gauge if it was too hot to go outside. If they could afford it, there were plenty of air-conditioner manufacturers offering solace from the weather.
By the 1960s, millions of air conditioners were being sold every year in the United States. Windows across cities and suburbs were being plugged with the machines. As of 2011, the Energy Information Administration’s Residential Energy Consumption Survey says that 87 percent of households in the United States have an air conditioner or central air. That’s compared to 11 percent in Brazil and only 2 percent in India.
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While the public’s reluctance to air-conditioning might have hampered the initial development of air-conditioning technologies, its eventual popularity has proved detrimental to the Earth’s atmosphere.
By 1989, the Montreal Protocol was enacted in an effort to cut the release of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, into the atmosphere. Freon, a CFC used in the early A/Cs, was among the features of older air-conditioning units that contributed to ozone depletion.
Even though refrigerants have been modified to use fluorine instead of chlorine, and thereby to avoid impacting ozone, air-conditioning still exerts enormous environmental impact. According to Daniel Morrison, the acting deputy director of communications at the U.S. Department of Energy, residential and commercial buildings used more than 500 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity for air-conditioning in 2015 alone. That’s almost 20 percent of the total electricity used in buildings, amounting to $60 billion in electricity costs annually. Air-conditioning is also one of the main contributors to peak electric power demand, one symptom of which is rolling summer blackouts.