With Denver hotter now, is air conditioning turning from a feature into a necessity? | Business world

Anthony Jelinek wakes up every summer morning in a puddle of his sweat.

Wet pillows. His pajamas are wet. The leaves are soaked.

At night, the 43-year-old slips a wet towel over his body, turns a fan and stumbles into bed without blankets, hoping the cool air hitting his damp skin will provide him enough rest to drift into a stifling sleep.

Jelink, who lives in the house his grandfather built in the Globeville neighborhood in 1937, is among the Coloradan family without air conditioning. He said the summer was always warm, but he noticed that the heat got worse every year.

“It’s very hot,” he said. “We keep the windows open all the time, but then you have the air pollution in that neighborhood as well. I had asthma as a kid living here, and now that I’m back here again, it’s back. I’m whistling again.”

As the Colorado climate continues to warm, how long before attitudes about air conditioning turn from being a nice feature to an absolute necessity?

Without immediate action, the state risks a public health crisis, said Paul Shinofsky, director of the Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“If you don’t have air conditioning, and the temperature is 90 degrees, you will open your windows and doors,” said Chenowsky, who has studied infrastructure planning as it relates to climate change. “Your choice is very stark – you are either too hot in the house or you breathe unhealthy air. Which part of my health will I endanger first? And it will only get worse.”

Roughly 40% of residences in metro Denver have central air conditioning, according to Chinowsky, who cited the resident’s data. He said the number in lower-income areas drops to about 20% of dwellings.

Looking closely at Denver, the city estimates that about 30% of all homes lack central air conditioning, according to a 2021 report by the city on renewable heating and cooling.

In the meantime, Denver is getting hotter. Heat waves are occurring more often than before, lasting longer and getting hotter, according to 2022 data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, explained that the NWS uses “cooling degree days” to measure climate and assess the cooling needs of different regions. Cooling day takes a day’s high temperature, subtracts the low temperature and compares it to a standard temperature of 65 degrees.

For example, if the day’s maximum temperature is 95 degrees and the low is 55 degrees, this will be the average daily temperature of 75 degrees. Because that’s 10 degrees more than 65, that day has 10 degrees cooler.

The first recorded count of C days in Denver occurred for an entire year in 1872 with a total of 475 C. One hundred years later, there were 562. In 2002, there were 912. In 2021, there were 1,110, according to NWS data.

Only a second front-range heat warning was issued on Friday as temperatures were expected to reach between 95 and 102 degrees in parts of the afternoon.

“People keep saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t have air conditioning, and it was fine. Chinovsky said. “It’s not really about convenience anymore. We are killing people. This is a public health emergency.”

Extreme heat causes more deaths than any weather-related event, including tornadoes, tornadoes or floods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, about 700 heat-related deaths occur annually in the country, according to CDC data.

Each summer, an average of more than 65,000 Americans visit the emergency room for acute heat illness, the CDC said. A series of warmer-than-average temperatures often leads to more hospitalizations with respiratory, cardiovascular and kidney problems.

“It’s different now.”

Seeking gentle respite in the form of a cool breeze, Kate Crowe used to open a window or blow out the window unit in her La Alma-Lincoln Park bedroom, but found the smoke from last year’s bushfires almost stifling.

“In addition to boiling like a little frog in my house, I couldn’t breathe,” Crowe said.

The 41-year-old bought an air purifier that she keeps in her bedroom along with her window, but now feels relegated to one room in her room where she can stay relatively cool and breathe fresh air.

Wildfire smoke can lead to immediate and long-term health problems, including difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, and lung and heart disease, according to state health officials, who previously recommended closing windows when the air is full of smoke.

Aside from the smoke of wildfires, Denver’s air pollution is among the most prominent in the country.

Northeast Denver, home to the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, the River North Art District and the National Western Complex, was once called the country’s most polluted zip code, featuring two Superfund sites and several active polluters.

Jelinek was in the middle of all this and said that the windows of his house, which he referred to wholeheartedly as “the dirtiest house in Denver,” are always open.

“There’s not much you can do,” Jelnick said. “I try to keep perspective and think of all the poor people who don’t even have a home. This keeps me calm.”

After years of soaring temperatures, Crowe — who has lived in Denver since 2007 — is finally starting to break down and get air conditioning. They’re priced between $9,000 and $13,000.

“It wasn’t hot before, but it’s different now,” Crowe said. “It was cooler at night. Bushfire smoke I don’t remember being a big factor. I don’t want to live in a house where I can’t use 80% of it for months anymore.”

Energy cost effects

Soon, Crowe will need to pay attention when she uses her air conditioner.

There are approximately 310,000 Coloradans on Xcel Energy’s “time-of-use” rate plan which charges customers more depending on when they use their electricity.

Peak hours are 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, which means this isn’t the best time to turn on the air conditioner in your home even though that’s the most important point of the day, said Kelly Flinken, director of community relations for Xcel Energy Colorado.

Instead, he suggested turning on the air conditioner at night and during the morning and afternoon, and then closing the curtains to better keep the cool air out during peak hours.

“This might sound a little bit illogical, but we think it will help keep people comfortable,” Flenicken said.

Flenniken said Xcel is planning ahead, which means the facility expects to provide power for the hottest and coldest days in the future.

“We believe we are prepared for these extreme heat events, and will do everything in our power to provide that reliable service to our customers,” said Flinneken.

The city of Denver is preparing, too.

Jan Keleher, a city electrician, said a recent survey found that 45% of East Colfax renters and 30% of homeowners struggle to keep their homes cool in the summer.

“That demonstrates the challenge and the transition required,” Keeler said. “Historically, you could have gotten away without air conditioning in Denver. We’ve had fewer days of sweltering temperatures as we approach or exceed 100 degrees. Many residents are of the opinion that writing on the wall will become more common and more frequent due to climate change.”

Last year, the city released a plan to move toward renewable heating and cooling using heat pumps powered by renewable energy. The pumps are more environmentally friendly, and the city has suggested focusing on lower-income areas that are already more likely to be without air conditioning. The pumps are part of Denver’s Climate Action Discount Program, but people need to apply and have the pumps installed by June 24 to qualify.

Owner’s Market

Ultimately, cost remains the barrier to life-saving air conditioning, Chinovsky said.

“We already have issues with the high rent, so the landlords say if they can’t put that cost back into their rent, they will be asked to invest in it, and most people won’t,” Chinovsky said.

Most of the homes he rents are low-rent homes, said William Bronchick, president of the Colorado Homeowners Association, and he hasn’t heard any complaints about the lack of air conditioning.

“A landlord who does that kind of upgrade will want to charge a little bit more, and they probably get it because the tenant says it’s an added bonus and the competition doesn’t have it,” Bronchek said. “It’s more of a landlord’s market. Not like one of those things that is a necessity to rent a place. It’s two and a half to three months of some uncomfortable days.”

The first step in addressing the air conditioning problem, Chinovsky said, is to acknowledge that there is one, and the second is the need for a third party such as the government to step in and figure out how to pay for fair access.

“There is money to help people with their electricity bills, so we need to be tougher on this,” Chinovsky said. “We keep going back to who is going to pay for it, and unfortunately, the people who are hurt the worst are those in the lowest economic position.”

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