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For them, no AC is really no problem

Air conditioning made Florida what it is, but some people prefer it the way it was.

By MELANIE AVE
Published July 22, 2006


John and Sheila Stewart cling to most of the trappings of modern life: a computer, television, microwave oven, digital camera, DVD player.

But as the summer swelters on, bringing record heat to a chunk of the country, one cool invention is noticeably absent from the St. Petersburg couple’s home.

Air conditioning.

Huh? It’s 90 degrees outside. The humidity is so high it could wring sweat from a cadaver.

“We know it’s not normal,’’ says Mrs. Stewart, 51, as two floor fans whirl air at her feet and a ceiling fan creates a warmish breeze through the dining room.

The Stewarts are a modern rarity, a family that can afford air conditioning but prefer living side by side in the heat. They are among a tiny segment of the population trying to keep their joints from hurting, hoping to spare the environment, or simply living out a sheer dislike of frigid temperatures.

Mrs. Stewart, an archaeologist and middle school teacher, does not look hot or sweaty on this muggy afternoon, her long brown hair pulled back in a tidy pony tail and a cup of iced tea at her fingertips. Of course, the rain will start soon.

“It really is a thermostatic thing,’’ she says. “Your body gets used to it.’’

The Stewarts see little use for air conditioning, even in the peak of Florida’s sizzling summer.

“There’s no moral issue here,’’ says John Stewart, an English teacher at Osceola High School and native Floridian. “I just see what air conditioning has done to Florida.

“How many people would live in Florida if there were no air conditioning? Would Pasco County be turned into nothing but bland subdivisions?’’

***

The father of air conditioning, Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola, came up with the idea of trying to lower the fevers of malaria patients at the U.S. Marine Hospital. He patented his steam-powered ice machine in 1851.

But the age of air conditioning did not begin until 1902, when 25-year-old engineer Willis Haviland Carrier developed a refrigeration unit that was put to work in 1902.

While air conditioning has been around a little more than a century, most Americans, particularly in the South, cannot imagine sticky summers without artificially cooled air blowing in their faces.

“People think sweating is bad,’’ says Nancy White, a Pasco County resident who practices air conditioning abstinence. “I don’t know why.’’

The Census Bureau estimates 76 percent of homes in the United States have either central air conditioning or wall units. Some researchers put the figure about 10 percentage points higher in Florida, the only state with subtropical weather where 80- and 90-degree temperatures can extend from May through November.

Air conditioning, says University of South Florida history professor Raymond Arsenault, has changed almost every aspect of Southern life, from sleeping habits to culture. It led to the region’s industrialization, economic growth and population surge, which removed what he called a long-standing cultural isolation.

“The South has become the Sun Belt,’’ he says. “In some respects, that’s a good thing. There’s less poverty. On balance there’s more tolerance.

“But it’s some of the more human elements of Southern culture that have probably taken a hit,’’ he says, noting fewer people on porches. “It’s hard not to see (air conditioning) as bittersweet development.’’

Arsenault says the proliferation of air conditioning changed the way many homes were designed and built. Large plantation homes with wraparound porches and tin-roofed Cracker houses, designed to capture breezes, gave way to tract homes with low ceilings and small windows as air conditioning became a must-have.

***

The Stewarts’ house, a 1925 two-story Colonial-style home, was built long before air conditioning became commonplace. Its raised floors, broad eaves, high ceilings, front porch and attic fan help with what is known as passive cooling using cross ventilation.

The Stewarts have a system of opening and closing doors to keep the house tolerable. Windows are shut in the mornings to trap the cooler nighttime air, which they say, keeps the temperature comfortable until afternoon.

Then, the windows are raised and the attic fan turned on.

Dust can be a problem, Mrs. Stewart says, as is mold growth when the house is closed up during long vacations.
Her husband is the first to admit that their house in the Kenwood neighborhood is not always the most comfortable place to be in the dog days of summer. Parties are restricted to the winter and spring so guests won’t be uncomfortable.

“Sometimes it gets bloody hot,’’ he says. “We warn people before they come over.’’

In June the Stewarts bought two window units for the guest room and office of the home, where they’ve lived since 1984. But the rest of the house is cooled only by ceiling fans and seven floor fans.

“It makes you very aware of the world around you,’’ says Mrs. Stewart, who teaches at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School. “It takes more conscious living and more conscious thought.’’

“If we had air conditioning,’’ her husband adds, “we wouldn’t be able to hear the cicadas outside or feel the breeze.’’

***

The benefits of going without air conditioning clearly shows in Nancy White’s electric bill.

While the average Progress Energy bill was $150 in June, White, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, pays between $50 and $60 in the summer. Air conditioning typically accounts for about one-third of a home’s electricity costs.

White doesn’t use her house’s central air conditioning unit. She says she has “like 35 reasons’’ why she abhors it.

“It’s a waste of nonrenewable energy,’’ she says. “It is unhealthy to walk around all day with fake air, with who knows what going through the system.’’

Why do Americans need air conditioning, microwaves and dishwashers anyway, she asks.

“We get used to things whether we need them or not, then we think that’s a normal way of life,’’ White says. “Just like drinking soda pop. It’s so bad for you. We’ve manufactured the most artificial way of life possible in this country.’’

***

Seventy-six-year-old Inez Anderson doesn’t see her life without air conditioning as odd. She has one small window unit in the kitchen of her house in south St. Petersburg, but she’s not exactly sure when she turned it on last.

She thinks a minute. Maybe sometime last year.

Anderson keeps the air off because when it’s on, her rheumatoid arthritis worsens. To her, keeping the air off makes good common sense.

“I sleep good,’’ she says, “and I don’t have to go to the doctor. I haven’t been to a doctor in 16 years.’’

To a stranger, Anderson’s house seems stuffy. To Anderson it feels quite nice in the middle of the day with a few windows open.

Anderson says she barely sweats and drinks a lot of water.

“I like God’s fresh air,’’ she says. “You know what, when I look up and talk to Jesus, it cools me off.’’

***

For all those who have turned the thermostat off, Joy McGhee, a hot dog vendor, has her own cold air story.

The 45-year-old woman and her husband relocated to St. Petersburg 16 years ago from Buffalo, N.Y., mostly for the warm weather.

The couple’s 1994 three-bedroom home in the Woodlawn neighborhood has central air conditioning, but the couple didn’t turn it on until three weeks ago, when McGhee, also a hot dog vendor, started feeling worn out.

“He’s not 30 years old anymore,’’ his wife says.

Sitting in her living room last week, chilly air blowing through the vents, McGhee says she has no plan to turn the unit off again.

“It feels nice in here doesn’t it? I’m weak,’’ she says laughing. “I got weak really fast. But ask me again when I get my electric bill.’’

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8813.

COOL AIR CONDITIONING FACTS   

- In 1851, Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola patented his steam-powered ice machine. He had the idea to pump air over a bucket of ice to cool malaria patients at the U.S. Marine Hospital. Gorrie discovered that ice would form on the internal coils of the machine. His refrigeration ideas were ridiculed, and he died destitute in 1855.

- In 1881, President James A. Garfield’s doctors used ventilating fans and 436 pounds of ice per hour to cool his White House bedroom.

- In 1882, the electric fan was invented.

- Willis Haviland Carrier improved on Gorrie’s concept and developed a refrigeration unit that could reliably control humidity and temperature. On July 17, 1902, his invention was put to work at a publishing company in Brooklyn, N.Y.

- In the 1910s and 1920s, movie theaters and department stores were among the first public gathering places to use air conditioning. At the grand opening of St. Petersburg’s Florida Theatre in 1926, a story in the St. Petersburg Times said “the proud management had the temperature down so low that ladies in evening dresses almost froze!’’

- The White House was air conditioned in 1930.

- In the 1930s, several types of home air conditioners went on the market.

- In 1951, inexpensive window units hit the market and sales skyrocketed, particularly in the South.

- By 1955, 1 out of every 22 American homes were air conditioned.

- In 2005, 76 percent of all U.S. homes were air conditioned.

Sources: Times files, U.S. Census Bureau, “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture” by Raymond Arsenault.