When did the need for AC move up the mountain?

When we were having record and near record heat back in August, I did what any overheated mountain dweller would do — I packed up the family and headed to the beach.

We don’t have air conditioning in our rural Clyde home; my wife and I tell ourselves that we don’t need it. However, in recent years there seems to be a 10-day to 2-week period in late summer that the humidity and increasingly hotter temperatures make us question why we are denying the obvious.

Several years ago we replaced our furnace with a more energy efficient model and with the existing ductwork already in place the HVAC guys (that’s the acronym for the heating ventilation and air conditioning guys) said they could easily attach an air conditioning unit to the new system.

No, we’ll be fine. This is the mountains right? We live at 3,000 feet. We can get by without air conditioning added on to the existing unit, thank you. We get a nice breeze up here on this hill, and those maple trees do a great job of shading the house.

Well, jump to the summer of 2007 and darn if Al Gore wasn’t right. It makes you wonder though, if Gore was elected president back in 2000 and was busy running the country instead of traveling the world giving his global warming slide show and starring in an Academy Award winning documentary, would we be as obsessed with disappearing glaciers, rising temperatures and increasing CO2 levels?

Unfortunately, he didn’t win, and in the 17 years we have lived in our house I have noticed that the weather has changed. I find it’s getting progressively hotter in the summer, and there are increasingly more days in which air conditioning would be a welcomed home improvement. Just knocking the humidity out of the air so the doors wouldn’t stick would be a welcomed relief.

In the years before air conditioning during the sultry days of summer, the flatlanders would head west from the Piedmont and north from South Carolina to experience refreshing mountain breezes and cool, restful nights. We, on the other hand, loaded the car with tomatoes, beans and bathing suits and headed east towards Wilmington, which was struggling through a record drought and heat wave.

We stayed with my wife’s extended family in Wilmington, and of course the first thing many of her coastal plain cousins asked is why we would choose the hottest time of the year to visit. To me the answer was simple — you have air conditioners and we don’t. Our plan was to go to the beach early in the morning and when it got too hot get home and into the air conditioning, visit a mall, or go to an afternoon movie.

According to Deborah Hawkins, chairwoman of the Air Conditioner and Refrigeration Institute, 82 percent of the homes in America have air conditioning, either a room unit or central air. However, the first air conditioners were not for the home but were first installed and used in movie theaters in the mid-1920’s. Theaters were once only open from November until May and then closed during the hottest times of the year.

With the invention of “Man-made Weather,” as air conditioning was first called, theaters could now stay open year round. Hitting the movies in an air-conditioned theater has been a popular summer event 80 years before “An Inconvenient Truth” hit the big screen.

In addition to movie theaters, air conditioning also allowed other institutions to stay open year round. In 1928 the U.S. House of Representatives installed air conditioning. The next year the Senate, White House and Supreme Court followed. The government that only operated from November to May in steamy Washington could now comfortably work 12 months of the year. Who says progress doesn’t have its price?

Yes, it was hot when we were down in Wilmington, but to put it in perspective, I kept reminding myself that in Mosul or Baghdad, or other locations in Iraq where our soldiers are dressed in full combat gear — not shorts and flip-flops — the temperatures are well over 100 degrees. (Mosul, Iraq, recorded 117 degrees at the same time my family was in Wilmington playing in the surf.) Compared to our soldiers, we have it made in the shade. Let’s hope they can come home soon.

(David Curtis teaches middle school in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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