In Phoenix, the highest temperature was above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) throughout July. Air conditioning is a lifeline that made the modern Phoenix possible.
Jonathan Bean, co-director of the Energy Solutions Institute at the University of Arizona, says cloudless skies combined with outside temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit turn a house into an “air fryer” or “broiler” as the roof absorbs intense heat and radiates it downwards. Bean not only knows this from his research, but experienced it firsthand this weekend when his air conditioner broke.
“This level of heat we’re experiencing in Phoenix right now is very dangerous, especially for those who don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to run it,” said Evan Mullen, senior analyst at the Georgia Tech Urban Climate Lab.
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However, some people are trying to endure the heat by refraining from using air conditioners for fear of quickly rising electricity bills.
Camille Lavaney, 29, has developed a unique system to keep herself and her 10-month-old St. Bernard Wrigley cool during Arizona’s heatwave. Through trial and error, Lavaney found that 83°F was an acceptable temperature for him to keep his utility bills down.
With the help of a NEST smart thermostat, Lavaney keeps her home hot during the most expensive hours of the day, 4-7 p.m., by tracking the on-peak and off-peak schedules of Arizona Public Service’s public services. She keeps the fans running and a cooling bed ready for Wrigley, and they both try to get by until the power company’s official peak hours pass.
“I have a dog, so I like to eat during the hottest times of the day,” she said. Last month, Ms. Lavaney said her utility bill was about $150.
The cooling strategy for Emily Schmidt’s Tempe, Arizona home also centers on her dog. Her air conditioner is “constantly talked about” with her partner, she says.
“Sometimes I wish it was cooler, but I have to balance saving money with keeping the house from being too hot for my pet.”
The unrelenting heat of the last few weeks has made it really difficult to budget for rent and other utilities because “I’m honestly worried about what my electric bill will be like.”
Katie Martin, director of housing improvement and community services at the Senior Living Foundation, said she recognizes the pet issue as well. Seniors with limited incomes have a risky trade and often don’t come to cooling centers if they don’t allow pets.
“In recent years, we’ve found that most of the seniors we serve keep their thermostats at 80 degrees Fahrenheit to save money,” she says.
Also, many people don’t have a support network of family and friends to turn to if their air conditioner breaks down.
Breakdowns can be dangerous. Models from the Georgia Institute of Technology show that indoors can be even hotter than outdoors, something that people in poorly insulated homes around the world are familiar with. “A single-family home with a large, flat roof can get over 40 degrees hot in a few hours without air conditioning,” Mullen said.
The Salvation Army has installed approximately 11 cooling stations throughout the Phoenix area. Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Wilde, commander of the organization’s southwest division, said some visitors now cannot pay their electricity bills or have adequate air conditioning.
“I spoke to an elderly woman who told me that her air conditioning costs are very high to run. So she comes to the Salvation Army and stays for a few hours, socializes with other people, and comes home when it’s not so hot,” he said.
Wilde said some Salvation Army cooling centers saw more people than last year, even though Phoenix experiences extreme heat every summer. The Salvation Army estimates it has provided heat relief to about 24,000 people in Arizona and southern Nevada since May 1 and distributed about 150,000 water bottles.
Marilyn Brown, a Regent professor of sustainable systems at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said rising air-conditioning costs will force people to cut spending in other areas as well. “People give up a lot of things to keep their air conditioners running. They may have to give up buying medicines or paying for gasoline to get to work or school,” she says.
“That’s why we’re stuck in such an alarming cycle of poverty. It’s hard to get out of it, especially when you’re caught in the energy burden and poverty,” Brown added.
Beatrice Dupuis contributed to this article from New York and Melina Waring contributed from Chicago.
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