For Really Cool People, Central Air Is a Must

Times Staff Writers

Forget whether you have an ocean view or a new Lexus. A more pressing question this week in Southern California: Do you have central air conditioning?

The answer in Los Angeles and much of Southern California: Probably not.

Less than half of the homes in the city of Los Angeles have air conditioning, and fewer than 1 in 4 have central air, a utility survey says. Statewide, coastal areas have fewer air conditioners; inland, they're working nonstop.

In Orange County, 61% have some kind of air conditioning. But folks in Riverside County are the coolest. More than 87% of their homes are air-conditioned, the highest level in the Southland. And San Bernardino County is not far behind.

San Jacinto resident Gary White says he knows why: "Because it's hotter than hell."

Riverside resident Devorah Knaff installed air conditioning in her 1910 Craftsman house as soon as she moved in.

"It's like the traffic," she said. "Unless you've experienced it, you don't know how obnoxious it can be."

The percentage of air conditioning in homes everywhere is rising. More owners of oceanfront homes are installing air conditioning. And in new homes, it's becoming standard.

The air-conditioning figures were compiled by California's largest utilities in 2005 as part of a residential appliance survey used by the state to plan for power needs. The study estimated the number of homes with central air, room units, other kinds of cooling and no air conditioning at all. A few counties in Northern California, including parts of Sacramento County, were not included.

Predictably, coastal areas and cooler climates have less air conditioning. In San Francisco County, for example, only 2% of the homes have some form of air conditioning. Santa Cruz County weighs in at 3% and Monterey County at 4%. In the searing Central Valley, where residents and cattle are dying from the heat, more than 80% of the homes in Fresno and Merced counties have air conditioning.

"When everybody seems to have air conditioning, you don't want to be the one who doesn't -- even if you don't use it," said Marsha E. Ackermann, author of "Cool Comfort: America's Romance with Air-Conditioning."

Consider Bradley Hill, 23, who lives in a non-air-conditioned Brentwood apartment with his wife, Meridith, about 20 blocks from the beach.

They moved to Brentwood to escape the sweltering heat in Woodland Hills, where the thermometer has topped 100 more than 20 days this month. They figured they could surely live without AC. But these days they're reconsidering.

"The apartment complex said that none of the apartments have any and that ... maybe two days out of the whole year people would need it," Hill said. "We didn't think anything of it."

Then it started getting hot -- and humid. The ceiling fans weren't enough, so he bought an oscillating fan. He even bought one for the tropical fish in his 80-gallon aquarium. He plunked down $99.95 more for a third fan from Sharper Image. And he was still sweating.

Earlier this week Hill and his wife slept on the floor in the second bedroom with their windows wide open. "It was a little cooler, but then it got too hot there. It's like we're camping -- we're moving every night," he said.

The next night they settled on the living room floor, in front of the open front door.

His next place, Hill said, will have air conditioning.

As homes are sold or passed down a generation, more people are deciding that air conditioning is a must-have amenity.

They may need it only five days a year, but "those days are our critical days," said Claudia Chandler, assistant executive director of the California Energy Commission. "On any hot summer afternoon, about one-third of the electricity that's being consumed is being used to drive air conditioners."

When forecasting energy use, California officials factored in new-home construction, with almost all homes equipped with one -- and often two -- air-conditioning units.

People "just wouldn't buy" a new home without air conditioning, said John Young, president of Young Homes and of the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California.

Patty Elias, 39, has lived in her two-story Brentwood home since December 2004. She never once needed to use her upstairs air-conditioning unit -- until this week, that is.

"There is still no relief," Elias said. "The air has just been incredibly stuffy and dense."

Elias likes to consider herself environmentally conscious. She traded in her SUV for a sedan. Her next car will be a hybrid. She added plants to provide more shade for her home. She even moved her car from the driveway to the shady street because "I felt sorry for how hot it was."

But with the temperature gauge in her house at 92, there's only so much she's willing to suffer. The central-air-conditioning installer will arrive in two weeks -- the earliest she could get an appointment.

More people have air conditioning now because they want to be in control of their environment, Ackermann said, adding: "Americans are extremely spoiled."

The flip side are the defiant, the ones who refuse to get air conditioning or turn it on even if they have it.

"I think this is one of those issues to help you decide how tough you are, how committed you are to the environment, to energy efficiency," Ackermann said. "There are people who are defiantly saying, 'I will adapt myself to this situation.' "

That's Lisa Schyman, 45, of Mar Vista.

"People are surprised when we tell them we don't have it," she said. "To them, it's like saying you don't have a car or a refrigerator. It seems pathetic."

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Staff writers Cynthia H. Cho, Susannah Rosenblatt and Ronald D. White and researchers Vicki Gallay and John L. Jackson contributed to this report.

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Begin text of infobox

Keeping our cool

A survey of residences across the state estimates that 51% of California homes have central or room air conditioning. The survey includes only customers of major private utilities and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. It excludes most city-owned utilities. Here's a sample:

Cool facts

80.8 million: Number of U.S. households with air conditioning, 2001

33.1 million: Number of those that used AC all summer, 2001

In 1842, American physician John Gorrie built an air-cooling device for yellow fever patients. The basic technology is still used in refrigerators.

In 1902, American inventor Willis Carrier designed the first modern system to regulate temperature and humidity.

In 1923, Grauman's Metropolitan Theater in downtown Los Angeles was the first theater to install Carrier's air-conditioning system.

In 1940, the Packard became the first air-conditioned automobile.

Helpful links: www.aceee.org/consumerguide/topcac.htm

www.ashrae.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/29280

Sources: Residential Appliance Saturation Survey, Southern California Edison, Times research

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday August 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction Air conditioning: A front-page article July 28 said a statewide survey to determine the percentage of households with air conditioners in the service areas of major utilities was conducted in 2005. The survey was conducted in 2002 and applied to 2005 estimates of the customer base.
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