Chart of the Day: Share of New Homes with Central Air Conditioning, 1970 – Present

An evergreen chart here from the New York Times about a seasonal (in Minnesota anyway) amenity that has radically transformed our cities and homes for the better and for the worse.

Here is the chart showing the trend in the Midwest and other regions of the US:

I grew up in a house with central air, which seemed to me a wild luxury in the 1980s. But we rarely turned it on, maybe a week or two of the year. The rest of the time it was not necessary, and the windows were open.

That might be changing these days, though. Here is a bit of explanation and context about the a/c trends from the article:

Decades after air-conditioning made much of the Sun Belt livable, it has now become standard nearly everywhere. Eighty-six percent of new single-family homes in the Northeast are now built with it; 94 percent in the Midwest are. Parts of the United States whose historical development never depended on air-conditioning increasingly resemble the regions whose growth wouldn’t have been possible without it.

“Air-conditioning is reaching where it hasn’t reached before,” said Don Prather, the technical services manager with the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. “It’s been moving north and northwest, in every direction.”

“With the advent of air-conditioning, we lost a lot of the common sense,” said Kirk Teske, the chief operating officer at HKS Architects, with headquarters in Dallas. He worries that regions like the Northeast may lose it, too, setting up future challenges for office workers and residents when blackouts or other natural disasters come. “I sometimes say the best sustainably minded architects are all dead now,” Mr. Teske said. “They’re the ones that were able to do these big buildings knowing they had to do so without the benefits of air-conditioning systems.”

Despite Minnesota’s relatively moderate summers [knocking on wood], the Upper Midwest is no stranger to the central air conditioning unit and its companion (and raccoon-unfriendly) feature, the un-openable window.

13 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Share of New Homes with Central Air Conditioning, 1970 – Present

  1. Daniel HartigDaniel Hartig

    Central air conditioning is more addictive and worse for society than cell phones. I talk big about not running the AC all winter, then the first day it is over 76 I start sweating and then I can’t sleep and I am not pleasant to be around then I cave in and turn the AC on, and set it at 72 because I just suffered through like 4 hours in the upper 70s as if this was the greatest tragedy of the young millenium.

    It’s just like cell phones, the more you use them, the less you can personally escape them. I hate central central AC and I’m addicted for life.

  2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    AC is my biggest climate weakness. Spring allergies make me unwilling to just open windows which just flows into summer heat. I justify it with almost not driving, but the AC isn’t good.

  3. Tim

    The way homes are constructed has a lot to do with this too. For example, I live in a townhouse that faces east and only has windows on that side. I can open them, but unless the wind is coming out of the east, it doesn’t do much to cool things off, as opposed to a house with windows on multiple sides that allows for more air movement.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Yeah, that is a big part of the picture. I like to think that houses used to be mindful of airflow and circulation in hot weather. Now, not so much…

    2. Andrew Evans

      Our 1909 stucco house is a lot like this. Not many windows facing west, and tree cover for most of the day. Keeping the windows open at night and shut during the day does quite a bit, and when we finally break down, we put two small window AC units in (it really only needs 1, but we have 2) and they do a decent job. Granted, it’s more or less around 75, but it’s all that we need.

      We have sawdust for insulation in the attic and none in the walls. I’m assuming once we get around to finishing/insulating the space that the rest of the house will be much better.

      For what it’s worth… The window units maybe cost $65 a month, for the 3 months they are in use, and would be a few hundred a piece. There would be no cost savings for us to get central air, and do the whole retrofit. Also, the attic may be about $1500’ish to insulate and finish if I did it myself (I think that’s a ballpark anyway). Even then, it doesn’t make sense to do it as savings, since we wouldn’t see a return, heating included, for at least 10 years.

      It really makes me wonder sometimes about all the extra cost added to rehabs as defined by red tape from the city, or by people thinking they need new windows and forced air heating/cooling. It would be a lot greener to take some of these older homes, put modest insulation where possible, and give the windows a good once over. Less to the landfill, and the extra heating and cooling costs would be minimal if the home is sealed up pretty well.

  4. Cobo R

    Central air and laundry room are the two luxuries that I enjoy the most after buying a house. Years latter I still get giddy about it.

    I do use the AC a lot in the summer, but I have an older house with moisture issues in the basement, so the house gets pretty musty if the AC isn’t used regularly. That’s why I don’t feel too guilty about it.., also I have it timed out for relative energy efficiency and rarely have it set below 74F

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    We’ve also seen the growth of forced air heating, as opposed to hot water, something clearly and intimately related to increase of central air installation.

    I strongly prefer hot water heat: less variation in room temperature, no wind chill, no dust getting blown around, no need to frequently change filters..

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        It seems like newer technology could bridge the two in a better way. If I was building a house today, I’d do a combination of hydronic (ideally in-floor) heat on the basement and main level, then some sort of air-source heat pump for cooling and shoulder-season heating in critical areas of the home. A Heat/Energy Recovery Ventilator would likely be required for proper fresh air and pressurization if built to modern standards.

        Or we could just go to mass wall masonry like Clay Chapman / Hope For Architecture are doing in climates slightly warmer than ours:

    1. Cobo R

      I prefer forced air, cheaper and easier to fix, heats up faster, and no burn hazard style radiators.

      Plus I’m not a set it and forget it kinda guy when it comes to heat. I like having it all timed out for maximum efficiency with the option of overriding my thermostat from my phone in case plans change. This is pretty much impossible with a boiler since it takes soo long for them to heat up.

    2. Mike

      I was always a fan of radiators vs forced air until we did a major remodel and ended up pulling the radiators entirely and going forced air with central AC. All of sudden all these corners in the (generally small Minneapolis house) rooms of the house were so much more useful with just small floor and ceiling vents to worry about without the burn risk of the steam radiators and the bulk of space they took. Also the new furnaces are much less noticeable than old blower style forced air. Radiators were great for raising bread dough though in the winter.

      1. Monte Castleman

        I was always a fan of the way old style radiators looked in older buildings. My school was full of them. But I’d never by a house with one because no central air… (and I also like having a furnace blower running to keep air moving generate white noise).

  6. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Kirk Teske with HKS sounds like a member of the “Original Green” school of thought, shared by architect and author Steve Mouzon. Steve describes how human cultures and the structures we built used to adapt more creatively to environmental stresses (heat and otherwise) in what he calls the “pre-thermostat era.”

    Thinking of history in terms of pre vs post-thermostat really makes clear how we have used technology to compensate for design. I recommend giving it a read:

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