As I write this, some workers are disassembling the 24-year-old air conditioning system in my house. They’re clunking and clanking around, tromping up and down my stairs, so they can replace the old system with a new one that presumably won’t pump out warm air on a hot day.
My parents, who live in the Panhandle, had to get their A/C fixed last week too. Several other people I know have had major A/C glitches this month.
The old saying holds that April showers bring May flowers. In Florida, though, I think May brings sweaty days and sweltering homes, as everyone cranks their thermostat into overdrive — only to hear it cough and sputter.
A/C problems are a strong reminder of just how much engineering goes into making Florida habitable by humans.
Back when U.S. Army troops were pursuing Seminole warriors around Florida in the 1830s, they reported the place was "swampy, low, excessively hot, sickly and repulsive in all its features." Now we tell everyone it’s paradise (for the right price, that is).
In 1940, before air conditioning was a standard feature in homes and cars, Florida was the least populated Southern state. It’s easy to understand why. Florida was so hot that the pioneers named a lot of places after Hell — Lake Hell’n’Blazes, for instance, and Tate’s Hell Swamp.
Houses back then were built to take advantage of the breeze, with high ceilings and large windows positioned to let the air flow through. But even then the only way to find relief in the hottest months was to sit outside on the porch and swing or rock.
Jim Clark, a historian at the University of Central Florida, recalls how even at night, the heat didn’t let up.
"I can remember changing sheets in the middle of the night when they became soaked" with sweat, he said.
With fewer people, this state was far more rural. No law required fences around cattle pastures until 1949, so cows often roamed the state’s highways unimpeded, causing frequent crashes. Meanwhile the only way to ward off mosquitoes was with smoke from a smudge pot. Sit on the porch seeking a cool breeze, you’d have to inhale a snootful of smoke or worry that the mosquitoes might carry you off.
Between the sweat, the skeeters and the smudge pots, can you imagine how stinky everyone was? F-L-A was P-U central.
Seventy years later, Florida is the third-most populous state, with 21 million people driving around in air-conditioned cars on cattle-free highways — usually with their left turn signal blinking on and off for three miles. We smell a little better. We’ve got a variety of chemical sprays to chase away the skeeters.
The air conditioning changed everything, even the landscape, Clark said.
"A one-story cinder-block house with small windows would have been an oven before air conditioning," he explained. "Thanks to his window air conditioner, usually built in as part of the house, homes could be built cheaply and quickly."
Suddenly subdivisions began sprawling everywhere, filling in what had been forests and swamps and chasing out the wildlife that the subdivisions had been named for. Most of the new homes had no porch for sitting and swinging and rocking. Nobody wanted to stay outside anyway, not for any longer than it took to hustle from the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned house.
This is what makes Florida bearable for us. But there are consequences to everything we do in life, even turning down the thermostat.
The International Energy Agency announced this month that the rising use of air conditioners in homes and stores and offices will be the top driver of global electricity demand over the next 50 years.
Currently there are 1.6 billion air conditioners in the civilized world. By 2050, that number is expected to hit 5.6 billion.
Of course the more power we use, the more greenhouse gases spewed out by the power plants, which makes the climate warmer, which makes us need the air conditioning even more. You see how this works?
I guess what I’m saying is: We can’t live without air conditioning in Florida, but we don’t have to run it all the time, do we? The next time there’s a breezy day, turn the A/C off and open a couple of windows.
If you’ve got a porch, try sitting out there and rocking a while too. See what it was like being a pioneer. It’s better for the climate and better for your soul.
But don’t fire up the smudge pots. And don’t forget to put on some deodorant.
Contact Craig Pittman at