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April 10, 2023
Your beliefs and expectations about home air conditioning probably reflect the part of the country you live in. If you live in the south or west, you may think that AC should be part of every home, while if you're from a cool northern climate it might not seem necessary.
But this often-overlooked home system is becoming more important, no matter where you live. Did you know that comfort is an important component of home safety? When you can’t keep your home at a temperature that humans find comfortable, home can become a dangerous place.
Exactly how critical to your safety is a well-functioning home cooling system? The Economist reports that in 2021 extreme heat killed more Americans than any other weather disaster. In fact, more than 600 people are killed by extreme heat in the United States each year.
Understanding the Risk
Who is at risk, and how can you protect your loved ones? The CDC says that infants and children, people over age 65, people with chronic medical conditions, outdoor workers, and people who live in low-income households are at the highest risk. Here are some reasons why:
- It's harder for some people to sense heat, adjust clothing, change position, and drink water.
- Overweight and older bodies do not adjust easily to changes in temperature.
- Chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes or diseases of the heart, lungs, or kidneys, limit the body's ability to adapt to changes in the environment.
- Some common medications affect the body's ability to sweat.
- Most states do not have permanent heat protection standards for outdoor workers.
The Changing Landscape of Extreme Heat
Many regions that have not historically needed air conditioning now experience extreme heat. In fact, cooler areas often have higher casualties during a heat wave because people there are not adapted to the high temperatures.
In these cool-climate heat waves, the disparities in who is harmed by extreme heat are especially stark: most of the people who died in British Columbia's 2021 heat wave were seniors who died alone at home, in homes without air conditioning. In those where air conditioning was present, it wasn't being used. Seniors are especially vulnerable because they are likely to have a combination of many of the factors above: low income, limited mobility, chronic medical conditions, multiple medications, and social isolation.
Taking Care of the Vulnerable
We all know someone who has one or more the risk factors above, but we might not realize that they need our care to stay safe in extreme heat. Protect the vulnerable people in your life by ensuring the following:
- Window or central air conditioners or heat pump (a high efficiency appliance that provides cooling as well as heat) is maintained and working properly.
- The household has adequate resources to pay energy bills. When occupants are worried about paying for their basic needs, they may not run the AC to save money.
- The home is air sealed and insulated so that safe, comfortable temperatures can be maintained affordably.
- Occupants, especially older adults, receive a visit twice daily to ensure that systems are working properly, and that they are not in distress.
Financial Resources for Home Cooling
It may seem out of reach for your household to install a new system, repair a poorly functioning one, or upgrade an inefficient home to lower cooling costs. Fortunately, there are many options available to help you make the needed changes.
Some states have cooling programs for low-income residents. More states are adding cooling programs as they experience more frequent waves of extreme heat, so check back on this list if you don't see your state now.
Improvement lending, tax credits, and rebates can help you make air sealing and insulation upgrades or upgrades to your cooling system that will help you and your home cope with extreme heat. Check out our posts on the 25C tax credit and HOMES rebate. Watch for our next blog post, where we'll discuss other financial options to help keep home temperatures comfortable and your loved ones safe. And don’t forget that you can learn more about what makes a home healthy with the Healthy Housing Principles Certificate.