Two days ago, the heatwave affecting the rest of Europe came to Denmark. I guess my snickering at watching the Brits melt triggered something. It was close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and relatively humid. After living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the swamp of Washington, DC, the weather felt like an old friend I didn’t exactly want to see again. Earlier this year, my wife and I decided to get an air conditioner (AC) for our bedroom, so we were in a good place. This was an unusual decision. Less than 10% of households in the EU have an AC unit. It is interesting to explore why this is true and why we got one.
FishEye is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It’s the windows
The reason for the lack of uptake of AC in Europe has been discussed repeatedly as the heatwave has progressed. However, I do not find any of the popular arguments on Twitter to be satisfying. The German state broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, explained it in terms of moral superiority: “[Germans] say it is a waste of power, money, and can make you sick.” Far-right commentator Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry chalked it up to Europe being poorer than the United States. The New York Times and Washington Post claimed that it was climate-related. The climate argument makes a lot of sense to me. Yesterday, the heat broke, and I wore long sleeves. The rest of the arguments do not, and I think something else is at play: Northern Europe’s architecture makes retrofitting AC difficult.
When I lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I lived in a house from the 1800s. Due to its age, there was steam heat from an oil boiler and no central AC. To make due, I had window AC units in two rooms. This is the story of pre-AC buildings all over the United States; window units are a ubiquitous way to add AC to older buildings.
The problem is that window units are impossible to install in most homes in Denmark due to the type of windows found in most homes. America primarily uses sash windows that create a place for a window AC unit to sit and hold it in place. In Denmark, most houses use casement windows that swing out. My experience so far is that casement windows are exceptionally good at catching the breeze. My house is built to catch the wind on one of the lower floors to push hot air out of the skylight. The downside of this strategy is that there is nowhere to put a window unit.
If you want AC, you must settle for a portable unit like ours. The problem with portable units is that they are louder, take up more space, and are less efficient than window units. The exhaust hose is warm and radiates heat back into the room. If you can not cut a hole in one of the windows, you are left using a thin nylon sheet that you attach to the window with velcro to try to create an opening for the hot air. As you may imagine, this system is only so effective at separating the cool room from the hot outdoors.
Why we have AC
With all those problems, why did we spring for an AC unit? For me, the AC unit is a dehumidifier that sometimes puts out cold air. On a typical day, we water our plants with 3 to 5 gallons of water from the AC unit that drains into the blue bucket.
The reduction in humidity makes a big difference. As every dad in America will tell you, the humidity, not the heat, will get you. Evaporative cooling, such as sweating, works less and less efficiently as the humidity increases. That creates the uncomfortable feeling of sticking to your sheets at night. We also noticed that the price difference between a dehumidifier and a portable AC unit was negligible. So far this year, there have been about five days where it felt like we needed AC. The rest of the time, it is a fan and dehumidifier.
The other reason that we decided to get an AC unit is insects. For as much as Danish homes are built to cool naturally with the wind, screens to keep bugs out are not standard. I have a strong feeling this has to do with malaria’s disappearance in Denmark by 1900, but it could also be the long summer days mean there is, traditionally, very little reason to be awake while it is dark. As the earth warms and living patterns have changed, those assumptions are no longer valid. There is a high risk of West Nile being introduced to Denmark and a lower risk of other non-malaria mosquito-transmitted illnesses. Trying to stay in touch with friends and family in the US means late phone and video calls. This spring and early summer, we discovered that leaving our windows open results in mosquito bites and a regular stream of moths getting lost in our house. Our AC unit allows us to close our windows at night to keep out insects but stay cool.
Nobody wants the West Nile. Trust me on this!
Moms also agree, it’s the humidity. I’ve successfully, and stealthily, increased our ac setting to 78 and everyone is still alive. We also use the drip from the ac outlet to water the yard-and fill the rain barrels.