June 24, 2024

Phoenix residents turn on air conditioners, fearing future electric bills, as record heat turns homes into “air vents”

Temperatures peak at or above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) throughout July in Phoenix. There is air conditioning, which made the modern Phoenix even possible.

When a cloudless sky combines with outside temperatures above 100 F, your home turns into an “air fryer” or “grooler,” as the roof absorbs powerful heat and radiates it down, said Jonathan Bean, co-director of the Institute for Energy Solutions at the University of Arizona. Bean knows, not only from his research, but he also experienced it firsthand this weekend when his air conditioner broke.

“This level of heat we’re experiencing in Phoenix right now is extremely dangerous, especially for people who don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to run their air conditioner,” said Evan Mallen, senior analyst for the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Urban Climate Laboratory.

But some are cutting off AC, trying to bear the heat, fearing the high electricity bills that will come soon.

Heat Wave Air Conditioning
After finishing an air conditioning repair call, Michael Villa, a service technician with Total Refrigeration, finds a shade as he wipes sweat from his face July 19, 2023, in Laveen, Ariz.

Ross D. Franklin / AP


Camille Rabany, 29, developed her own system to keep herself and her 10-month-old Saint Bernard Rigley cool during the Arizona heat wave. Through trial and error, Rabany found that 83 F is a temperature she is willing to tolerate in order to keep her utility bill down.

By tracking the peak and off-peak schedule of her utility, Arizona Public Service, with the help of her NEST smart thermostat, Rabany keeps her house warm from 4 to 7 pm, the most expensive hours. She keeps her fans running and has a cooling bed for Rigley, and they both try to make it until the utility’s official peak hours are gone.

“Those are the hours I have it the hottest I’m happy to get it because I have a dog,” she said. Last month, Rabany said her utility bill was about $150.

Emily Schmidt’s home cooling strategy in Tempe, Ariz., is also focused on her dog. Air conditioning is “always a topic of conversation,” with her partner, too, she said.

“Sometimes I wish it was cooler, but we have to balance saving money and making sure the house is not too hot for our pets.”

With the unrelenting heat of the past few weeks, “I’m honestly afraid of what the electric bill will be, which makes it difficult to budget for rent and other utilities.”


No relief from the heat for Southwestern US

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Katie Martin, home improvement and community services administrator at the Foundation for Senior Living, said she also sees the pet issue. Seniors on limited incomes are making dangerous trade-offs and often don’t come to cooling centers that don’t allow pets.

“In recent years we are finding that most of the seniors we serve are keeping their thermostats at 80 F to save money,” she said.

Many also don’t have a support network of family or friends they can turn to in the event of an air conditioner breakdown.

Breakdowns can be dangerous. Models from Georgia Tech show that inside can be hotter than outside, something people in poorly insulated homes all over the world know all too well. “A single-family detached house, one story with a large flat roof, heats up to over 40 degrees in a matter of hours if they don’t have air conditioning,” Mallen said.

The Salvation Army has 11 cooling stations throughout the Phoenix area. Said the Lt. Colonel Ivan Wild, commander of the southwest division of the organization, that some of the people who are visiting now are unable to pay their electricity bills or do not have adequate air conditioning.

“I talked to one elderly woman and she said her air conditioning is just as expensive to run. So she comes to the Salvation Army and stays for a few hours, socializes with other people, and then goes home when it’s not so hot,” he said.

Heat Wave Air Conditioning
Salvation Army volunteer Manuel Luna, left, hands out items to a patron at a cooling station on July 19, 2023, in Phoenix.

Ross D. Franklin / AP


Although extreme heat occurs every summer in Phoenix, Wild said a few Salvation Army cooling centers have reported seeing more people than last year. The Salvation Army estimates that since May 1, they have provided heat relief to nearly 24,000 people and distributed nearly 150,000 bottles of water in Arizona and Southern Nevada.

Marilyn Brown, a professor of sustainable systems at Georgia Tech, said high air conditioning bills force people to cut back on spending in other areas as well. “People get up a lot, often, to run their air conditioner … they might have to give up some medicine, the cost of gasoline for their car to go to work or school,” she said.

“That’s why we have such a terrible cycle of poverty. It’s hard to get out of it, especially when you’re trapped in the burden of energy and poverty,” said Brown.

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