It's Summer, But Many Seattle Residents Are Opting Out of Air Conditioning—Here's Why

Seattle residents use air conditioning at half the rate of the national average.
Seattle residents use air conditioning at half the rate of the national average. / tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images

Ever since air conditioning gained a foothold in the early 20th century, cooling off movie theaters and businesses before moving to the home in the 1930s, people have come to depend on it to brave the summer swelter. In major metropolitan areas, upwards of 90 percent of homes and apartments are equipped with some form of cooling.

Unless you live in Seattle. For myriad reasons, the city has held a communal attitude about AC: They can do without it. It’s another regional amenity quirk similar to a distinct lack of refrigerators in Los Angeles apartments. But why?

In 2013, just 31 percent of Seattle’s households have opted for AC. Nationally, the figure is closer to 91 percent. New Orleans boasts a 99.4 percent cooling rate. Only San Francisco comes close to Seattle’s Scrooge-esque attitudes, with 47 percent of residents cooling off.

The preference isn’t so surprising For one thing, Seattle has a very temperate climate, with cool air wafting off Puget Sound keeping the worst summer temperatures at bay. Through 2020, the city had recorded just four days of heat in excess of 100 degrees in the previous 100 years. In the absence of blistering heat, residents took to DIY relief like box fans blown over ice buckets or donning wet clothes as a stopgap measure until things cooled off. If the heat was particularly oppressive, there was always the library, movie theaters, or other public spaces.

Resident Oliver Lockwood, who grew up in Seattle, told The New York Times in 2021 that there was a kind of mass dismissal of air conditioning. “It was for weaklings, for anyone who couldn’t deal [with the heat]," he said.

One reader of The Seattle Times also pointed out a structural problem: Sliding windows made it more difficult to find room units that fit.

But things appear to be changing, both in terms of climate and behavior. Warmer average temperatures around the world have led to Seattle losing its grip on manageable heat. In recent years, the number of 90-plus-degree days in the city has doubled; record temperatures hit in summer 2021, leading many longtime AC holdouts to take a break from tradition. In 2013, 31 percent of households had AC. In 2019, that number was 44 percent. Demand for air units seems to finally be heating up.

[h/t The New York Times]