For nine months of the year, Seattleites lumber through cruel stretches of gray and tolerate a moody climate. We do it because by Independence Day we bask in one of the most perfectly pleasant summers in the country—a stretch of clear 73-degree days. Those brief, mild summers are part of why, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, Seattle is the least air-conditioned city in the country. But that might not be the case for long.
Since 2015, the region has experienced two record breaking summer heat waves, including a 10-day stretch of 90-degree plus weather and back-to-back Augusts where smoke discouraged open windows. That’s AC weather.
The city prides itself on lumping central air in with umbrellas and a vibrant dating scene—unnecessary and fussy. But we’ve also been spoiled by enviable, not-too-hot summers, politely splashing in our lakes and rivers while much of the country hides indoors from unforgiving heat and humidity. How long can our principles last in the face of climate change?
These principles—and willingness to suffer through the heat—may already be changing. Though only 33 percent of Seattle housing units had air conditioning in 2015, more than 46,000 new housing units have been built in the four years since or are currently under construction. The vast majority of these units are mixed-use or multi-family, where air conditioning is more of an industry standard, says Scott Vollmoeller of engineering firm Glumac.
And it’s not just downtown high- and mid-rise apartments bringing AC to Seattle. Jamey Stephens of Evergreen Home Heating and Energy has watched the single-family home installation business completely flip on its head the last few years. Winter used to be the busy season for the South Park contractor. Now it’s the summer, with their traditionally two-week AC installation wait times ballooning to up to three months. “It’s been a cultural shift,” says Stephens, a Pacific Northwest native. “Both with the climate and the people.” And not just with newcomers more accustomed to AC living. Longtime Seattle homeowners are finally giving in, he says, paying $5,000 to $10,000 to retrofit houses with air-cooling systems.
Central air conditioning is a luxury not everyone can afford, so many Seattleites must find ways to combat the heat without a duct system. Last year the city spread word of more than 70 cooling centers in libraries, senior centers, and beaches in response to a heat advisory from the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, in big box stores like Best Buy, the box fans and window AC units are snatched up as soon as they’re stacked in floor displays. Seattle may be the last city in the country to face the reality of a cruel, cruel summer.