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Living in an artificial environment

Air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

People with low economic status tend to think that the wealthy are healthier; and they see that the rich people stay in air conditioned spaces in homes, offices, cars and shops, while they are toiling in uncomfortable ambiences.

As such, the myth spreads hat living in artificial environments is better than living with natural conditions.

Modern construction technology can provide air conditioning to any kind of space.

With the AC costs coming down every season and claims about green buildings adopting more efficient systems like radiant cooling, evaporative cooling and such others besides the conventional HVAC systems, building owners do not feel guilty for installing air conditioning.

However, are all the people living inside such artificial environments happy and healthy? Contrary to what the economically poor may dream, reports suggest otherwise. Living without fresh air, day light and nature is today proven to be very unhealthy.

Many indoor spaces do not have adequate fresh air inlet and air change as required, leading to what is called Sick Building Syndrome. Lack of ventilation can also lead to a feel of suffocation, partly due to increased ambient indoor heat, creating a sense of dryness.

The AC can take away internal humidity at such fast rate, too many people feel dehydrated inside, with dried lips and skin.

In places with short summer spells of a few weeks, like in Bengaluru, it is not worth fixing air conditioners for the short duration, letting it lie idle rest of the year.

When we get out of an AC space, the temperature difference between inside and outside causes what is called thermal shock. It can affect the body immune system.

Despite all these, we continue to live with conditioned air, rather than the natural. However, the indoor cool comes at a cost, further increasing the heat island effect and directly promoting greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

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Conditioned by Air Conditioners

It is time we realised that this equipment can harm our health and endanger the Earth.

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How many of us realise that air conditioners are bad for human health? How many of us know that air conditioners harm the environment? A better question to ask – how many of us who know these truths have stopped or at least reduced using air conditioners?

A paradox of our times is the ever increasing popularity of ACs. As the temperatures soar high, one summer thought that comes to everyone’s mind is to get the house or office air conditioned. It is impossible today not to see an advertisement by the manufacturer, a discount offer by the distributor or a sales pitch by the shop outlet during a casual day out in the city. No cars are being made now without AC, and non-air conditioned hotel rooms are already hard to come by. Even small shops in small towns are boasting of AC.

Just in a decade or two, how come this technology has swept across all climatic zones – hill stations like Matheran, dry regions like Ladakh, rain forests of Wayanad, monsoon city of Mangaluru – as if this is a singular solution to human suffering. Ironically, the comfort that’s promoted here is not the real scientific biological comfort defined by dry bulb temperature, wet bulb temperature, humidity, air change, body level breeze and such indoor conditions.

Equally surprising, from an environmental perspective, not many people have spoken against this singular invention of humankind that demands lot of electricity thus causing depletion of fossil fuel; made from manufactured materials with high embodied energy; and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and has been witnessing advancing technology, creating obsoleteness.

Just a habit

One major factor behind this spread is the human impulse for habit forming. For every car driver who claims it is too hot outside, there would be thousands of people walking or working outside in the same high heat. The car owner has simply lost the body capacity to bear heat. Air conditioner conditions us, and it is as habit forming as alcohol is. If we ask anyone habituated to an air conditioner, if they were miserable failures at home or work before they lived with air conditioners, no one would say ‘yes’. It would have been business as usual or possibly the financial success of those days has led them to new affordability now. By air conditioning, we do not sweat in summer, but make the Earth sweat. We do not shiver in winter, but make the Earth shiver. For millions of years, humans sweated and shivered, so the Earth survived.

Now that the Earth has started sweating and shivering in the form of climate change, it threatens the survival of humans. It is time we realise how our present actions can erase our future. It is time we realise how air conditioners can harm our health and endanger the Earth. Let us explore them in the coming essays

What if the air conditioner had not been invented?

By opting for excessive use of technological innovations, we have degraded the ecosystem. Can we think ahead and set right things?

18bgp-greesense_18_2898898eMost people and many Hollywood films fantasise about rewriting history. After anger breaks out in a talk, we wish we had not said something that triggered the anger. After buying a pair of footwear that bites into our feet, we wish we had bought the other pair. Sometimes we wonder if we had left for the family trip one week earlier, we could have escaped the monsoon rains that spoiled the holidays.

Life is a golden opportunity of tremendous possibilities, which we may be frittering away on most occasions. The dreams of leading an ideal, happy, content and healthy life dominates us so deeply that half the time we wish for a time machine that could reverse the past into favouring us, mostly individually and selfishly.

Despite the logical reaction that would ridicule this mental exercise, we may still continue wondering what if the air conditioners were not invented, ecologically an extremely harmful product. What if air travel was not explored, today among the major causes for greenhouse gas emission? What if the western culture did not support a consumerist lifestyle, which is sweeping the world today?

What if return of investment, GDP, quarterly net profits and such others were not to be the litmus test for success, which lets business dominate over happiness? What if individual earnings could be based on needs and not on maximum limits of earning capacity?

For the future

It is futile to continue with such millions of what if’s for the past, but imagine we are able to foresee the future, forecast the occasions when we may ask ‘what if’. If we could do that, may be, today itself we can avoid that questionable action. Does this hypothesis sound like another fantasy trip? It may be so for some, but in deeper reality, it is not. Many futurologists have been suggesting what can be anticipated tomorrow, simple examples being water crisis, home automation, fragmented families, reduced personal bonding, artificial intelligence or robotic assistances.

Many of us have realised the opportunities we have lost in making the world a more humane place to live in. The least we can do is not to lose out on the future opportunities also. May be it’s time to promote solar and electric cars; use bio-degradable short-life materials instead of manufactured long-life materials; reduce travel to localise the living or ban food chemicals that do not serve health.

If we are dreaming of seeing a different world tomorrow — sustainable, justifiable and equitable — we need to act today. ‘What if’ we do not act is as clear as the writing on the wall.

LIVING WITH SUMMER

Switching on the air conditioner is not the right solution as it only creates heat islands.

02bgp-greensens_02_2392591eThis summer season has been a much talked about one, at least for one reason. Which ever city one lives in or travels to, everyone gets to hear people discussing the rising temperatures. Architects and builders, especially those who claim to design eco-friendly houses, get frequent complaints from some or other house owners about how unbearable the indoor temperature has been. Most of us being impulsive in nature, start looking for an immediate answer as well.

From an ecological perspective, the rising summer temperatures and increasing financial affordability is prompting thousands of families in the tropical regions to buy air conditioners. A study published in National Academy of Sciences has placed air conditioners among the products poised for exponential growth in the coming years – a product already infamous for releasing Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) which indirectly accelerates climate change. Besides, they transfer the indoor heat to outside, leading to heat island effects in business districts with large number of air conditioned buildings. In majority of cites in south India, the window ACs are used just for a few weeks in a year, questioning the idea of investment and benefit, even if it is at the individual levels.

It is a fact that no house can be built to perfectly suit all our local seasons of summer, winter and monsoon rains. If a house in coastal Kerala has to be designed to allow cross ventilation even during the rains, the same model may not be needed in Hyderabad or if built so, will end up filling the house with hot air during the summers, making it unlivable. Any study of traditional local architecture reveals that they were in general good for all seasons, but would perform badly in case of extreme conditions. While a non-stop flash shower with wind would make Bangalore buildings suffer, sudden spell of dry weather in an otherwise hot humid Chennai would create discomfort to the locals.

Unfortunately, by specifying 22 degree Celsius temperature, 50% humidity and hourly two cycles of air change, the habit-forming air conditioning creates a yearning in us for AC every time, diluting our inborn capacity to let the body get adjusted. All our ancestors lived all through the seasons, by appropriate food, clothing, indoor activities and bearing with the lead time required to get adjusted. Today, in the name of comfort, we are letting our lives get conditioned.

So, the challenge is two fold – firstly, to design the building most suited to all seasons, if not best suited to one season, and secondly, in the case of occasional extreme weather conditions in one season, let our human bodies get adjusted to the changing nature of heat and humidity.

Towards the first challenge, insulation and ventilation are among the major criteria, being the technical aspects of passive cooling, which can be further explored. However, for the second challenge of getting adjusted, it is only our wish and will power that can make a difference.

Is air conditioning sustainable?

Whether it is worth living with artificial ventilation, inadequate air change cycles, increased carbon dioxide intake, questionable indoor air quality and finally, the now much discussed sick building syndrome?

Twenty years ago this question would have got brushed aside as a nonsense statement, but today many subject experts feel, in its present form, air conditioning cannot be sustained towards a greener future. We condition the air such that we need not sweat or shiver, but we are making the earth sweat and shiver.

Humans can easily adopt their bodies to live in 4 to 40 degree Celsius temperature, with appropriate clothing. So, all our past generations have lived without air conditioning, even in climates harsher than the range mentioned. Our bodies are biologically made for gradual transitions in temperatures and humidity, on daily and seasonal basis. In reality, the body cannot adjust from 22 to 40 degree C. variations as we come out of an air conditioned office, hence moving in and out of A.C. creates body stress and strains.

Right balance

We need a balance and parity between outdoor and indoor temperatures for smoother body adaptions, but in India we follow the western standard of 22-23 degrees Celsius, which is more suited to their colder climates. No wonder when we walk into an A.C. bus or office, most often they feel like freezers. Also, the impact on body varies in auditoriums or offices with the number of occupants.

In urban contexts, people quote sound, smoke and dust to justify A.C., which is valid. But, how many of us can live 24 hours inside the A.C. and even if we can, would it be a greatly healthy life? The choice between letting the body get acclimatised or get conditioned is left to the individual, but what follows the A.C. is a fact — living with artificial ventilation, inadequate air change cycles, increased carbon dioxide intake, questionable indoor air quality and finally, the now much discussed sick building syndrome.

As a nation, India today is embracing this technology at a frenzied rate in every type of building, be it a college or a coffee shop, without being fully aware of the havoc it is creating. Fortunately, industrialised nations are worried about it, considering the energy it consumes, urban heat it increases and the potential it has to deplete the ozone layer. They have realised that HVAC systems (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) cannot perform without equipment, electricity, gas generation or creating waste at the end of the life cycle.

Better options

As such, many options for indoor comforts without air conditioning such as air cooling through humidifiers, chilled water pipe systems, earth tunnels, wind catchers with water pots, passive cooling systems, designing for the climatic zone, and design ideas with sky-lit atrium lobbies are being explored. Besides such ongoing research towards alternatives to A.C., the technology of air conditioning is also being improved for low energy consumption, efficient heat transfer systems, long life for machine components or environmentally safer refrigerants.

However, sustaining the growing popularity of air conditioning is still a big challenge.

Where ‘green’ debates are held

In the name of air conditioning, we are cooling the indoors and heating the outdoors! But it has become an integral part of our lives.

air_conditioner_1476300eThere is hardly any seminar today, focused on the themes of energy conservation and sustainability, which goes without reference to air conditioning (A.C.). Considered to be among the fastest expanding human needs, just like flights, phones or cars, air conditioned indoors are on a fast track in every developing country, while the affluent nations have already conditioned most of their indoors.

Impacts of air conditioning on green living is much debated, ironically, most often sitting inside A.C. rooms, suggesting how inseparable it has become from our routine urban lives. The need of the hour is to understand the problems and potentials of the technology behind A.C. Human attempts to control the indoor air must have started right when our ancestors stopped their nomadic lifestyle and became settlers. Mere wrapping up of the body was not adequate to protect us from heat and cold, especially in climatic zones with extremities of temperature. There are records to prove that as early as 2nd century A. D. the Chinese were trying to cool the indoors using ingenious ideas. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, England, built in 1854, is believed to be the first air conditioned building in the modern era. The credit of adopting modern technology, using electrical energy, for air conditioning goes to Willis Carrier, who in the early 1900s started the trend of air conditioned buildings in the U.S. So, the urge to condition the air has been both historic and human, and cannot be wished away now a century later.

As heat would naturally flow in the opposite direction, we need machines to achieve this. Air conditioning happens by a simple rule of physics which states that liquid absorbs heat when changed from liquid to gas and gases give off heat when changed from gas to liquid. The system follows cycles of expansion, evaporation, compression and condensation, all inside a closed loop. First, the refrigerant liquid is expanded at low pressure and is let into the indoors. In contact with the indoor air, this low pressure liquid absorbs heat, becoming low pressure gas, in the process resulting in lower temperature inside. This heat laden low pressure gas is collected and goes through compressors to become high pressure gas. This hot gas is passed thorough condensers, releasing the heat to outside, becoming high pressure liquid. This pressurized liquid is expanded to become the low pressure gas, repeating the cycle already explained.

In principle, it is the same refrigerant that moves from one machine to another, passing through hot indoors, cooling it and releasing the heat to outside. If we try standing near these machines outside, we can feel the heat being released, so too while crossing a jammed road with majority of air conditioned cars around. So, in the name of air conditioning, while we are cooling the indoors, we are actually heating the outdoors!