Finding new ways to cool

- Is your refrigerator running?

I’m not kidding – is it?

My old refrigerator provided constant (and unpleasant) white noise throughout our house while we fretted over whether it was more “green” to keep it (and thus not contribute more waste to landfill) or to replace it with a more energy-efficient model. The refrigerator made the decision for us by dying a sudden death; its Energy Star replacement is silent and has cut our electricity bills significantly. Refrigerators – and dishwashers, washers and dryers – have gotten sleeker and more functional in recent years, the manufacturers motivated in part by late ’90s legislation that mandated 30 percent increases in energy efficiency. (Though the recent appearance of televisions in refrigerator doors gives me pause.)

But another energy-sucking appliance has fallen behind: the air conditioner.

There are many alternatives to air conditioning, from ceiling fans (there are lots of stylish ones these days, including the high design group available at Modern Fan to good old-fashioned awnings, which you may be surprised to learn can reduce household cooling energy by as much as 26 percent in hot climates and 33 percent in cold climates.

Major corporations like Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley have ventured back even further, using blocks of ice — albeit really huge blocks of ice — to cool their corporate headquarters.

Quaint, no? But so incredibly logical. And of course, the D.I.Y. crowd are tinkering away in their respective garages to create geeky but wonderful alternatives like the one I found on the quirky site an air conditioner made from an ice cream box, an 80-millimeter fan and a 12-volt transformer.

But most of us simply trudge off to Best Buy or Circuit City as soon as temperatures spike and buy the most powerful thing we can afford, more concerned with sweating less than with altering the course of global warming. Air conditioners, those clunky, typically inefficient creatures, have gotten short shrift in the realm of energy efficient appliances: consumers have been well-educated about the cost- and energy-saving benefits of Energy Star-rated dishwashers, dryers and frontloading washers, but as common as central air is, the lowly air conditioner exists in our collective imagination as the hulking, droning, aesthetically challenging thing that it often still is.

A more human-centered design approach has resulted in some interesting alternatives, often focusing on maintaining a comfortable temperature for the individual rather than the whole house (or office). This approach abandons the premise of central air conditioning in favor of what is sometimes termed “personal climate control.” Both at home, where we tend to stay in certain areas for extended periods of time, and at work, where temperature control is often among the top five worker complaints, this idea makes good sense.

DeLonghi delivers a near-anthropomorphic version with the Pinguino, a compact, portable unit designed to cool only the room you are occupying.

Herman Miller, a furniture company known for its commitment to energy and waste reduction, earth-friendly materials and sustainable architecture (its Michigan headquarters were designed by the green building pioneer William McDonough), offers an even smaller device for workspaces designed to keep its owner cool - or warm, depending on the season.

Part of the company Be Collection, the tiny C2 heats and cools but uses less than 1.5 amps of AC current, which is approximately 90 percent less energy than a typical space heater.

The award for the oddest but well-intentioned attempt (and most appropriate for use in long-haul trucks and insane asylums of yore) goes to the Sleep Genie by Sun Frost. Acknowledging the challenge of cooling in hotter climates, Sun Frost proposes installing a very small air conditioner within a very small area, like the insulated space around one’s bed shown here.

Great. You may be cooler, but now you’re claustrophobic.

Sun Frost’s concept is not inherently different from DeLonghi’s or Herman Miller’s, though its execution speaks to a larger issue: a general lack of innovation. Instead of re-imagining what an air conditioner could be (something portable, something that took a different form, something that ran on an alternative energy source), they simply took the existing form and shrank it.

This seems to me indicative of so much that’s happening right now with other big-ticket items like homes and cars. Lower gas prices, for example, do not solve the problem of decreasing supply and increased demand for oil. Home designs that neglect to address things like natural light and ventilation are not contributing to quality of life, let alone reducing heating and cooling costs. The gas/driving issue requires a tremendous commitment to not only alternative fuels but alternative behaviors (i.e., walking, carpooling, mass transit); as for housing, the challenges are formidable, yet a quick look back to vernacular precedents like shotgun houses that encourage ventilation, and window orientation that encourages passive heating and cooling, would help point things in the right direction.


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