KEEP IT FROSTY
Image: comfreak / Pixabay
KEEP IT FROSTY
Air conditioning has had an enormous impact on modern society, from population migration to architecture to the warehouses that store the Cloud. But is it time we swapped energy intensive a/c for microclimate technologies?
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On today’s show, Matt is clearly pining for the Beast from the East. No, that’s not his latest pay-per-view subscription but a wave of cold weather that is freezing Northern Europe like a tone deaf superhero. In honour of his frigid forebears, this week Mattsplained keeps it frosty.
This isn’t Northern Europe. The only reason it’s cold in here is the ac/air conditioning.
· And that’s exactly what I want to talk about. Because in this part of the world it’s always the hottest day of summer.
· Apart from that weird couple of days a few months ago where everyone was complaining about how cold it was and I was still sweating, winter is something that, when you live in the tropics, you have to travel to experience.
· Air conditioning has become a way of life for us.
· I know that not everyone is as extreme in their use of it as I am, but I pretty much only exist in this part of the world with a/c.
· I have it on all the time at home and at work, it blasts in my car and I try not to spend too much time outside during daylight hours. But that’s only because I frighten people less in the dark.
· That said, our solutions to personal cooling are still kind of blunt and haven’t really progressed a very great deal.
· It’s a bit like the shoelace, everyone accepts that it’s not great but it mostly does what you want, so try
Which means that you have a solution to this cooling crisis?
· Not really, but I do have an interest. It’s my quest for the Holy Grail.
· And there are some interesting technologies coming up which are seeking to address some of these issues.
· We’ll get to the technologies later. I thought first of all we could look at some of the history of air conditioning.
Not your most interesting topic of all time…
· It might be more interesting than you think.
· Like, the fact that air conditioning was created as a by-product and not by intention.
· Just after the turn of the 20th century a printing company called Sackett & Wilhelms in New York was having problems with its printing presses.
· Humidity was warping the paper and preventing magazines and whatever else from being printed.
· Enter a guy called Willis Carrier who came up with a solution that pumped air over cooled metal coils.
· The print run was saved but the larger discovery was that the print room was now the coolest room in the building. Staff would take their breaks next to the machine. Carrier went on to found the world’s first commercial air conditioning company.
When did it start being widely adopted?
· Of course, the systems were extremely large, so it wasn’t until the technological progress and miniaturisation that blossomed after the Second World War that we started to see the first domestic units.
· Movie theatres are actually credited with being the first spaces to popularise air conditioning.
· Movies were an enormously popular form of entertainment but in the hotter months of summer these picture palaces were often sweltering and suffocating hot.
· So audience numbers tended to decline during the warmer months.
· In persuading movie theatres to adopt his cooling systems, Carrier helped to make cinemas into a summertime destination.
· In most cities, they were literally the coolest place you could be and attendances skyrocketed.
· Which in turn influenced the way movies were made and released and eventually led to what we have come to know as the summer blockbuster season.
Surely, a/c has had a greater cultural impact than movie release schedules?
· I’m not going to go into enormous detail, there’s a really good episode of the 99% invisible podcast entitled thermal delight you can check out if you want to know more and it’s where I found the tale of Willis Carrier.
· But it’s safe to say that the impact has been enormous.
· In the United States, domestic air conditioning from the 1950s onwards helped to fuel a population migration from northern to southern states like Florida and Arizona, which had traditionally been considered to have inhospitable climates and had relatively low population densities.
· And it’s hard to state what an influence it’s had on architecture.
In what way?
· Before we could mechanically cool buildings, it was an architect’s job to ensure the correct balance of ventilation and lighting.
· This meant that architecture was more vernacular, there was often a huge local variation in terms of styles and building materials.
· Crucially, it tended to limit the height and width of buildings. Buildings tended to be narrower and were often constructed in unusual shapes or patterns that maximised airflow or heat retention, depending on the requirements of the local climate.
· As I mentioned, the materials used would also reflect the local climate, Materials that would absorb and retain heat for colder climates and Materials that would dissipate and reflect heat for hotter climates.
· In desert areas where the days might be punishingly hot and the nights close to freezing, Materials like adobe were used that allowed heat to be gradually absorbed during the day and released into the interior at night.
· Air conditioning turned that on its head.
· Cooling was now a feat of engineering and not a factor of design.
So that enabled taller and fatter buildings?
· Yes. It enabled architects to develop entirely new design languages.
· Buildings could be made more cheaply and at a much higher density, increasing the return to developers.
· And it enabled the building of the glass and steel structures that now decorate the skyline of the world’s major cities.
· Because when you have a lot of glass, you have a lot of light and a lot of heat, as avid gardeners will know. Great for tomatoes, slightly less awesome for human beings.
· But once you add central air, the sky is physically your limit.
· True, it has resulted in some awful buildings and an increase in global homogenisation
· We see the same cookie cutter office blocks and suburban housing developments being repeated across the world.
· It has also resulted in a colossal amount of design innovation.
· And it has allowed architects to really let their imaginations run wild, frequently making our urban landscapes a more interesting place.
Apart from letting you summarise a Wikipedia for 5 minutes, why are we talking about this today?
· That’s incredibly rude and slightly offensive but then I wouldn’t expect anything else from you.
· I was trying to point out the importance of air conditioning to our modern way of life.
· You could probably make a case that the Internet wouldn’t exist in its current form without air conditioning.
· When we talk about the cloud what we are really talking about is enormous server farms.
· Some of them located deep underground in countries with an abundance of permafrost but the rest are in artificially cooled hangers.
· It always makes me laugh when people tell me how much they hate air conditioning yet have little or no understanding of the fact that their Facebook profile relies on it.
· And we always seem very quick to talk about the things we hate, like pumpkin, and less time talking about things we love, like salt and vinegar crisps. Or chips to our Americanised listeners.
And, of course, there’s your personal interest in staying cool.
· Precisely. When I first moved to Malaysia, I loved the heat.
· As my vintage has increased, I seem to find myself most comfortable wearing shorts and T-shirt in temperatures below 20° C. Not a situation I often find myself in unless I go for an 11am cinema screening.
· I guess most of our listeners get these - You know those notes from the electricity company telling you how your consumption compares to your neighbours?
· Apparently, mine is about 30% higher than most of people on my local grid.
· I can only assume that my neighbours are spending their a/c savings on extra deodorant.
· Anyway, for a long time now I’ve been thinking about the Technology behind air conditioning and how it’s a bit like those belt that my belly has made redundant: we make the odd cosmetic change but the form and the underlying technology hasn’t really changed much.
· Sure, the machines have become more compact and powerful and energy-efficient but they’re still a very blunt, one size fits all solution to what are in actuality, multiple problems.
We’re heading for a break. When we come back Matt will try and explain that rather confusing statement.
We’re talking about air conditioning on Mattsplained today. If you’re still listening then you’ve got more patience than I have. Matt, before the break you said something along the lines of a/c being a blunt solution to a lot of problems. Do you want to explain that to the people at the other end of your microphone?
· Sure. It’s not like I’m doing anything else right now.
· Remember that we did an episode a few weeks ago where I asked people about tech problems that science has forgotten to solve?
· Well one of the questions I got was from a lovely fella called Wern Shen. And he very reasonably asked why air conditioners can’t create different temperature zones in different parts of a room, for example on different sides of the bed or sofa.
· This is the block solution part. We treat cooling, whether at home or in a building as though it were a one stop shop.
· It ignores the fact that different people have different temperature requirements. My wife is always too cold in our house and I’m always too hot.
· i usually get my way because I tell her it’s easier for her to put on a jumper whereas, even if I walk around naked I’m still going to be warm. And sweaty. And if she’s sitting on the sofa, quite literally in her face.
· Which is probably not the fairest way to win an argument.
· So, I wondered why we haven’t been as successful at creating microclimates as we have at creating microp.
Is that really necessary? Sometimes we don’t improve something because it’s already as good as it’s going to get.
· I think it’s more that this is quite a difficult topic to solve.
· But it is one that we should be tackling.
· This one size fits all ethos is very energy intensive.
· I think one of the figures quoted in the 99% invisible podcast is that United States currently uses as much electricity on its air conditioning usage as the continent of Africa consumes in total.
· Plus there are the environmental aspects. Air conditioning generates a lot of CO2 emissions and weirdly, leads to increases in temperature.
· In the areas surrounding Large buildings and shopping malls you will often temperature spikes:
o Areas where the ambient temperature’s slightly higher because of the heat generated by the exhaust fans of these buildings cooling systems.
· And a lot of this energy is simply wasted. Think of all the dead zones in office buildings, places like walkways and unoccupied conference rooms.
· A lot of these spaces are cooled to the same temperatures as the places where humans are concentrated.
There must have been a lot of innovation in this sector? What about in the smart clothing market?
· There is also a growing body of innovation in temperature controlled clothing powered by batteries, nanotech and heating elements.
· But it does seem that keeping as cool is not as easy.
· Most of the smart clothing we talked about still follows the basic principles of evaporative cooling. And that kind of technology doesn’t work so well in the tropics. It works much better in dry climates as it creates a lot more moisture.
· So a lot of these smart cooling developments and even those portable air coolers that you add ice to, aren’t as well suited to climates like those we have in Southeast Asia.
What else is on the horizon?
· Some solutions are old school practical: quite a few of the refurbished or new-build office buildings I’ve been in recently combine central air for the main seating areas combined with regular switch on switch off units in meeting rooms and other spaces that are not constantly occupied.
· Other overlooked innovations include windows that open – something that is anathema to most modern hi-rises – and allows workers to have some control over their own environment.
· The computer-aided design and innovation company Autodesk has a really interesting project called Dasher.
· One of its uses is as a command and control structure for large buildings, you can drill down to sensor information on temperature, CO2 emissions, lighting and power use at a really granular level, Down to the individual worker drone cubicle.
· So while technology like that is not specifically targeted at creating microclimates in the workplace, it will be capable of doing so, whether it is manipulated by the individual cubicle occupant or by a central administrator or AI upon request.
· There are also various prototypes and commercial versions of climate controlled office chairs.
· Because often we aren’t talking about massive fluctuations in temperature making a difference. Shifting an average temperature by one degree in either direction can make an enormous difference to the comfort of many people.
As Malaysia’s coolest dude – I should point out that Matt wrote that sentence himself – are there any products out there that we can get hold of now?
· There’s also a lot of innovation going on and a lot of people coming up with really interesting ideas.
· I come across quite a lot of them when I’m researching for the King of the crowd items that we feature on Geeks Squawk.
· And it does seem that a lot of them don’t make it beyond the prototyping stage, so it’s a bit of an invest at your peril area.
· Embr Wave is one that we’ve talked about on Geeks before. It’s a wearable bracelet that helps to make you feel cooler by applying a cool or warm element to the pulse point on your wrist.
· It essentially tricks your body into thinking the air is warmer or cooler. That should be commercially available by the middle of the year.
· Then there’s MiClimate, a personal air conditioner that is a great concept which has become bogged down in development hell.
· I invested in the crowd campaign for that one. It’s a wearable a/c concept that circulates cool air around your body.
· It’ll get there, as with many of these crowd things, it just takes longer to get to market that a lot of first time entrepreneurs imagines.
· One of the products that has just reached the market is Zero Breeze which is a portable, battery powered a/c unit about the size of a portable ice cooler. That’s had some pretty good reviews, but as with anything, unless I’m really excited, I prefer to wait for later manufacturing runs to give time to sort out any gremlins or QC issues if there are any.
What about something you can buy now?
· Yes. There is a device that I’ve been using for a couple of years, made by a company called Evapolar called the EVALight. They now have a larger capacity machine called the EVASmart which adds wifi connectivity and smartphone control via a rather nice app.
· It was an early KOTC winner.
· I bought two units pretty much as soon as I saw the Indiegogo page and I haven’t been disappointed. The company completed development and delivered on time.
What makes it different from a standard air conditioner or evaporative cooler?
· Admittedly, one of the reasons I was attracted to it is because it uses a nanomaterial called EvaBreeze to cool the air and it’s a very clever piece of minimalist tech.
· I am that kind of geek who will buy anything with nano attached. Toothpaste. T-Shirts. TVs. Anything T for techie.
· It doesn’t use ice, it doesn’t have a pump.
· That massively reduces the number of moving parts allowing the device to be really small and light, making it super-portable, which is a must for me. It’s about the size and height of two boxes of tissues stacked on top of each other. It weighs less than 1.5kg.
· And I like it because using it is simple, you fill the water reservoir, the material in the cartridge soaks it up and a fan blows cold air at you.
· It also makes the devices super energy efficient, they run using standard USB cables, so you power one off your computer or plug the cable into your phone’s charger.
· Evapolar says the cartridges last around 6 months but I’ve found they last 8-9, and the replacement cost is slightly less than servicing a traditional a/c unit.
· The company also claims that the machine has air purification properties because it filters out dust and the EvaBreeeze material is biologically inert so it doesn’t breed bacteria, something that’s fairly critical for a product that spends its life sitting in tap water.
Would you use it to replace a normal split a/c unit?
· Again, this is really about creating microclimates.
· I use my units in conjunction with traditional a/c to cool my ambient surroundings a little and then I have one machine by my bed and another at my work desk.
· That allows me to have a little bubble of super-cold air around my work area and my pillow without my colleagues or wife getting annoyed.
You don’t usually go into this level of detail about products on mattsplained.
· That’s because today we are being pretty specific. There are a lot of great technologies on the horizon that will allow us to create microciimates and move away from the shackles of central air.
· These developments will also likely spur more rapid innovation in the traditional a/c sector by manufacturers who don’t want to be left behind. Inverters ACs are already a right step in that direction.
· In terms of microclimates, we don’t have is a lot of relevant products on the market right now.
· I’ve tried out a lot over the years: most have been expensive and frankly, rubbish.
· One company, which has now gone bust, sent me three completely non-functioning machines before I insisted on a refund.
· So, yes I am pushing these EvaPolar units because I think they are a genuine and immediate solution to a pressing problem.
· They reduce energy use and increase personal comfort.
· I think they’re also very good value.
· In case anyone is wondering, this is not a paid endorsement. I don’t get anything if anyone buys one.
· I contacted the company for product info and when I explained today’s topic their support team generously offered a 25% order discount to listeners of the show. Details of which I’ll post on the Mattsplained FB page.
If the real developments are still on the horizon, how can we keep it frosty in the mean time?
· In a few years time, I think we’ll be amazed that it took us so long to create these personal microclimates.
· It will seem as simple to us as as it feels complicated and beyond our reach now.
· I talk a lot about personal responsibility on this show, and this is one area where we genuinely have less control.
· We can’t do much about the way our offices or homes are built. Not in the short term anyway. So our choices are often stark, if the architecture isn’t adapted to the climate then a/c may be the only way to stay reasonably cool, for part of the year, at least.
· Don’t forget, these homes and decades will be a feature of life for decades to come.
· What we can do is look at the tools that are available to us now and make practical decisions that might reduce energy use or reduce our carbon footprint.
· As I said about the architecture, for those of us Living in the tropics, in an era of changing climate, it’s probably not practical to think we can do away with air conditioning completely.
· But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make smarter use of the tools we have.