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Across The Mountain West, Heat Waves Are Changing Residents' Air Conditioning Calculus

Alex Hernandez is talking over Zoom about how hot her apartment in Denver is. But she's not there, because it's too hot. She's across the street at Finley's, where there's air conditioning - and cold beer.

"It's a pub, super teeny weeny, but it's super cute," she says.

This is Alex Hernandez's first summer living in Denver. She moved in the spring from Wyoming, and one of the biggest adjustments has been dealing with the heat.

"I feel like it's just, like, a matter of strategy," she says. "Like you're planning your whole life around these extreme temperatures."

Hernandez is one of about 230,000 Denver residents who don't have air conditioning. When temperatures reach the 90s her apartment doesn't feel that much cooler.

"I was taking three cold showers a day for a couple of weeks, and it didn't even feel cold," she says.

To complicate matters, Hernandez works the night shift as a clinical lab technician, which has her trying to schedule her sleep around the heat.

"I get home at 7:30, so I have to try to fall asleep by 8 so I can sleep at least five hours before it gets hot," she says.

This summer has brought brutal heat to the Mountain West, with cities from Albuquerque to Boise to Billings breaking records. Denver has already seen five days that hit 100 degrees or higher.

"People who lived here for a long time can really mark the change in how their summers have felt," says Grace Rink, who directs Denver's Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency, which the city established last year.

As extreme heat waves become more frequent, she says many residents are looking for relief beyond opening their windows at night. Older homes in the area weren't built with air conditioning.

"Times have changed. The climate has changed," Rink says. "And now people do need air conditioning in their home to stay comfortable. And in many cases, frankly, just to stay safe."

In June, Rink's office released a "Renewable Heating and Cooling Plan" for the city. It gives residents incentives to shift from gas-powered heating appliances to all-electric heat pumps, which provide both heating and cooling and are more efficient.

Keeping homes cool and comfortable is a challenge across the Mountain West, where more than 20 percent of the region's households do not use air conditioning, according to federal data.

In Sheridan, Wyo., when temperatures hit a record 107 degrees in June, Bob Gates says his heating and cooling business started getting calls that sounded like this: "I'm ready for AC, I haven't had it before. I give, I've had it, we need it."

Gates has owned and operated Alpine Climate Control for nearly 30 years. He says a lot has changed - central air conditioning units have gotten more energy efficient and less noisy. He and his crew of 14 have been busy installing them in houses all summer.

"We've seen an influx of new people to the area, and I don't know that they're used to the temperature or that they were expecting it to get this hot, maybe," he says.

University of Colorado Boulder engineering professor John Zhai says central air isn't the only option for homes in the region.

"It's getting more and more popular, but it doesn't mean we need that," he says.

Zhai highlights other technologies well-suited to our climate, including passive cooling systems that don't require a lot of energy to be effective.

"An attic fan, which can draw the surrounding cool air to wash the internal warm air away from the ceiling, from the attic, that's very common," he says.

And in the Mountain West's dry environment, Zhai says a swamp or evaporative cooler can also work well. That device cools air by passing it over water, which forces evaporation and removes the latent heat.

Still, Zhai says there's no one-size-fits-all cooling solution. If, like Hernandez, you're finding relief in an air conditioned neighborhood pub, don't forget your mask.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.