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Seattle is least air-conditioned metro area in the U.S. So how do locals keep cool?

Jason Ludwick plays with his granddaughters in a tiny pool in front of his un-air-conditioned home in Des Moines last week. At left is Cherish Rain Jimenez, 2, and at right is Trinity Nicole Joy Jimenez, 9 months. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)
Jason Ludwick plays with his granddaughters in a tiny pool in front of his un-air-conditioned home in Des Moines last week. At left is Cherish Rain Jimenez, 2, and at right is Trinity Nicole Joy Jimenez, 9 months. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

If it’s true that misery loves company, then Seattle is a great place to be during a heat wave. At least you know that most of your neighbors are suffering just like you.

That’s because Seattle is the least air-conditioned metro area in the nation — at least out of the 41 metros included in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey. As of 2015, only one of every three housing units in the Seattle area was cooled by central air or a room unit. That’s nowhere near the national average of 89 percent.

In fact, only one other metro comes close to Seattle: In San Francisco, with its famously cold summers, just 36 percent of homes were air-conditioned.

But aside from Seattle and San Francisco, the un-air-conditioned are squarely in the minority everywhere. Even in Portland, which ranks third-lowest among the metros, 70 percent of homes were cooled — that’s more than double Seattle’s percentage.

That does make sense, though, because despite the geographic proximity between Seattle and Portland, we don’t have the same weather. The Rose City can easily be 10 degrees hotter in the summer. Here in Seattle, we benefit from those nice, cool breezes off Puget Sound, which act like a sort of natural air conditioner.

Except when they don’t.

As the thermometer starts to rise in Seattle, what do we do? First, we complain. That’s a given. But then, those of us who live in one of the area’s 960,000 homes without air conditioning come up with some creative solutions.

The Seattle Times put a call out to readers, asking what they do to keep cool in their non-air-conditioned homes. We got close to 100 responses.

One reader wets her clothes, freezes them, and then puts them back on. Another goes for a swim, and then leaves the damp swimsuit on until bedtime. One woman lies on the hardwood floor with a wet towel over her stomach.

A reader in North Seattle hoses down the roof and exterior of her house after sundown. In a followup phone call, she said the practice cools down the inside of her home “by a good 10 degrees.” She learned the trick from her father while growing up in St. Louis, where it gets a whole lot hotter than Seattle.

She added that she’d buy some air conditioners in a heartbeat if it weren’t for her home’s sliding windows. “Houses in the Northwest just weren’t designed to incorporate air conditioning,” she said.

Another trick comes from a reader who used to live in Tucson, where, apparently, folks sleep comfortably on a hot night by spritzing the bed sheets with water and then letting a fan blow over them.

A bunch of readers described elaborate rituals of opening and closing windows and blinds at strategic times throughout the day and night.

One fellow says the heat turns him into a night owl. He naps during the hottest part of the day, stays up late, and then goes to bed when the air finally cools down enough: “I’m old and always cold, anyway,” he explained.

But for a few readers, surviving a heat wave is all about mind over matter — just don’t think about it. One woman shared her technique of watching video clips from the Winter Olympics. But as another stoic put it, Seattleites just need to toughen up and learn to “tolerate suffering.”

Among those in the Seattle area who prefer not to tolerate suffering — i.e., those with air conditioning — the American Housing Survey shows that the slight majority (53 percent) have room units as opposed to central air.

Seattle homeowners are nearly twice as likely as renters to have an air-conditioned home. The data also show that as household incomes go up, so does the likelihood of having A/C — but even so, the majority of local households with six-figure incomes go without. And white people are more likely than people of color to have an air-conditioned home.

Young people sweat out the heat more than everyone else, with just one in five under age 30 having A/C in the Seattle area.

More concerning, though, is that among people age 65 and up, only 37 percent have air-conditioned homes, just a little higher than the Seattle average. Seniors are at higher risk for heat-related medical emergencies, and Public Health — Seattle & King County recommends checking on older neighbors or relatives during a heat wave.


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