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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Air conditioning a hot commodity in Spokane region that keeps getting hotter

UPDATED: Wed., June 23, 2021

Carl Rocha, left, and Patrick Plummer, with Bills Heating & A/C Install air conditioning and a new furnace at a home on East Wabash Street, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. With temperatures forecast to exceed 100 degrees by Sunday, a rush of customers are keeping local A/C installers busy.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Carl Rocha, left, and Patrick Plummer, with Bills Heating & A/C Install air conditioning and a new furnace at a home on East Wabash Street, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. With temperatures forecast to exceed 100 degrees by Sunday, a rush of customers are keeping local A/C installers busy. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When the average Spokane-area customer learns that a house’s furnace needs to be replaced, he or she will probably kick that decision down the road, even if the outside temperature is 10 degrees below zero.

But that same customer facing a broken air conditioner in 90-degree heat won’t hesitate a minute to get that unit fixed, said Nathan Norman, owner of Bill’s Heating & A/C, which is based in Post Falls.

“The sense of urgency for an air conditioner on a 90-degree day is way more … in the Kootenai County and Spokane area,” Norman said. “We are so acclimated to a cold and mild climate that when we do get hit with these temperatures, it’s way different than if you live in a climate that has a lot of hot temperatures.”

Norman’s business had a crew of about 100 technicians working mandatory overtime this week to handle the nonstop calls, as the forecast calls for conditions that could match or surpass the all-time record of six consecutive days over 100 that was set in 1928.

The highs are expected to top 100 on Saturday through next Thursday, which would tie the 93-year-old record, said Miranda Cote, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“There is a really strong ridge of high pressure over the Southwest and it’s continuing to strengthen as we go into the weekend and early next week,” she said.

Avista Utilities is bracing for extra energy needs with local residents anticipated to use all available resources to remain cool.

“The combination of extreme heat and drought-like conditions across the West have tightened the supply-demand balance and pushed energy prices up significantly,” Avista spokeswoman Casey Fielder said. “We have prepared for these conditions by reducing maintenance activities at our power plants to ensure availability and by purchasing electricity in anticipation of increased usage.”

To get a sense of the impact of the current heat wave, Cote noted that Spokane’s average temperature for this week is 77 degrees. And since 1881, the Lilac City averages exactly one day a year where the temperature reaches 100 degrees, she said.

What’s more, hitting the century mark rarely occurs in June. If the temperature reaches 100 degrees on Saturday, it would be the third-earliest date it has reached that mark since records have been kept, she said. The heat wave is also hitting the region following a dry spring. The average rainfall at Spokane International Airport for this far into the year is 8.98 inches. So far in 2021, the airport has only recorded 4.76 inches, Cote said.

“We are in drought conditions, and so it’s something we are watching closely as a potential to be a bad fire season,” she said.

While the region hasn’t recorded 100-degree temperatures in three of the past four years, the mercury rose above the century mark three times in 2020. However, it didn’t reach 100 degrees last year until July 31.

Reaching that heat milestone this early does not bode well for firefighters, she said.

“2015 was one of our worst fire years ever,” Cote said. “We had the first 100-degree day on June 27 (that year). That was the fourth earliest” to reach 100 degrees.

Warming region

Rob Higgins has lived most of his 73 years in and around Spokane. He grew up in a house built in 1908 near Gonzaga University. The home had no air conditioning.

Like most area families, Higgins, who is executive vice president for the Spokane Association of Realtors, said he would open windows at night to let cool air inside and shut them in the morning. Later, they would use box fans in windows to speed the cooling process.

“The first time I had air conditioning is when we built a new house in 2005,” he said. “There were hot days. You suffered those, but you controlled it with the windows opening at night because it usually cooled down.”

Joel White grew up in Clark Fork, which is east of Sandpoint.

The executive officer of the Spokane Home Builders Association said his family was one of the few in that small town to have air conditioning.

“My cousins had to sleep in the basement of their house because it was cooler in the summer time,” he said.

Now, virtually all new homes in the area either include air conditioning or builders offer it as an option, he said.

“I remember hot summers in North Idaho, but I don’t remember a string like this with this many days with hot temperatures in a row,” White said. “I think more and more, air conditioning is being considered essential.”

Higgins said he conducted a study several years ago that showed that most homes in Spokane were built in the 1940s and 1950s, which is before air conditioning became common.

“There is no doubt that the temperatures are increasing,” Higgins said. “The big concern for the summer is forest fires and air quality. Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve had a number of summers impacted dramatically from the smoke.”

Unfortunately, this week doesn’t appear to be the end of hot temperatures. Cote said the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, located in North Carolina, calls for more higher-than-average temperatures for the region.

“Looking out through June to July 6, they are showing an 80% chance of above-normal temperatures,” Cote said. “Into July and the rest of the summer continues to show a 60% chance of above-normal temperatures.”

On Wednesday, the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors issvued guidance calling on builders to provide extra breaks for employees who must work outside during these conditions.

The guidelines call for providing sports drinks that provide electrolytes, in addition to water, and they recommended scheduling breaks for everyone at the same time so workers can monitor each other.

“Provide shade and cool down areas for our outside workers,” wrote Curt Nead, the association’s safety director. “Remember that heat illness can kill.”

White said construction crews and agriculture workers face extreme danger if they don’t prepare for the weather.

“In this kind of heat, you are really going to have to take care of yourself,” he said. “If you go to Las Vegas, this is normal. For us, it’s not.”

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