Temperatures in Phoenix peaked at 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) throughout July. The air conditioning that made modern Phoenix possible in the first place is a lifeline.
When a clear sky is accompanied by outside temperatures above 100 F, your home turns into an “air fryer” or “broiler” as the roof absorbs intense heat and radiates it downward, said Jonathan Bean, co-director of the Institute for Energy Solutions at the University of Arizona. Not only does Bean know this from his research, he experienced it himself over the weekend when his air conditioner broke.
“This level of heat that we’re having in Phoenix right now is tremendously dangerous, especially for people who either don’t have air conditioning or can’t afford to run their air conditioning,” said Evan Mallen, senior analyst at Georgia Institute of Technology’s Urban Climate Lab.
Still, some limit air conditioning and try to endure the heat, fearing high utility bills.
Camille Rabany, 29, has developed her own system to keep herself and her 10-month-old St. Bernard Rigley cool during the Arizona heatwave. Through trial and error, Rabany has found that 83F is a temperature she is willing to tolerate in order to keep her electric bills down.
By tracking the high and low load schedule of her utility company, Arizona Public Service, with the help of her NEST smart thermostat, Rabany keeps her home warm from 4pm to 7pm, its most expensive hours. She runs the fans and has a cooling bed for Rigley, and both try to get by until the utility’s official peak hours are over.
“Those are the hours when I’m hottest because I’m ready to have it because I have a dog,” she said. Last month, Rabany said her electric bill was about $150.
Emily Schmidt’s cooling strategy for her home in Tempe, Arizona also revolves around her dog. Even with her partner, the air conditioner is “a constant topic of conversation,” she said.
“Sometimes I wish I could be cooler, but we have to find a balance between saving money and ensuring the house isn’t too hot for our pets.”
Given the relentless heat of the past few weeks, “I’m honestly scared of how high the electric bills are going to be, which makes it really difficult to budget for rent and other utilities.”
Katie Martin, administrator of home improvement and community services at the Foundation for Senior Living, said she sees the problem with pets, too. Older people on low incomes make dangerous compromises and often do not come to cold centers that do not allow pets.
“In recent years we find that most of the seniors we serve set their thermostat to 30°C to save money,” she said.
Many also lack a supportive network of family or friends to turn to in the event of an air conditioning failure.
Breakdowns can be dangerous. Models from Georgia Tech show that indoors can be even hotter than outdoors, which is well known to people in poorly insulated homes around the world. “A one-story single-family home with a large flat roof will heat up by over 40 degrees in a matter of hours if it doesn’t have air conditioning,” Mallen said.
The Salvation Army has around 11 cooling stations in the Phoenix area. Lt. Col. Ivan Wild, commander of the organization’s Southwest Branch, said some of the visitors couldn’t afford their electricity bills or didn’t have adequate air conditioning.
“I spoke to an elderly lady and she said her air conditioner was just too expensive to run. So she comes to the Salvation Army and stays for a few hours, socializes with other people and then goes home when it’s not so hot,” he said.
As Phoenix experiences extreme heat every summer, Wild reported that some Salvation Army cooling centers saw more people than last year. The Salvation Army estimates that since May 1 it has provided heat relief to nearly 24,000 people and distributed nearly 150,000 bottled water in Arizona and southern Nevada.
Marilyn Brown, Regents Professor of Sustainable Systems at Georgia Tech, said high air-conditioning bills are also forcing people to cut spending in other areas. “People often forego running their air conditioner… They may have to forego medication, the cost of the gasoline they use to drive to work or school,” she said.
“That’s why we have such an alarming vicious cycle of poverty. “It’s hard to get out of there, especially once you’re caught up in the energy burden and poverty,” Brown added.
Beatrice Dupuy contributed to this story from New York and Melina Walling from Chicago.
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