In hot weather, residents of A/C-less Seattle head for their cool basements

A/C-less Seattle

Seattle weather on Sunday, July 19 (via KOMO)

At a recent block party, some of my Seattle neighbors talked about how they made it through the recent string of hot nights. “We slept in the basement for a week,” one said. “It was fine.”

Now your image of Seattle might be that of a technologically up-to-date metropolis with all the modern trappings. That largely would be true. But one thing is in short supply: air conditioning. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 16% of all housing units in the Seattle metro area has central air, compared with a national average of 65%. (and 58% in the Philadelphia area, where I grew up). Among units occupied by renters, the local cooling rate is only 7%. One doesn’t see a lot of window units, either.

Fortunately for those in Seattle who live in a single-family house, there generally is a basement. And thanks to the coolness of the surrounding earth, the basement temperature during the summer is (in my experience) about 15 degrees cooler than the upstairs and the outside. So if it is, say, 95 degrees (the record-tying temperature on Sunday and the hottest day of the year), the basement will be a comfortable 80 degrees or so, and a lot lower at night. With no cost of electricity, either.

My house, built in 1941, doesn’t have A/C of any kind, either. As someone New To Seattle, this is the first time I have lived in a residence without significant cooling capacity in a half-century. But it really isn’t a problem except for a few days a year, and then there is the basement. I also appreciate the fact that thanks to no A/C and hydroelectricity, my monthly electrical bill averages less than $45.

Seattle, of course, sits at a relatively northern latitude, closer to the North Pole than is Minneapolis, Boston and every city in Maine. But the city enjoys a surprisingly temperate climate. Puget Sound keeps the city generally from getting too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. There rarely is ice or snow within the city limits, although when there is, the city folds like a bad poker hand.

As I wrote here three years ago:

Thanks to a generally hilly topography, a huge number of Seattle single-family homes are built partly into the side of a hill. By definition that makes the lowest level a basement, with at least one story above that.  This is so unlike many metropolitan areas where basements are as rare as, say, a winning Seattle Mariners season. In the Los Angeles area, where I lived for awhile, I never saw a home with a basement. In Houston, a flat town with a high water level, the only basement I knew of was one across the street from my house in an older inner-city neighborhood that had been the home 70 years earlier of Howard Hughes Sr., the  father of future tycoon Howard Hughes.

In every Seattle home I’ve been in, that lowest level is a finished basement, with a number of tricked out enclosures–rec rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, carpeting. Across the country, this is also pretty unusual in my experience. Basements tend to be drab unfinished spaces without windows suitable only for storage and maybe the washing machine and a freezer. Elsewhere, an unfinished basement’s square footage often is not even included in real estate listings.

The hot weather streaks don’t come very often or last long in Seattle. But they do induce a minor panic of sorts in the populace. Public cooling stations are opened. Home improvement stores quickly run out of A/Cs and fans. HVAC companies incessantly advertise cooling systems on the radio, often slyly hinting at future global warming.

Those of us here who have lived in really hot and humid climates in the South and the Northeast just chuckle. But then we, too, head downstairs.

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