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Save the planet: How to reduce the carbon footprint of your air conditioner

This concise guide walks you through data-backed ways of using ACs sustainably, with minimal risk of harming the environment. Become a part of the solution, do your part.

We humans have always chosen a life of convenience, often at the cost of our planet’s health. Large concrete buildings, factories, fridges and ACs that spew gaseous poison are no big deal to us.

It’s time to think and take charge. Where has this gotten us? 

Thousands of our homes are at risk of drowning[1], vegetation has lost its quality[2] and rising carbon dioxide keeps poisoning the air we breathe more and more each passing day.[3

As absurd as this may sound, the air conditioner almost all of us depend on is a catalyst fueling this slow destruction

How is Your AC Ruining the Environment?

Cooling your home at the expense of the atmosphere is built into your AC’s functionality. It’s how the machine operates. 

As you turn the AC on, it pulls the hot air in your room and funnels it outside using a refrigerant. In this process, it releases carbon dioxide and consumes up to 5000 kilowatts of energy per hour. This gas traps heat in its molecules and directly contributes to increasing global warming.[4

The refrigerant an AC has is usually one of the toxic greenhouse gases like CFC and HCFC. These gases can trap thousands of times more heat in their molecules. Although they’re not supposed to release from the AC, leakage or manufacturing defects can let some molecules out. 

As the world gets hotter, countries in all corners follow in the US’s footsteps and witness a hike in air conditioner usage. More ACs in turn cause higher temperatures. 

It’s a vicious catch-22 that governments everywhere are trying to mitigate. 

Graph showing households using air conditioners in different countries-

Percentage of households using air conditioners in different countries- Source

Thankfully, governments are realising how harmful these refrigerants can be. Many have issued strict management rules like the Montreal Protocol[5] to make ACs more energy efficient and phase out gases like HCFC from the machine altogether:

graph showing potential Replacements for HCFCs

Potential Replacements for HCFCs in Air Conditioners. Source

Homeowners in the US collectively spend $29 Million each year on keeping the sweltering heat away with air conditioners. That’s 117 metric tonnes of heat-trapping carbon dioxide released in our already afflicted environment.[6

graph showing the types of AC in US homes

Who would have thought that little cooling device on your window could play such a significant role in harming the planet for years to come? 

We’re so used to coming home to a cool house on a hot day that thinking about the bigger picture seems out of the ordinary. Global warming and rising sea levels are the least of our concern when that sweet cool air hits our face.[7

The AC is too embedded in our everyday lives to get rid of. No one would have it any other way. 

Despite its ill effects, is there a way to use your AC guilt-free, in a way that doesn’t harm the environment?  

How Can You Keep Cool Sustainably? 

Just a Matter of Some Degrees

It’s common knowledge that setting your air conditioner to 18°C will cool up the room quicker- but do you really need it that low for maximum comfort?

Well, that largely depends on your preference. 

If you’re looking for a setting that’s best for the environment though, try setting your AC’s temperature aim higher. 

According to a study presented at IEE Africon in 2011, setting the temperature at 24°C can reduce the overall energy consumption by up to 30%.[8

Know the Refrigerants  

Your AC is run by refrigerants, some more toxic than others. For instance, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were the industry standard back in the 1930s until two blessed chemists from University of California showed the world how it was stripping the Ozone layer bit by bit.[9]

Air conditioners have come a long way since their CFC days. Most pivoted to the less toxic HFC refrigerator in the last decade. 

Refrigerators to avoid while buying your next AC:

  • Chlorinated solvents 
  • Methyl chloroform (CH3CCl3)
  • Carbon tetrachloride (CCl4)
  • CFC-11, -12, -113, -114, -115 (Classed under the umbrella term “Freon”)

Look for Double Compressor 

Simply put, your air conditioner’s compressor helps the refrigerator function properly by squeezing the vapor between two main coils. It’s just as important as the refrigerator to the AC’s infrastructure. 

That said, it also eats up most of the electricity. Industrial compressors can cost a business up to $800,000 in electricity bills over 10 years.[10] 

Double or Two Stage Compressors are designed to squeeze less on cold days and more on a hot day. This can save you a lot in bills and work in favor of the environment. 

Take Control of Your Thermostat

According to the EPA, using a thermostat that you can program to your needs can get your air conditioner to use 30% less energy.[11] This can directly reduce the amount of CO2 it releases. 

You can program your thermostat to cool up the house when someone gets home and automatically turn off when you leave. 

Don’t Let It Leak

There’s a good chance of you facing a refrigerant leak if your AC is old and not well-maintained. 

While leaking is rare, it releases harmful material like HCFC out in the air and harms both the environment and your family. 

Graph showing the energy Costs of a refrigerant leak overtime

Energy Costs of a refrigerant leak overtime

Bring in a licensed HVAC professional to check your air conditioner at least thrice a year and maintain the machine as they guide. 

A Little Ventilation Goes a Long Way

The key to keeping cool in an eco friendly way eventually boils down to how much you use the AC. Sure, there are ways to reduce its carbon footprint, but nearly none of them have zero negative impact on the atmosphere. If it’s on, it’s going to release CO2 that contributes to global warming. 

Instead, try taking a minimalist approach with your AC usage. Open the windows and turn the fan on to let hot air out, perhaps take a nice shower to cool off. 

Geothermal Heat Pumps for True Environmentalists 

Geothermal uses the naturally occurring heat in your backyard’s ground to keep the house warm in the winters and cool during the sunny days. It’s a renewable, eco-friendly alternative to air conditioners that reduces CO2 emission by up to 72%.[12]

Diagram explaining the ground source hear pump

Isn’t geothermal supposed to act as only the heater? 

Well, not quite. It’s an all-in-one heating and cooling system that works by moving around temperature conductive material in pipes near your house. 

The only downside is the hefty upfront costs of a geothermal system. It can cost you anywhere from $12k to $30k to purchase the equipment and get it installed near your home. 


Switch to an Energy Efficient Air Conditioner

Best air conditioners in 2020 use 30% to 50% less energy than top sellers a decade ago.[13] Room ACs with higher Energy Efficiency Rating (ERR) end up squeezing out the least CO2.  

EER rating distribution

Look for the government-backed ENERGY STAR label that ensures your new AC is energy efficient.