Do you need air conditioning in the tropics (particularly in Puerto Rico)?
This is a question that is perhaps best answered by you, but in my opinion, the answer is no. Even though it can get pretty hot and humid in the summers of the tropics, here’s why I say no.
1) It’s really expensive. In most areas that are tropical including here in Puerto Rico, electricity is very expensive. Electricity here costs about double what it does where we were from in Colorado, but because we don’t use much here our electricity bills are actually less. The two big items that pull the most electricity and therefore increase your bill are air conditioners and electric dryers (and swimming pool pumps, but that’s a whole other demographic). Even the most efficient air conditioners such as an inverter that can cover maybe 1000 sq ft will increase your bill from a base of $20 (what we currently pay) to about $100/month. And if you jump into another rate tier it can be even more.
Our last month’s bill without air conditioning
2) It is hard on the environment. When a lot of people are pulling electricity to run something like the luxury of air conditioning it uses a lot more resources. In the case of electricity in Puerto Rico and most places really, it is still mainly powered by non-renewable resources such as old dirty coal and oil products. The less people use in general the better it is for the environment because less has to be mined, processed, shipped, etc.
3) It’s hard on the infrastructure. Here in Puerto Rico the electrical infrastructure is a bit outdated and with calls for cuts in the budget it is unlikely to get upgraded any time soon. Locally, in Rincón there is one barrio called Puntas which is very popular and probably the richest neighborhood. It is the only barrio in Rincón within walking distance to the best surf breaks and so it became a gringo haven and more gentrified than some other areas of Rincón. The houses cost the most and there are probably more houses with 3000 + square feet, swimming pools, multiple units and multiple air conditioners than elsewhere. This also means it pulls WAY more power from everyone else to run those pools, A/C units, dryers, etc. We can almost guarantee a local or widespread power outage on popular tourist weekends when everyone is using these resources because the infrastructure can’t handle this type of load.
4) You never acclimate. Before deciding if you ”need” air conditioning you should live here for a full year. When we would visit the tropics in the winter coming from Colorado where it was negative 20 degrees we would step off the plane and just be amazed at how hot it was! It could be a 100 degree change! Now in the winter we are both under the covers at night because it can dip down to a chilly 72 degrees (it’s funny but true!). If we had rushed out to install air conditioning right away we would have never allowed our bodies to acclimate to this tropical environment. Now when I go into the Econo grocery store or the movie theatres where they blast the AC to the max I am freezing and have to either bring a jacket or go outside to warm up. I think our bodies acclimated in a different way as well because I have lost over 30 pounds living here without trying (here’s how)! It doesn’t make sense to carry that much extra weight and heat if it’s hot.
5) It’s another thing you have to maintain. Things break. Everywhere. But in the tropics the rate of entropy seems to be much more rapid. Things just break and break down faster here and then have to be either fixed or replaced. If you don’t have it, you don’t have to worry about it!
How to avoid roasting in the tropics without air conditioning
In Colorado we did have a fuel-efficient air conditioner that we ran for about 2 months out of the year and kept at about 80 degrees to take the edge off. This was because it would get up to 100 degrees in the summer and our house had a wall of west-facing windows that heated it up like crazy. Some people here in Puerto Rico have houses or live in apartments or condos that are devoid of all trees and get hit with that full afternoon sun and because they are concrete boxes they just heat right up like a cooking stone. To avoid the negative consequences discussed above it’s important to look for a place to live that will be conducive to living without air conditioning. These include:
Shade and Trees/vegetation. Do not underestimate the power of shade. Shade from any source will do, but shade from a large tree will give you the added benefit of the cooling water respiration effect. Shade can drop the temperature by 10-30 degrees. When you are surrounded by vegetation such as a small yard this will help as well because the heat from asphalt and other concrete building radiates. I think I read somewhere that San Juan is about 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the island due to the roads, buildings and the density of people.
High ceiling with ventilation. Heat rises, so a high ceiling that is ventilated with windows or vents will help keep the air flowing and the hot air away from you.
Breeze. Look for a place with a natural sea breeze or trade winds. If it’s too high up it may get a little too windy, but often places on hill tops tend to be a bit breezier than lower. This also keeps the mosquitos away a bit more.
Fans. In the middle of the summer we have our ceiling fans running as well as a box fan. Moving air makes a huge difference.
Cold showers. We also take more cold (70-75 degree) showers in the summer. Then we stand in front of or lay under a fan for the double effect.
More time at the beach/pools. You don’t have to be a genius to know that spending time immersed in water will cool you down even if the water here never gets too cold.
A/C luxury time. When all else fails and you are just hot and cranky, go see a movie or do your grocery shopping in the middle of the hot afternoon. You are sure to cool down using someone else’s air conditioning.
I am not completely opposed to air conditioning, but it does seem to be a luxury that people over-use and think of as a necessity when it clearly is not especially when considering the above factors. Once you’ve been acclimated to the tropics I would say it only gets “too hot” for about 2 hours in the afternoons of the summer. During those hours, take a siesta, drink an icy cold beverage, take a dip in the sea or rest under a shady tree in a breezy spot. That’s how humans have handled heat for most of human-time and also how the majority of people in Puerto Rico (including us) still live.