Anthony Yelenick wakes every summer morning in a puddle of his own sweat.
The pillows are moist. His pajamas are drenched. The sheets are soaked.
At night, the 43-year-old glides a wet washcloth over his body, flips a fan on and flops into bed sans blankets, hoping the cool air hitting his damp skin will bring him enough comfort to drift into a stifling sleep.
Yelenick, who lives in the home his grandfather built in Globeville in 1937, is among the Coloradans without air conditioning. He said the summers have always been warm, but he’s noticed the heat getting worse each year.
“It is so darn hot,” he said. “We keep the windows open all the time, but then you have the air pollution in this neighborhood, too. I had asthma when I was a kid living here, and now that I’ve moved back here again, it’s coming back. I’m wheezing again.”
As Colorado’s climate continues to warm, how long before attitudes around air conditioning shift from it being a nice perk to an absolute necessity?
Without imminent action, the state risks a public health crisis, said Paul Chinowsky, the director of the environmental design program at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“If you don’t have air conditioning, and it’s 90 degrees, you’re going to open your windows and doors,” said Chinowsky, who has studied infrastructure planning as it relates to climate change. “Your choice is very stark — either being too hot in the house or breathing unhealthy air. Which part of my health am I going to endanger first? And that’s only going to get worse.”
Roughly 40% of residences in metro Denver have central air conditioning, according to Chinowsky, who cited assessor data. In lower-income areas, he said that number drops to about 20% of residences.
Strictly looking at Denver, the city estimates about 30% of all homes lack central air conditioning, according to a 2021 city-issued report on renewable heating and cooling.
Meanwhile, Denver is getting hotter. And heat waves are happening more often than they used to, lasting for longer periods of time and have grown hotter, according to 2022 data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
David Barjenbruch, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, explained the NWS uses “cooling degree days” to measure climate and assess cooling needs for different regions. A cooling-degree day takes a day’s high temperature, subtracts the low temperature and compares that to a standard temperature of 65 degrees.
For example, if a day had a high of 95 degrees and a low of 55 degrees, that would be an average daily temperature of 75 degrees. Because that’s 10 degrees above 65, that one day has 10 cooling degrees.
The first recorded count of Denver’s cooling-degree days for a whole year happened in 1872 with 475 cooling degrees totaled. One hundred years later, there were 562. In 2002, there were 912. In 2021, there were 1,110, according to NWS data.
Only the second heat advisory on record was issued for the Front Range on Friday as temperatures were forecast to reach between 95 to 102 degrees for portions of the afternoon.
“People keep saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t have A/C, and it was OK. People can deal with it,’” Chinowsky said. “This is not about comfort anymore. We’re killing people. This is a public health emergency.”
Extreme heat causes more deaths than any weather-related event, including hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, about 700 heat-related deaths happen annually in the nation, according to CDC data.
Each summer, more than 65,000 Americans on average visit an emergency room for acute heat illness, the CDC said. A series of warmer-than-average temperatures often produces more hospital admissions for problems with respiratory, cardiovascular and kidney-related diseases.
“It’s different now”
Seeking sweet relief in the form of a cool breeze, Kate Crowe used to open a window or blast the window unit she has in her La Alma-Lincoln Park bedroom, but she found the wildfire smoke last year to be nearly suffocating.
“In addition to boiling like a little frog in my house, I couldn’t breathe,” Crowe said.
The 41-year-old bought an air purifier she keeps in her bedroom alongside her window unit, but now feels relegated to the one room in her room where she can stay relatively cool and breathe clean air.
Wildfire smoke can lead to immediate and long-term health problems, including difficulty breathing, asthma attacks and lung and heart disease, according to state health officials, who have previously recommended shutting windows when the air is smoky.
Wildfire smoke aside, air pollution in Denver is some of the most notable in the country.
Northeast Denver, home to the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, the River North Art District and the National Western Complex, once was named the nation’s most polluted zip code, featuring two Superfund sites and numerous active polluters.
Yelenick is in the middle of it all and said the windows to his home, which he endearingly referred to as “the most polluted home in Denver,” are always open.
“There’s just not much else you can do,” Yelenick said. “I try to keep perspective and think of all the poor people out there who don’t even have shelter. That keeps me cool.”
After years of intensifying heat, Crowe — who has lived in Denver since 2007 — is finally breaking down and getting air conditioning. She’s been quoted costs between $9,000 and $13,000.
“It’s not like it wasn’t hot before, but it’s different now,” Crowe said. “It used to be cooler at night. The wildfire smoke I don’t remember being as much of a factor. I don’t want to live in a house where I can’t use 80% of it for months at a time anymore.”
Cost impacts of energy use
Soon, Crowe will need to pay attention to when she’s using her air conditioning.
About 310,000 Coloradans are on Xcel Energy’s “time of use” rate plan which charges customers more depending on when they’re using their electricity.
Peak hours are 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, meaning that’s not the best time to run air conditioning in your home despite that being the hottest point of the day, said Kelly Flenniken, director of community relations for Xcel Energy Colorado.
Instead, Flenniken suggested running the air conditioning at night and through the morning and early afternoon, then closing the blinds to better maintain the cool air through peak hours.
“That might seem a little counterintuitive, but we believe that will help keep people comfortable,” Flenniken said.
Xcel plans for the future, Flenniken said, meaning the utility is anticipating supplying energy for hotter and colder days ahead.
“We believe we are prepared for these extreme heat events, and we will do our very best to provide that reliable service to our customers,” Flenniken said.
The city of Denver is preparing, too.
Jan Keleher, building electrification specialist with the city, said a recent survey found 45% of East Colfax renters and 30% of homeowners struggled to keep their homes cool in the summertime.
“That outlines the challenge and the transition needed,” Keleher said. “Historically, you could have gotten away without air conditioning in Denver. We had fewer days of extreme hot temperatures where we’re approaching or exceeding 100 degrees. A lot of residents are seeing the writing on the wall that it’s going to become more and more common and more and more frequent due to climate change.”
Last year, the city released a plan to move toward renewable heating and cooling with heat pumps powered by renewable energy. The pumps are more environmentally-friendly, and the city proposed focusing on lower-income areas that already are more likely to be without air conditioning. The pumps are part of a Denver climate action rebate program, but people need to apply and have the pumps installed by June 24 to qualify.
“A landlord’s market”
Ultimately, Chinowsky said, cost remains the barrier to life-saving air conditioning.
“We already have issues with high rent, so the landlords are saying if they can’t put that cost back into their rent, they’re being asked to invest in that and most people are just not going to do it,” Chinowsky said.
William Bronchick, president of the Colorado Landlords Association, said most of the houses he rents are low-rent houses, and he hasn’t heard any complaints about lack of air conditioning.
“A landlord who does that sort of upgrade is going to want to charge a little more, and they’ll probably get it because a tenant says it’s an added bonus and competition doesn’t have it,” Bronchick said. “It’s more of a landlord’s market. It’s not like one of those things that’s a necessity to rent a place. It’s two-and-a-half to three months of some uncomfortable days.”
Chinowsky said the first step in addressing the air conditioning problem is admitting there is one, and the second is needing a third party like the government to step in and figure out how to pay for equitable access.
“There are funds to help people with their electric bills, so we need to be more aggressive on this,” Chinowsky said. “We keep coming back to who’s going to pay for it and, unfortunately, the people getting hurt the worst are those with lower economic status.”