It happens every year in Seattle. While the rest of the country is enjoying glorious warmth and sunshine, folks here are grumbling about our persistent “June gloom.”
But then when the unthinkable happens — out of nowhere, the thermometer hits 90 degrees — and we’re miserable.
While 90 degrees is no big deal in most of the country, it hits Seattle hard. And that’s because, as I wrote about a few years back, we’re the least air-conditioned metro area in the nation.
When I last visited this topic, the most recent data was for 2015, and it showed that only about one-third of housing units here had air conditioning, whether it be central air or room units.
The data, which comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, has updated a couple of times since then. It surprised me when I looked it up, in recognition of the current June heat wave.
For sure, Seattle is still the least air-conditioned metro area. But as of 2019, which is the most recent data, 44% of homes here are now air-conditioned — an increase of more than 10 percentage points in four years.
In 2015, about 487,000 homes were air-conditioned by either central air or window units in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. As of 2019, that number jumped by around 250,000 and now stands at 676,000. The number of non-air-conditioned homes has declined by more than 100,000.
If this trend continues, it won’t be long before the unimaginable happens: The majority of homes in the Seattle area will be air-conditioned.
A couple scenarios comes to mind to explain this surge in air conditioning locally.
For one, it’s gotten hotter here. To be fair, though, the increase hasn’t been as pronounced as in other areas of the country. Even so, we’ve also experienced miserable air quality from wildfires in recent years. When that happens, you can’t even open your windows. Air conditioning is a lifesaver.
Another factor could be the huge influx of newcomers to Seattle in the past decade. The data shows that air conditioning is the norm just about everywhere. In fact, there is only one other metro area where most homes aren’t air-conditioned: San Francisco. Even in Portland, 79% are. And in most of the country, more than nine out of 10 homes is air-conditioned (nationally, the figure is 91%).
So when folks move to this area from other parts of the country, they might simply expect air conditioning, at least in new homes and apartment buildings.
The American Housing Survey is published every two years. Each release includes the 15 largest metro areas (Seattle ranks 15th) and a rotating selection of 10 other U.S. metros for a total of 25.
Even though air conditioning can really run up your electricity bill, it is considered a necessity in much of the country. Both rich and poor have some form of air conditioning.
In the 2019 data, New Orleans and Houston tie as the most air-conditioned metros, both at more than 99%. Atlanta and Miami also pass the 99% mark and rank third and fourth, in that order. Raleigh, North Carolina, is fifth.
The West Coast dominates the list of least air-conditioned metros. After Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, Los Angeles ranks fourth at about 81%. Denver is fifth at 85%.
In the Seattle area, air-conditioned homes are now the majority (53%) among those that are owner-occupied. For renters, though, it’s still pretty rare at just 29%.
The clear majority of newer owner-occupied homes in our area are air-conditioned, with 62% of those built in 2010 or later having some type of AC. Among older homes — those built in 1950 and earlier — just 47% have air conditioning.
Renters with a household income of $80,000 or higher in this area are more likely to have air conditioning than those with lower incomes. But among homeowners, income bracket isn’t a significant factor.