Is New England Ready to Beat the Heat?: The past, present, and future of AC in the Northeast

Photo by Jason Eppink.

In April 2024, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released their temperature predictions for this coming summer. Currently, there is a 50-60% chance that temperatures will be above normal over much of New England. This is not a surprise. Over the past 13 years, average summer temperatures have increased as much as 3.2 degrees fahrenheit since 2010.

While that may not sound like a lot, these changes in temperature have caused increases in heat related illness and death for people across the country. There is very little New England specific data on heat death and heat illness, but we know that the heat is impacting us. And many of us feel it acutely because central air conditioning is quite rare. Though air conditioning feels like a luxury now, it is an increasing necessity. Given air conditioning’s growing importance, it feels important to understand its history.


In the 1840s, Dr. John Gorrie, a doctor and inventor living in Florida and considered to be the father of air conditioning, was fed up with what he called “the evils of high temperatures,” and invented a machine that made ice that could be powered by horse, steam, water, or wind. One of his investors continued to push the idea of artificial cooling forward after Gorrie’s early death. In 1902, an engineer named Willis Carrier took up the mantle and designed an AC unit and in 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, organizers installed a unit big enough to cool a 1,000 seat auditorium. By 1929, Frigidaire designed a unit that was small enough for home use, but it was still too heavy and too expensive for the average person to use.

Things really changed for Americans when engineers were able to make air conditioners that were small enough and cheap enough to be sold directly to consumers. By the late 1960s, most new homes had central air conditioners. In 2020, it was estimated that 88% of US households had air conditioning and that 2/3 of those have central units. However, in Rhode Island, the average is much lower, with only 65% of households having a window unit and 31% having central units. Connecticut’s numbers are nearly identical. This is true of much of New England. Only 7% of homes in Vermont, 10% of homes in Maine, 32% of homes in Massachusetts, and 21% of homes in New Hampshire have central AC.

There are many reasons why New England lags behind the rest of the US when it comes to AC ownership. For one, houses here are much older than in other parts of the US. The average age of a house in the United States is 40 years old. The average age of housing stock in Rhode Island is 70 years. Keep in mind, if 70 years is the average, that means that many homes were built even earlier. Rhode Island has the second oldest housing stock in the country, with 30% of Rhode Islanders living in houses built before 1940. This means that many people are living in homes built before central AC was popular or even commercially available.

Additionally, New England was not nearly this hot 70 years ago when most of our housing stock was built. Many life-long New Englanders are needing to turn to AC after not needing it for most of their lifetimes, as summers here have gotten longer and hotter. From 1986 to 2011, temperatures rose by 2°F, but are projected to rise an additional 10°F by the 2080s — this means that the high temperatures are getting hotter faster.

New England is not equipped to handle the ever-warming summers. Stop gap measures, like cooling centers, have been implemented so that people who do not have AC — generally people who are unhoused, unstably housed, or lower income — can find places to cool off. Over time, it will be essential that Rhode Island, and the rest of the New England states, invest in central AC units, which are more cost- and energy-efficient, and that we find ways to build cooling into our cities and towns.