Future Tense

The Desperate Hunt for Air Conditioners in Oregon and Washington

Two women and their kids, sitting in the tubes, cool off at the beach
Seattle residents cool off at Alki Beach on June 29, 2021. Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images

Air conditioners have become a treasure in Washington and Oregon amid an unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. Portland and Seattle hit records of 116 and 108 degrees on Monday. More than 35 cities in the region tied or broke their heat records, experiencing temperatures 30 to 40 degrees above normal. For many residents, it has become hard to escape the heat even inside their houses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 44 percent of the homes in the Seattle metro area have air conditioners, which is the lowest rate of any metro area in the country. Households in Portland metro area are better prepared for the heat, with 79 percent of them equipped with AC units. Still, Portland is way behind other big cities: For example, in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami, more than 98 percent of homes have air conditioning.

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It is important to note that during the heat wave, an air conditioner is not just a luxury for a comfortable life; it is a necessity that keeps people from heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and other heat-related illnesses that can cause death. Oregon and Washington linked at least 70 deaths to the hot temperature in the last few days, and this number is likely to increase. In British Columbia, Canada, there have been hundreds of excess deaths.

Many residents of the Pacific Northwest, accustomed to relatively chilly and rainy summers, first thought that the heat wouldn’t last long, and they would get through it as usual, without AC. When the heat wave hit, many changed their mind, but it was already too late to buy any cooling system - most of them were gone. Jane C. Hu, a Slate contributor living in Seattle, joked on her Twitter that “trying to buy an AC unit in Seattle right now feels like trying to find a Nintendo switch in April 2020.” She told me that on Tuesday, June 22, “there were tons of portable air conditioners available online,” but by Saturday afternoon, when the temperature approached 103 degrees, “there was nothing.” On Sunday, Jane happened to be in Home Depot, picking up some other things, when an employee approached her and said, “You aren’t looking for an air conditioner, are you?” That’s how she figured out that the staff “had gotten that question roughly a billion times that day,” and no, there were no air conditioners. (A spokeswoman at Home Depot, Christina Cornell, told me that their “merchandising and supply chain teams are working hard to replenish in-demand items.”)

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Another resident of Seattle, Yarelys Rivera, was also not successful in getting an AC. She didn’t find anything in Home Depot or Lowe’s. Target and Walmart websites showed that air conditioners were out of stock. “That was for fans as well—floor, pedestal, fans were all gone,” says Yarelys. Steve Salazar, Lowe’s corporate communications manager, confirmed that their “store teams have been staying busy the past couple of weeks helping people keep their homes cool,” and they are “continuing to actively ship in additional product to stores across the region.” Target’s and Walmart’s press offices couldn’t provide comments.

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Seattle resident Eugenia was relatively lucky: She already had a portable air conditioner when the heat wave began. But she told me that her family has been using it so much recently that it started leaking. Eugenia didn’t consider buying a new one, though, as she managed to fix it. However, she shared with me a screenshot from a private Facebook group, “Seattle Russian mamas and papas,” where one of the members wrote that she purchased the AC in Costco, but she had to get in a line near the store at 6 a.m.

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People across Washington and Oregon states are waiting in virtual lines as well. The manager at Kelly’s Appliances store in Eugene, Oregon, whom I spoke to Tuesday, told me that the next shipment was supposed to be on Wednesday. By that time, they already had a list of around 50 people they needed to call as soon as new inventory comes in. The last time the store got AC units was on Saturday, and, according to the manager, they were sold out in 15 minutes.
“My owner has been working nonstop,” the manager said. “We had our truck drivers drive up to Seattle just trying to get more air conditioners.”

But based on my conversations, there are no units to be found neither in Seattle nor in Portland, nor in smaller towns. When I called on Monday and Tuesday, shelves were empty in Walmart in Eugene, Oregon, and in Hoy’s Ace Hardware in Yakima, Washington. In the latter, the manager hung up right after saying that they sold out, apparently (and understandably) annoyed about answering the same question repeatedly. But my experience wasn’t the worst. One would-be customer wrote on a June 25 Yellow Pages review that when he called Lowe’s in Portland about buying an air conditioner, the manager just laughed in response.

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An employee of DeWhitt Portland’s Appliance experts told me that they received hundreds of calls about air conditioners on Monday, which was the hottest day. But they had only 140 AC units in stock on Thursday, June 24, and they were all gone by last Saturday. The manager at Hoy’s Ace Hardware in Seattle, which also ran out of air conditioners, called the number of calls they got “pretty crazy.” He added, however, that in the store, “people act not too badly, not frantically.” I immediately thought of the situation at Leroy Merlin store in Moscow, which had its own heat wave last week. There, customers were ready to fight for the air conditioners. However, here, most of the employees of hardware stores I spoke to told me that though some customers were disappointed with the shortage of AC units, they were understanding.

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By now, the temperature in the region has decreased a bit, but according to forecasts, the unusual heat will stay in the Pacific Northwest till next week. Those who gave up looking for options to cool off their homes might spend more time in air-conditioned public spaces, like grocery stores, libraries, and movie theaters. Air-conditioned hotels in many areas have sold out.

For those who are giving up on buying an A/C for now, it might be worth thinking ahead and buying an air purifier while they are still available. Residents of Seattle and Portland I spoke to expressed concerns that wildfires might start earlier than usual because of the heat.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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