Over 800 Pomona Students Sweat Out Heat Wave Without Air Conditioning

(Katie Erickson and Dominic Frempong / The Student Life)

A week-long heat wave last month forced students living without air conditioning to shed their blankets at night in desperation. Temperatures in Claremont soared to well over 100 degrees, catching staff off-guard.

“We traditionally get one or two hot days in August and September so clearly the week-long heat wave of over 100 degrees was very unusual,” said Christopher Waugh, Pomona’s associate dean of students and dean of campus life. “Clearly that has created a context that we need to think about.”

85 percent of buildings (70 of 83) on Pomona’s campus are air-conditioned, according to Director of Facilities Judith Brown, but only five of the 16 residence halls are fully air-conditioned. Two residence halls, Dialynas and Sontag, were completed in 2011 and have LEED certified AC systems. During the heat wave, some students chose to sleep in those buildings instead.

The Pomona administration felt the heat and took several steps to ease students’ discomfort. Water stations were made available around campus and public air-conditioned areas were opened for the entirety of the day. The college even placed cots in the Edmunds Ballroom, but only about 15 were used.

The heat wave also demanded more from facilities staff, who were available on campus at all times.  

“The extended heat wave with the humidity was taxing on the HVAC equipment needed to provide air conditioning to the buildings equipped,” Brown wrote in an email to TSL.

Katie Li PO '18 slept on the floor of a friend’s room for one night because her dorm in Clark V was too hot. She chose not to take one of the cots offered to Pomona students in the air-conditioned Edmunds Ballroom.  

“Luckily, I had friends with AC,” she wrote. “I think I would have felt uncomfortable sleeping in an unfamiliar environment.”

Other students chose to stay in their sweltering rooms.

“We just have a lot of fans,” Skye Mitchell PO '20 said. “During the heat wave, we [were] all trying to figure out the best way to get a cross-[breeze] going.”

Mitchell lives in the Harwood Residence Hall's basement, which could not accommodate the ceiling fans that were added to the other rooms three years ago.

“I would wake up covered in sweat,” she said.

The weather has forced Pomona to examine long-term AC solutions. But any changes, Waugh said, have to include a discussion about sustainability. Something like a window AC unit would be too “energy intensive,” according to Alexis Reyes, assistant director of sustainability.

“I would never want to advocate for something that is great for the environment but harms people because that’s defeating the purpose,” Reyes said. “I wouldn’t call that sustainable. I think there are ways where air conditioning can be done correctly and efficiently and also makes a comfortable, livable, happy environment for students.”

Reyes said it would be difficult to retrofit many of the historic dorms at Pomona for AC. However, she added, as the climate changes it is important that humans change living situations to keep pace.

“Our climate is changing and we can't do things the way we’ve always done them,” Reyes said. “We have to be more prepared for a whole week [of] triple digits.”

Waugh plans to meet with residence hall staff next week to “debrief the heat wave.” In addition to installing ice machines and water dispensers in every residence hall, the agenda for the meeting includes discussion about the installation of AC units in every residence hall on campus.

“After that conversation, I’m going to take the content of what we talked about to [the Associated Students of Pomona College] and to share the ideas floated by staff and to ask for continued input and ideas from the students as well,” Waugh said. “I think it’s really important we talk about this as a community in terms of what is the best approach.”

Pomona students aren’t the only ones who sweated out the heat wave. Toll Hall at Scripps College is also yet to be renovated with AC.

“It was the worst,” Elle Solomon SC '21 said. “It was beastly hot.”

To cope, Solomon bought three fans, which she has little use for now that the weather has cooled off. Toll residents were also offered cots in the air-conditioned common room of their dorm.

At Claremont McKenna College, 10 of the 14 residence halls are air-conditioned, and seven of Scripps' nine have AC. All of Harvey Mudd and Pitzer College's residence halls have air conditioning.

A print version of this article in the Sept. 22, 2017 issue contained an error in the infographic. 38% of Pomona residence halls have air conditioning, not 13%.