As Daylight Saving Time winds to a close on Nov. 1, one question is likely to be on the minds of many driving home from work next week in the dark: How is this still a thing?
That very question was posited recently on a popular comedy news show, which through a number of man-on-the-street interviews revealed that most believe Daylight Saving (yes, it is singular) has agricultural roots.
But according to Laura Grant, an environmental and public economics professor whose work as a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, influenced the cable TV segment, the idea originated as one of Benjamin Franklin's whims.
“He stayed up late playing poker and gambling and wasting wax tallow," Grant explains. Struck by his own wastefulness (and perhaps relieved of some of his cash), Franklin, then living in France, penned “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light," which was published in the Journal of Paris in 1784.
The Real Cost of Light
In his mostly humorous essay, Franklin suggested that boatloads of tallow might be saved by the virtue of using sunshine for light instead of candles. For this to work, reasoned the man whose early-to-rise philosophy still torments night owls today, people simply needed to get out of bed earlier.
“If it should be said, that people are apt to be obstinately attached to old customs, and that it will be difficult to induce them to rise before noon, consequently my discovery can be of little use," Franklin wrote, poking a little fun at the Parisians.
Franklin proposed setting a limit of the amount of candle tallow each family should be allowed to purchase, and further decreed that every church bell should ring at the very break of dawn.
It's perhaps understandable why Paris didn't exactly fall all over itself to implement his plan.
The Germans revived the Daylight Saving idea in the early 1900s to help save resources for the war. In the U.S., it was officially put into practice by congressional order in 1966, though states could opt out via local ordinance. Today, the majority of states, excluding Arizona and Hawaii, are as attached to those old customs as Franklin's imaginary noon-risers.
Ultimately, it's a policy intended to save energy, but does it actually work?
A Negligible Savings
When contacted to help make sense of it all, Dr. Ken Klemow, professor of biology and environmental science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, didn't have an answer. “However, it appears to raise air conditioning costs in the southern U.S.," he said, "so the net effect appears to be negligible."
Klemow touched upon the crux of Grant's research, which studied the effects of Daylight Saving Time on Indiana. For years, the majority of the state declined to fiddle with its clocks, but reversed course in 2006.
Grant and her advisor, Matthew Kotchen, now a professor at Yale, seized on the perfect timing, culling two years of data on energy patterns in millions of homes with the help of Duke Energy.
Their resulting work shows that Klemow was mostly correct; the net effect on energy savings was not just negligible — it was negative.
In Indiana, Daylight Saving caused a 1 percent annual increase in residential electricity use, with peak use — a 2-4 percent increase — in late summer and early fall.
During the long days of summer, Daylight Saving Time influences fewer people to flip on the lights, to be sure, but air conditioning use increases. “We've aligned ourselves with the hottest part of the day, which means you're using more AC," Grant explains.
And in early fall mornings while people are dressing in the dark, heat use skyrockets.
"That's a huge energy drain," Grant says. “And something Benjamin Franklin probably never thought about."
For his part, Klemow wonders whether accident rates are higher during standard time, with people heading home after the sun has already set. “If so, that could be a hidden energy and economic benefit to keeping Daylight Saving Time," he says.
At least one report showed year-round Daylight Saving Time might reduce pedestrian and motor vehicle fatalities by up to a combined 16 percent during rush hours.
Grant, for her part, acknowledges that there could be a "short-term blip in negative outcomes" when standard time begins Monday, but says the hour gained in sleep might make for fresher minds.
Daylight Saving Time's spring commencement can affect the body's clock, causing a jet lag effect, a jolt to which we never quite adjust, some experts say.
"To me it's a forced alarm clock; twice a year, it re-jolts our societal schedule," Grant says. "But it's become part of our rhythm, much the same way holidays have."
Even with all of its issues, Daylight Saving Time persists for a variety of reasons, including concerns for public safety and the pervasive belief in energy savings.
But, according to Grant's research, at least the latter notion is an antiquated one.
“The evidence here suggests," she wrote, "that continued reliance on Benjamin Franklin's old argument alone is now misleading."