Saturday, June 12, 2010

Its Not That Hot - Part One

It’s summer time in the desert. No clouds, endless sunshine, and perfect temperature. Well, perfect if you normally winter in hell. We also have zero humidity; dogs are chasing fire hydrants, we staple envelopes closed, and the local cactus is moving north for the summer.

Because of this, most houses use two forms of air conditioning, one of which would not work in the rest of the country. We use an evaporative water cooling system, colloquially called swamp coolers. Basically, this is a large box on the roof where water is poured over some form of filter. Fans suck dry air from the outside, force it through the wet filter, and then blow it down ducts into your house. Along the way, the air picks up a lot of humidity. No refrigeration, no Freon, and a very low operating cost.

Surprisingly, it actually works fairly well. It works right up to the point where it doesn't work at all. It will pretty much lower the inside air temperature about 20 degrees. If it is 88 degrees outside, it can make the house a little chilly. As I write this, it is 106 outside and about 86 inside. This is where the second system comes into play; cold beer.

Okay, swamp systems aren’t perfect, but they have certain benefits. They leak until the roof gets water damage, something that otherwise is pretty hard to do in a place where every time it rains, awestruck people double the average church attendance. Swamp coolers have about as many moving parts as ’57 Chevy, one of them is always squeaking, perpetually sounding like a flock of canaries. Most importantly, this is the only way a house around here could develop a serious mold problem. All the fun of living on the gulf coast without the cheap seafood. With endless sand, we have the beach; we just don’t have the ocean.

This New Mexico method of cooling is not exactly efficient. People living anyplace else in the world would probably change over to something that actually works, but here, swamp coolers are actually a sort of hobby for some people.

What fun! Tomorrow, I get to climb on my roof, adjust the float valve, oil the squirrel cage, patch the roof where the idiotic float valve has flooded the roof too many times, and the while wondering why in the world I use a cooling system from the 19th century while living in one of the harshest environments in the United States that isn’t actually on fire.

Why? Well, first off, the damn swamp cooler is simple. If a dust storm rolls it off my roof into the neighbor’s yard, I can probably knock it back into shape with a ball peen hammer. Forty years ago I was an engineering major at the University of Houston. While I can’t say I remember everything, I did learn the cardinal rule of engineers; Bash to form, file to fit, and paint to cover. I can do that.

The second reason to keep the stupid cooler is cost. If my neighbor won’t give it back after the dust storm deposits it into his flower bed, I can buy a new one for $300. Last time I got a quote to convert the house over to refrigerated air, it was roughly $6000. Alternatively, I could buy a new cooler and have enough left over 800 six packs, and still have enough left over for a new book.

The best reason not to switch is… It’s the calendar. We don’t need air conditioning during the spring, fall, or winter. That takes care of two months. During all ten months of the summer, the temperature only rises above 95 for about two months. And there is no way in hell I’m climbing on that roof during the day when the temperature is that hot.

I did that a few years ago. When it is 100 degrees on the ground, it is 130 on the roof. I climbed up to fix one of the endless water leaks, leaned against the blistering metal swamp cooler, and the matches in my pocket caught fire.

That was several years ago, but I doubt if anyone who lives within a block has forgotten the time their neighbor was screaming on the roof of his house waving a pair of burning pants.


  1. new meaning to "Liar, liar, pants on fire." ;)

    I've truly missed taking your classes. I'm very glad I stumbled across your blog. Thanks for the education and the smiles, Professor Milliorn.

  2. Ahhhh, the swamp cooler and 100+ degree summer weather...yet another reason why I am SO happy to be back here in breezy Hawai'i, where the high ranges anywhere from 79 to 88 over the summer and when it gets too hot, there's always the beach(not to rub it in or anything like that)...oh, and the fresh fish is delicious, by the way :)


  3. Okay, your beach is nicer, but ours is bigger. All we need is that ocean stuff.

  4. As it turned out, New Mexico was one of the places on Earth where it was not okay to have a hot wife. The Doc more or less forced me (husbands everywhere will understand this) to remove the swamp coolers and install refrigerated air. I was optimistic--it cost $13,000. Now, my wife is obviously trying to kill me with the thermostat. The house is regularly as cold as a mother-in-law's heart.