Monday, October 21, 2013

Up on the roof

Yesterday I completed the second half of a ritual I have performed each year since 1975. I climb a ladder to the roof of my suburban split-entry house, and I prepare the evaporative cooler for winter.

There are all makes and models of this type of cooling unit. This is as close a picture as I could find online to one that looks like mine. 

The ritual of the cooler usually begins in May, when the weather starts to get hot, or as I have learned, as soon as the weather person on television says it will be getting hot. I go to Lowe’s, buy some cooler pads, climb the roof, install the pads, make sure everything is working and my water line isn’t leaking, and then I switch on my cooler for a summer full of hot temperatures outside, cool temperatures inside. That’s the theory, anyway. What usually happens is the cooler, which is above the main hallway, really only cools the living room, so I also have to set up fans in the various rooms in a vain hope of circulating air.

The cooler, which works on a principle discovered during the 18th century by Napoleon’s soldiers when they kept food in wet burlap bags, depends on low humidity to work at peak efficiency. Typical summer humidity in our area is about 10% or less until the season of thunderstorms, so-called “monsoonal moisture” which sets itself up above us for at least a couple of weeks in late July-early August. If the humidity gets to 25% or higher I might as well not have the cooler on, because the humidity is cancelling out the evaporation.

My house is the proverbial oven, located in the proverbial desert hell. This past summer the temperatures were hotter than any summer before, over 95º F for almost two months, and inside the house with the swamp cooler working it was kept at a relatively reasonable 75º in the living room, but in all other upstairs rooms it was more like 80º. I have lived with this so long I should be used to it, but I still do my fair share of kvetching and complaining about the heat.

When we bought our house in 1975 swamp coolers were preferred for home air conditioning. I read once that about 75% of homes in my area used the evaporative cooler, but now it has flip-flopped, and more people use a central air conditioner with their furnace than use a swamp cooler. The central air is much more expensive to run, because people have a tendency to want it cooler than necessary in summer, just like they want to be warmer than necessary in winter. There’s a comfort zone in there somewhere, which I have found to be about 72º. The other thing I read is that running all of these central air conditioners is actually making it hotter outside. The good thing about my rooftop cooler is that it is no more expensive to use than a light bulb, and it doesn’t really contribute to outside pollution.

The swamp cooler is a simple device: a motor turns a large drum inside the box, a pump moves water from the tank of the cooler to the pads to evaporate. The cool air is forced down into the house through a duct to a diffuser built into my ceiling. Every year I am forced to make repairs, which can be repairing a leak in the waterline to the cooler, or replacing the pump or cleaning out the tubes that pour the water onto the pads when they get clogged. I have had summers where I felt like I was on the roof sweating over keeping the cooler running more than I was in my living room being cooled. A typical summer I’d say means from five to ten trips up the ladder to the roof to get everything adjusted and to keep it that way. It’s usually a big relief to get the cooler ready for winter. The process takes about a half hour to an hour, and there is always a satisfaction of knowing that I’ve got about 7 or 8 months of not having to worry about my cooler. No, I just worry about my ancient furnace, but that’s a whole other story.

Getting the cooler winterized entails taking up a bag of supplies; a 6 x 8 foot tarpaulin (those blue things you buy at Walmart for $6.99), a 1/2” wrench to detach the water line to drain it, some strong string or twine to tie the tarpaulin onto the cooler to prevent it from blowing off in a strong wind (that has happened to me a time or two). 

Yesterday was a reiteration to me of the old cliché, “this shit is getting old.” It is getting old because I am getting old. When I moved into this house I was 28 years old, and now I’m 66. Making several trips up and down a ladder is getting harder every year. I know most guys don’t like to admit they can’t do this sort of thing after they reach a certain point of their biological clock, but I’m not afraid to admit it. Yeah, next year I should hire someone to do it for me. I don’t want to crawl up on that goddamn roof one more time in my life. But then, I’ve said that for at least the last five years.

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