Sucker weather has certainly lived up to its reputation this year — and it’s not done yet. I don’t know what it is, but I can hunker down for the cold, dark days of winter, bundle up to do a series of outside tasks, and even head out to the woodshop, get a good fire going, and work on projects wearing a set of base layers and trades wear to ward off the cool air in the shop. I take this all in good stride, and many of you probably do, too.
But give me a couple of warm, still, sunny days of spring and somehow I think I, and my yardscape, are entitled for winter’s cold to be firmly and finally sent on its way. It ain’t gonna happen — no matter how much I (or you) wish it were so.
My internal thermostat goes crazy after some of those sweatshirt-only days doing a bit of weeding, pruning, or even an early mow on the lawn. It’s almost like my tolerance for cold or wind evaporates and then the fits and starts of transition from winter to spring can send me back into the house when it’s just a gray day or a chilly breeze persists. It’s this time of year when I create a series of self-recriminations that include terminology such as, “c’mon, Jay. How ’bout we put on our big boy pants and get to it?.”
I can be a weather whiner (and I suspect some of you share this weakness as well.) so when it’s cold, I pine for the heat of summer and when it’s hot, I yearn for being able to wear flannel shirts and have a fire in the fireplace. Enough, already. Nonetheless, c’mon spring. I want to get my gardening going.
In last week’s column, I told you about going to Arizona recently and how that was a refresher course on the flora and fauna of my former home. Since the temps had increased rather rapidly there, it was time to switch over from heat to cooling at the home where we were staying.
While air conditioners have certainly become more common, evaporative coolers have historically been king when it comes to addressing cooling needs in the desert. As popular as coolers are here, they are even more so there.
The evaporative cooler is part of my childhood experience. I remember the scent of the aspen pads that were commonly used, and the breeze that moved through the house toward windows that were opened slightly to allow the air that was being pumped into the house to escape along with the heat it carried away. A slight dampness would occur in the house, and it was more noticeable in the evening hours (especially about the middle of night when it could actually get chilly).
The “technology” of evaporative coolers is anything but. The principle by which these coolers work is as old as time itself, commonly occurring in nature. Anyone that has taken a walk in a damp forest, or been by a sizable water fall in a low humidity environment knows firsthand what I mean. While the evaporative cooler is a simple device, it has enjoyed some improvements since its introduction and subsequent wide distribution to arid or lower humidity areas.
First, coatings applied to the water pan have been improved, allowing a longer time of use before service is required due to their resistance to corrosion. Also, bleed-off tubes, or timed secondary pumps that expel a portion of the cooler’s water on a regular basis, assist in keeping the water in the pan and the distribution system at a lower mineral content level. Treatment chemicals now keep the minerals in suspension longer. While aspen fiber pads still enjoy a strong following, alternative pad materials are available too. There are also single-sided coolers (MasterCool is the brand that I’m familiar with and the type I put back into service while visiting Tucson) that use thick blocks of media on one side of the cabinet. These blocks are good for several years if you use a bleed-off system. A further benefit of these types of coolers is that they tend to be mounted at ground level, making them easier to access and eliminating roof staining from cooler water that will have high mineral content.
There are trade-offs. Benefits include simplicity, low entry cost, readily available parts and supplies and relatively low operating costs. Some of the downsides include the need for ongoing maintenance, cleaning and coating of the water pan every year, not working well when it’s humid, and eventual roof discoloration when using roof mounted units.
It’s interesting to note that the cooler is a relative latecomer when it comes to temperature reduction. That’s because it depends on electricity to run its main fan motor and the pump that distributes the water over the cooling pads.
Maggie’s great grandfather’s family moved to Arizona in the mid 1800s when it was still a territory. They were from Tennessee (and England before that) and moved to what is now the Phoenix area. They were drawn there by the offer of sections of land in exchange for their homesteading efforts. With summer temperatures regularly in excess of 110 degrees, they were a lot tougher than I am. Not only was there no active cooling, but cooking and household chores such as laundry and ironing was dependent on wood-fired stoves. You can imagine that a large part of their life was centered about not only raising crops and livestock, but also managing and accommodating the heat, and other elements in their daily routines.
Such hardships are a strong motivation for ingenuity and invention. Not only did these Arizona pioneers maximize shade, use windows to actively ventilate their house, and sleep outside during hotter weather (complete with mosquito nets over their beds), but they created cooling devices as they could.
When electricity became available for his house in about 1930, Maggie’s grandfather created a mat of straw, placed it across an open window, kept it moist with a dribble of water from a hose, and then used an electric fan to pull or push air through the moist mat and create cool air. That cool air must have been heavenly for the family. Sounds a lot like the “swamp box” we use today.
As long ago as all this seems, reducing heat or generating cold goes back a lot longer than that. If you don’t have an active cooling source, you better be good at controlling the rate of heat accumulation in the first place. This can be seen in the architecture of early homes with their deep porches and shaded windows. The American south was renowned for the sizable front porches, and the social life generated by such an approach.
In Middle Eastern countries, with their arid, low-humidity weather, architecture for millennia has incorporated features to reduce heat and generate cooling — all without electricity. This is done with such practices as using light colors on structures to reduce absorption of heat, using dense earthen materials that resist wide temperature swings, building structures in groupings to create sizable areas of shade, and having only a few small windows on sun-facing walls.
That’s not all. Ceilings tend to be high, allowing warm air to accumulate above occupants and be vented off. Another key approach is the use of wind towers. These are still commonly seen in Persian-influenced designs throughout the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Such towers are shafts that extend from the floor level of the house to well above roof level. The openings at the top can be facing one way, or multiple ways, with types of dampers to force breezes at the rooftop level into the home. Cooling may be aided by dampening the interior of the shaft, or by drawing cool air from moist underground reserves. Pretty smart. So much so that some of these approaches are now being incorporated into high energy efficiency dwellings around the globe.
While my home has air-conditioning, my workshop has an evaporative cooler. I like it that way. The connection back to my youth, the sound of that cooler running, the smell of new cooler pads and that moist cool air, makes it remarkably easy to smile.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.