The Quest For Cool Comfort In The Desert
August 03, 2012

PHOENIX -- The Phoenix metro area is the hottest in the country in the summer, and there are indications it has only been getting warmer.

So when I was apartment-hunting in Phoenix earlier this summer, I was clear on my priorities. Above all else, I wanted a really, really good air conditioner.

Yet things don't always work out as we plan, and somehow I wound up in a older building in an older part of town with no A/C. In its place: a swamp cooler.

I didn't actually know what a swamp cooler was when the property manager first revealed the cooling system. I'm originally from the Bay Area, where we rarely have to even think about such things, since it's usually too drafty there, anyway.

When the swamp cooler first wooshed to life, I was unexpectedly thrilled by the moist breeze that greeted me. Swamp coolers work by blowing air across a water-filled pad, and the resulting effect reminded me of being by the ocean.

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I raved to friends how hydrated my skin was in dry Phoenix thanks to my beloved, new system. I made more than a few self-righteous comments about its energy efficiency, and how my swamp cooler didn't pollute the ozone like air conditioning (though given that it does rely on a lot of precious water, it was unclear how far I should have taken those green claims).

I even began to wonder if A/C users were unenlightened.

But then the monsoon season began.

Outside, the rain brought lower temperatures, and (slightly) cooled down the Valley.

Yet inside, the thermometer began to climb in my apartment. The cool sea breeze was gone, replaced by hot, humid, air that felt much like the air outside, just swampier. I had to have so many fans going, the deafening sound drowned out the rain outside.

I soon learned swamp coolers work when the air is dry to cool the temperature 20 degrees or so. But when the outside air is humid -- as it has uncharacteristically been a lot lately -- the poor thing is basically powerless.

Which explains why I am part of a dying breed of Phoenicians without A/C. As one local told me: this metro area wouldn't have grown to 4 million people if it ran on swamp coolers.

While selfishly the dry heat is much better for cooler temperatures in my apartment, this much-needed summer rain is doing the Valley of the Sun good. So Mother Nature, keep those lovely summer storms coming. I'll be sweltering in my apartment, but I suppose it will be worth it.

After all, my swamp cooler can't do anything without water.

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