Swamp Cooler

  Jerome Shea       May 20, 2012      Weekend Wonk

If you are reading this wonk in my neck of the woods, the American Southwest, you can stop right now and go back to Facebook. In fact, wherever the climate is very hot and very dry you, too, can probably skip it, at least if the term “swamp cooler” or “evaporative cooler” is familiar to you. But a swamp cooler was new to me when I came here many years ago* and it underscored the fact that I wasn’t in Kansas (well, Pennsylvania) anymore, Toto. It was, really, part of the exotic allure, the distinction of this new place, a detail that I could casually drop into letters back East, like roadrunners or green chile or mescal. Ever since then, like all of my neighbors, I have had a love/hate relationship with the box on the roof.

A swamp cooler is a wonderfully simple device. It consists of a big metal box with three, or sometimes four, louvered side panels. These panels you line with pads that allow water, in a sump at the bottom, to flow down them, saturate them, when a pump shoots that water up to the top of the panels. Inside the box is what I call a squirrel cage fan, a cylindrical fan that is really more like a hamster’s wheel. This fan draws in the outside air, newly moistened and cool, and shoots it down into the house through the air ducts. Wonderful, eh?

In many ways, swamp coolers certainly are. For one thing, they cost much less than comparable refrigerated air systems. And they use a lot less electricity—you are not running a big compressor, just a belt-driven fan with maybe a ¾ horse electric motor and a simple water pump. That is much cheaper than turning your house into a 2000-square-foot refrigerator. Another thing about a swamp cooler is that it puts moisture into the air in the house, which is a wonderful thing where the air is parched and so are you. That is also, of course, why you will not find swamp coolers in the Midwest, the East, or the South, where to add even more moisture to that muggy air would be intolerable. That saving moisture is also why the longsuffering Diana insists on evaporative air despite its drawbacks (which we’ll get to). Refrigerated air conditioners suck the moisture out. In this desert, we need all the moisture we can get, to give our lungs and our skin a break.

So you are wondering what the downside is. Well, for one thing, with a swamp cooler you have to leave a couple of windows cracked open to let the air flow through the house and out. I never considered this a big deal, especially if you have a couple of patrolling Rottweilers to discourage unwanted visitors. Or you can put bars on the windows as many of my neighbors do, an idea that never appealed to me.

Anyway, that’s the least of the problems. For one thing, swamp coolers are incredibly dirty. We are talking rust. We are talking build-up of mineral scale. We are talking the flaking off of whatever they spray on the inside, some black stuff that comes off in big chunks over the years. And a vigorous wire brushing never seems to catch it all at the source. We Sheas have a ritual in the spring. Diana will turn the swamp cooler on high blower and I will station myself below the vents with the vacuum cleaner to try to collect as much blown-out crap as I can. After a half hour of this, working every vent with the Hoover, we can run the cooler on low for the rest of the season with only the occasional big black flake floating down to the living room rug to fascinate the cats.

But there is more. My impression is that refrigerated air needs very little upkeep, or if it does, you have to get a pro to do it. But the swamp cooler, which has to be mothballed every fall and put back in service every spring, has become a guy thing, like changing your own oil or mowing the lawn. There are certain things you do to prove that you can still do them. (Yes, mortality, I’m lookin’ at you!) To rub salt in this wound, Diana now says that she doesn’t want me up on the roof if she’s not home, explaining that I would be in no shape to dial 911 if, shaky old gent, I should fall off the roof. (I love you too, dear.)

Anyway, up a shaky ladder to the roof you go. And you always, always, forget something. You take the custom covers off but forget the next step, where you need the vise grips. Down you go; up you go. You drop the tiny brass fittings and they roll off the roof. And everything leaks. Things spurt and squirt. Or a fitting will finally produce a drip so subtle that you cannot even see where the leak is. Get a better wrench. A 9/16th this time. Get some plumber’s putty. Down you go; up you go. To the hardware store you go. There seems no end to this.

There is an end, of course, and you are grateful for it, and the swamp cooler will rattle and hum and squeak for another summer. But for the life of you, you can’t imagine how romanced you once were by this misbegotten device.

*The “floor furnace” was new to me, too, and I will leave the details to your imagining. A hint: it quickly cured me of stumbling around barefoot in the dark on winter nights.

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