Slaves to Our Conveniences

July 30, 2012 by  

(Author’s note: Updated on 2/22/2013) The following is a slice of my life, boring as it is, that demonstrates only too well how much we depend upon our air conditioners, and how Florida (as well as much of the southern United States) would still be a two-bit backwater–had it not been for the invention of reasonably inexpensive air conditioning–at least from the months of May to October.

Boy, did I have a miserable week last week. It all started last Tuesday when, after coming home from work, I plopped down into my comfy chair with my constant feline companions, Archie and Agnes, to take a short nap. About 30 minutes into my nap, I woke to a houseful of thick black smoke. I leapt from my seat and began racing through the house (as much as a nearly 58 year old, 250 pound fat guy can race) looking for the source. After determining it wasn’t an appliance or a ballast from a fluorescent light fixture, I finally figured it was my 18 year old air conditioner deciding to go into smoke-belching mode. By the time I made a complete tour of my townhouse, the smoke had begun to clear, so it seemed to me that the danger had passed. At this time, I further observed that the air conditioner’s compressor was still grinding away with that lovely sound that indicated the evaporator coils were starting to freeze up, and that there was no air coming out of the ducts.

I took a SWAG (scientific wild-assed guess) that the evaporator blower motor had given up the ghost in a fairly spectacular way. I called my Maintenance Guy (I live in a townhouse–one of the maintenance folks latched onto me when I first moved into this townhouse community almost 18 years ago) for some assistance. He’s a real go-getter who deals with my weeds, patio pressure cleaning, air conditioner and drain servicing, painting, wall repair, and so much more. When he can’t do it himself, he usually “knows a guy” from almost any trade you can think of.

Maintenance Guy came over and confirmed that something had burned and that more than likely whatever was burning wasn’t burning anymore, so my cats and I were probably safe (although inhaling goodness knows what was insulating the wiring on that blower motor couldn’t have been terribly healthy). He made a call to his Air Conditioner Guy who couldn’t make it, but referred his son, a.k.a. Son of Air Conditioner Guy. As all of this conversation was going on in Spanish (this is South Florida after all), I could only stand by and make sure my checkbook was at the ready. As it turned out, Son of Air Conditioner Guy was extremely busy and couldn’t make it until Wednesday night.

Wednesday night came and so did Son of Air Conditioner Guy. He got his tall ladder and clambered up to the roof, where the package air conditioner (all in one unit) is located. He sniffed around, pulled a few panels off, and came up with the same diagnosis I had made the previous day. The evaporator blower burned out. Duh. Because it was after 7PM, however, he was unable to obtain a replacement. He’d return the next day.

Another night of miserable 85+ degree heat inside the house came and went. I left work early to meet Maintenance Guy and the Son of Air Conditioner Guy. He set up the huge ladder once again, climbed up to the roof, and replaced the blower motor. Upon inspection, it was noted that the motor was well and fully fried. After writing a check for $575 (and giving Maintenance Guy a few bucks for a finder’s fee), it seemed like cool air was blessedly blowing out of the vents and all was right with the world. At least until Son of Air Conditioner Guy left. I didn’t notice that things weren’t cooling as quickly as I had hoped until it was too late to call either of them back.

Yet another night of 85 degree heat and stifling humidity followed. At least it wasn’t like the post-hurricane times, as I did have power which enabled me to run some of my fans to take the edge off the heat. I called Maintenance Guy the next morning. He gave me the number of Son of Air Conditioner Guy. I called and gave him the bad news. He grudgingly agreed to come back to my place around 3PM, thereby causing me to miss even more work (just about 8 hours of lost work for the week). We both arrived at my place about the same time—he from a job site in Palm Beach Gardens, and me from my job in Davie. He climbed back on the roof again and determined the refrigerant level was low. He performed a leak check. but he was unable to locate it in a reasonable amount of time, so after an hour atop the roof in the stifling July heat here in S. Florida, he gave up, topped off the refrigerant, buttoned things back up, and presented me with a bill for another $225 (something I did not begrudge — not in the slightest — I have the highest respect for the folks that brave the heat of broiling roofing tar and stifling attics in their effort to keep us cooling-dependent folks comfortable). He left with plenty of time to clean up for a night on the town with his wife.

On Sunday, I noticed the house was warming up rather quickly between cycles of the compressor, though the air conditioner seemed to be working well. When the compressor was on, lovely chilled air was blowing out of the vents with more-than-acceptable velocity, but I discovered that when the compressor took a break, the fan remained on. This, of course, meant that it was blowing hot outside air into my house, not to mention the cost of running a 220 Volt high-current motor continuously!

I called Son of Air Conditioner Guy again on Monday, and he’s passed me back to his dad, Air Conditioner Guy, whom I heard from the next day. I suspected a relay got fried or contacts stuck during the blower adventure of last Tuesday. Air Conditioner Guy, who, due to being on call, couldn’t make it, but dispatched Son of Air Conditioner Guy once again. In a driving rainstorm full of thunder and lightning, he got back on the roof and replaced a burned-out relay. This time, he didn’t charge me a dime — wouldn’t even accept a tip.

Once again, things started off beautifully, with cool air blowing out at a decent velocity. As the evening progressed, however, the same problem as before manifested itself. Lukewarm to cool-ish air came out of the vents, though at least with good velocity. The compressor was not making ultra-loud noises that indicated low refrigerant, so I just don’t know. The house isn’t unbearably hot (yet), so I told Son of Air Conditioner Guy to come on Saturday.

Well, Son of Air Conditioner Guy did drop by that Saturday, got the ladder and schlepped up to the roof. After a few minutes, he came down and gave me the latest news. The heater kicked on everytime the compressor kicked on, meaning that an expensive rebuild of the control circuitry was in order. That’s why the house never cooled down. The air conditioner was fighting the heater!

A sidebar is called for right about now. Due to the glorious climate here in South Florida, it may get cold enough to need to turn on the heater maybe one or two days per winter season. For that reason, air conditioner installers seldom put in a full central heat system with the cooling. Instead, they mount, at some central location in the ductwork, probably right at the output of the air handler, a metal bracket with glowing heat elements. The idea is that when you turn the heat on, these elements glow bright red. As the air handler blows through these coils, heated air is distributed through the house. It’s really not very efficient, but is completely satisfactory and a big cost savings when you only need to use it at most for a few days per year. Because you only use it for a few days per year, some of the dust that blows through your air handler will deposit itself on those heating coils. Smart homeowners will turn the heat on for 30 seconds or so every two or three months to burn it off. Dumb homeowners like me do it when I need heat, smelling up the house with dust, cat hair, and whatever else floats in the air. It’s also a very scary time, as a smouldering heating coil could quickly turn into a flaming heating coil, given enough fuel (dust, cat hair, etc.), so it’s always good to supervise the first firing of the season — not that there’s a lot you can do when the whole damned air conditioning system is up on the roof, and me without a ladder. That part is OK, as I’m not allowed on my roof anyway — condo association rules.

He was able to separate those two functions, but with a cautionary note. The heat, if selected from the thermostat, would always be on, fan or not. Of course, this is one of the the quickest and most effective ways to start a house fire, or at the very least, create a really serious electric bill. Using an indelible marking pen, I wrote a note on the thermostat housing to remind myself that the heating coils are energized whenever the heater is selected. Fan or not, no matter what the thermostat setting.

Meanwhile, it’s pretty clear that a new air conditioner is in my future. Estimates on that run somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000, including the cost of renting a crane (my air conditioning unit is completely roof-mounted, and impossible to manhandle up/down a ladder — not unless you’re Clark Kent’s alter ego). Hopefully the actions of the last few days and whatever happens this Saturday will give me time to save my pennies and prepare to buy a new one next winter or spring, when it isn’t 95 degrees outside (that’s when prices are lower). So much for my emergency fund. But isn’t that why one has an emergency fund?

It just goes to show you about how things work with the trades here in South Florida. When you really, really need them, they’re not available. Once they become available, they never leave, because they never seem to finish the job — there’s always a new problem that wasn’t resolved during a previous visit. In this case, however, it really didn’t seem to be Son of Air Conditioner Guy’s fault. When he left each time, the air conditioner was running well, putting out gobs of cold air, and the presumption was that it would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I think my air conditioner is possessed.

Speaking of air conditioners and Florida, I remember a story my mother told me about her negotiations with the contractor who built the house I grew up in, in Oakland Park, Florida. She asked him about air conditioning. He was a Florida cracker (and up-and-coming politician) who had no use for such newfangled technology (this was 1959, after all), and advised that the prevailing breeze off the ocean (we were about two miles from the water) was sufficient to keep things comfortably cool year-round. The lying rat bastard. I also remember that my mother and new stepfather (a wonderful man, by the way) had an air conditioner for their bedroom before our second summer in Florida began. We didn’t get central air until the year I graduated from high school, in 1971. Prior to that, to get a modicum of comfort, I even had to buy my own fan. No sympathy from the parental units. After all, they had their own air conditioner in their bedroom! Along with keeping cool(er), the fan also kept the mosquitoes away, which ended the lovely buzzing in the ears at 3AM.

This adventure makes one think long and hard about living in a colder climate. You can always bundle up against the cold, but how do you defend yourself from the heat after you have stripped to the buff, or nearly so, and are still miserable? Homes in the Rust Belt (Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.) are quite reasonable, except for one big problem — they are in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh (etc.).

For now, the air conditioner is pumping out great gouts of cold air, and I am a happy man. I made it through the winter of 2012/2013 without needing to use the heat even once, which was a good thing. Stay tuned…