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August 15, 2003

Justifiable glee
Posted by Teresa at 09:10 PM *

Some of the Iraqis who’ve been suffering daily highs in excess of 120 F., and whose access to electrical power is still nowhere near prewar levels, have been gloating over the blackout in the United States. They’ve also been offering suggestions for beating the heat.

I hereby acknowledge that we and they both have it coming. Furthermore, most of their suggestions are pretty good. They’re what my grandparents’ generation did in Central Arizona, before real-estate developers redefined “house” as an uninsulated, hermetically sealed living space that’s permanently attached to an air conditioner.

Comments on Justifiable glee:
#1 ::: Rich ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 10:25 PM:

Hooray for number 4! ("Get a generator," advocated by fellow whose name is just THAT CLOSE to Abdul Abulbul Amir.) I so love having a kitchen which does not smell of corruption emanating from the refrigerator.

(We were out for eight sweaty hours.)

#2 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2003, 10:52 PM:

I'm fond of #2 myself.

Oh, and Hi Teresa - Firts time commenting, but I love yer stuff.

Out for 14 hours, here on Long Island.

#3 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2003, 11:35 AM:

Teresa, I can't help being interested in where your family's central Arizona roots may have been. Here in Prescott, we avoid the nearly Iraqi-level highs (and lows) they have in Phoenix, and for the past two days we've been pounded by monsoon rains, winds, thunder, etc. This California girl still thinks of lightning as something exotic (until it gets so close I flinch).

#4 ::: Michael Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2003, 01:08 PM:

Nitpick: Teresa, are you sure you meant 'uninsulated'?

#5 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2003, 05:54 PM:

She did. Most houses hereabouts (Tucson—also not Phoenix, but neither as cool as Prescott) have no insulation. Ours has a picture window the length of the the house, looking north to the local mountains, so insulation is almost pointless, but few bulders bother with it in any case.

A lot of unsealed doors and windows, too.


#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2003, 04:20 PM:

Unsealed doors and windows, no insulation (especially in the roof), and in some cases interior rooms with no windows at all. The family of one of my childhood friends moved into a townhouse (= row house) that had some windowless interior rooms. I remember thinking, "If the power goes out, you could die here."

Phoenix outlawed building in adobe -- I suspect, because you don't need a builder to put up a satisfactory adobe house. Also, I suspect, because it's kind of a Brown Person thing to do. Later on, when Santa Fe Style came in, the builders put up fake adobe houses that were thin stucco over the same damned uninsulated construction they used for everything else. For a while, they also got into New England-style saltboxes, which was just insane -- gives you an attic space you can't use nine months out of the year, and provides your house with an even bigger heat-absorbing surface.

Faren, my people came into the Valley with the earliest waves of Mormon settlement. As it was explained to me when I was a child, when Brigham Young decided to send a colonizing party to Central Arizona, he specified that it should be made up of big families that didn't have much money. That way, no matter how awful it was, they wouldn't have the means to go back home again.

The house that's Family Central is in the middle of Mesa, just a few blocks from the Town Hall, the old police station, and the public library.

Most houses in that neighborhoods sit in the middle of dished yards, and have maintained their irrigation rights. Every so often the irrigation water comes on, flooding the yard six or eight inches deep. This usually happens at night. The water soaks down into the soil, instead of dampening the top 1/8" and then evaporating, as happens when you use a sprinkler. The sensible ones have large deciduous trees in the yard, to keep the house shaded during the summer.

Some of them have flat roofs, or deep sleeping porches along the sides. The best of these porches were made of heavy masonry, and were deep and dark and cool. If you slept on the roof or had an unscreened porch, you'd slather yourself with citronella to keep off the bugs. If the weather was really bad, you could dampen your sheets and sleep under that.

Even a tin-roofed screened sleeping porch can be a fine thing. Lying in the dark in a tin-roofed screened porch during a rainstorm, watching the lightning flash, listening to the rain on the roof and the rolling thunder, and smelling the desert getting wet outside (an amazing smell; all those gummy aromatic leaves open up when the rain hits them), is one of the greatest pleasures in life.

My immediate family just had a plain modern ranch-style house, but before we got AC, us kids would sometimes sleep on the cool polished-concrete livingroom floor with just a sheet over us. We had a poor opinion of the wall-to-wall carpeting that eventually superseded it, since it was less cool to sleep on, and you couldn't roller-skate on it.

But back to the houses of my grandmother's day. Many of them had high-standing foundations that got the house proper up off the ground a ways. This not only accommodated the irrigation, but was cooler, since the desert is hottest right at ground level, and is measurably cooler a few inches in either direction.

Some of the houses actually were built of adobe, carefully stuccoed-over to preserve their integrity and to look less adobe-like. Those houses had to have high solid foundations, since adobe and irrigation don't mix.

Granny told me that during the heat of the summer, people would get up very early and get as much work done as they could during the cooler hours of the morning. During the worst of the afternoon, the businesses would shut down and everyone would retire to the coolest place they could find to have a nap. In the evening, when things cooled down again, the businesses would reopen, and would stay open until quite late at night.

These days you don't see businesses shutting down for the afternoon siesta, but Arizona still has no use for Daylight Savings Time.

I remember that some of the bigger warehouse-type buildings had these metal wind-grabbing, um, things on their roofs, that had a complex shape I can't properly describe. From some angles, in silhouette, they were shaped a little like an ampersand. These caught the wind and forced it down into the building below.

After electricity became generally available but before the advent of AC, we had what we called coolers. Since then I've also heard them called airpad coolers or swamp boxes, but we just called them coolers.

Basically, a cooler is a metal box with four louvered sides. It sits on top of your roof, and is hooked up to the water system. Fastened to the inside of each louvered side is a big fibrous pad made out of something-or-other, heck if I know what. These pads are dampened by having a trickle of water constantly running through them. A motor sucks air in through the pads, then pumps it into the house. If the humidity's low enough, there's enough evaporation to cool the air as it passes through the pads.

The excess trickle of water goes out a hose at ground level, where children are forbidden to drink it but do so anyway. Right under the cooler runoff hose is the very best place to plant mint.

Coolers only work if you leave all your windows open a crack, so any time you spotted a dust storm coming, you'd let out a yell and everyone would go running around to close all the windows before it hit.

The monsoon season had its attractive aspects -- dust storms, brief rains, wild lightning -- but it meant the overall humidity went up and the coolers stopped working. That was when you'd wind up sleeping on the floor. I understand all those damnfool immigrants and snowbirds in Phoenix who just have to have their damnfool grass lawns and criminally damnfool water features have raised the general humidity to the point where coolers don't work any more. That's a shame. It was a great cheap ingenious piece of technology.

It's been a long time since I've seen people hanging canvas waterbags off the front bumpers of their cars. That was another clever trick. When the car was moving, you'd get enough surface evaporation to keep the water cool. Mexican clay water jars, ollas, use the same trick: the clay's porous, and the slight surface evaporation cools the water in the jar.

Now it's all compressors and freon, and half the people living there have forgotten (if they ever knew it) that they're living in the middle of a desert. If the Southwest's power grid ever goes down the way the Northeast's just did, the consequences could be just plain ugly.

#7 ::: LNHammer ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2003, 11:47 AM:

Phoenix outlawed building in adobe

Urfgh! Yet another reason to dislike the place.

Our last place was an old adobe house—foot-thick walls of dried mud-brick. Even with leaky windows, it stayed cool inside for a good part of the summer, except in the ex-porch walled in with plywood. The papers said it was built in '48, but given the surrounding brick houses were built then and it was clear neighbors' plots had been carved off that one, we suspected that's the date expansion, at the same time as subdivision. Annoying landlords, but a nice (if snug) place.

First monsoon: the petrichor of creosote.


#8 ::: Barb ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2003, 12:17 AM:

I don't believe Phoenix has anti-adobe laws, at least that is what my ex-blocklayer son says. However, adobe is expensive to build initially unless you want to make your own adobe blocks. Then they are expensive to have built, because those very heavy blocks result in premium masonry labor charges. These facts, however, do not deter many people, and the valiant few go ahead and build the lovely homes. I lived in a ranch house with 18-inch adobe walls from time to time in my life--it was my grandparents' home--and I can tell you that they are marvelously insulated walls both summer and winter. We even had a resident colony of bats who inhabited the window casings in my room. They knew where the cool spaces were.

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