Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dry Heat

It's very hot in Colorado. The thermostat reaches up into the 100s daily. And Denver is practically surrounded by forest fires. Relatives in Germany see the forest fires on the German news and ask if we are okay. Not really, I want to say. But my discomfort seems irrelevant to burning forests and homes, so I keep my mouth shut.

But my typing fingers have a mind of their own: I feel parched by this heat; I feel angered by the hot, drying wind. I want cool air. I want it IN our house, at a minimum. There's no AC. Maybe my frustration is the result of growing up in a place where the humidity spends the summer at 75% instead of 4%? Surely, it is easier to tolerate these high temperatures when the humidity is low (like in Colorado). That's what they say. Dry heat. It's easier.

"Yes, it's 100 degrees, but I'm not sweating!"
"I rode my bike and the air movement was like a hair dryer!"

There is very little shade in our newly built neighborhood of wooden houses. I dislike this quality immensely. The difference between in-the-shade and and in-the-sun can be the difference of 10 degrees in Colorado. It was one of the last barriers to buying a home: I wanted a shady neighborhood, Fritz wanted sun and light. I liked big, mature trees. Fritz liked the clumps of blowing prairie grasses.

I hadn't realized how far apart our ideal level of comfort was when it came to temperature. I am still learning, even on our eighth anniversary.

I find Fritz's love of the sun almost inconceivable. I'm in denial. I make excuses for him: He only likes the sun because he spends all day in an artificially lit office. He only likes the heat because he spends all day in the air conditioning. If he really understood how freaking hot it is in our house, and on the deck, and in the yard, and in the afternoon, he would insist on fixing the lack of NON-passive cooling options. I debate using my trump card and breaking down and installing air conditioning. Or, what I would really love, installing a whole house evaporative cooler. Evaporative coolers, you know, actually work in dry heat. They make it cool. They're cheap to operate. And they make the air moist as well as cool. Oh, how I miss the moisture sometimes. Water! Is that an anniversary gift? Of course, I could force the issue. But you learn, in marriage, pick your battles. Is this it? Or can you convince your husband that your battle IS ACTUALLY his battle? I remember these lines from Shel Silverstein's poem about doing the dishes in A Light in the Attic:

If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won't let you
Dry the dishes anymore.

Of course, nobody needs to dry dishes in Colorado, because they dry themselves. But the bigger idea:

Should I intentionally make the house hotter? Maybe just our bedroom? Would that convince Fritz?

Let's back up. Try other options. Focus, Ann, focus. I make lists to feel more in control.

Passive / Energy efficient cooling:

  • Ceiling Fans. Check.
  • Whole house fan that both vents hot attic and draws in cooler evening breezes. Check.
  • Solar shades on the windows. Check.
  • Use solid, dense surfaces as 'heat sinks' – a better phrase would be 'temperature sinks' – to radiate cooler temperatures during the hottest hours. Check.
  • Portable evaporative cooler, a fraction of the cost of a whole house version. Check.

Behavioral Modification:

  • Sprinkler/water the grass while running the whole house fan in the evening to take advantage of evaporative cooling. Check.
  • I set ice on the soapstone counters to make a 'temperature sink' in the kitchen. Check.
  • Descend to the basement during the worst hours. Check.
  • Go to the pool during the worst hours. Check.
  • Or there's always the car, the stores, the movies... Check.
  • Be sure to run the whole house fan during the coolest hours, 4am - 6am. (I wake up to do this.) Check.
  • Use evaporative cooler to help cool off the west bedroom at bedtime. Check.
  • Refill portable evaporative cooler at 1am, because it is still hot. Check.

Mental Gymnastics:

  • Have you heard the arguments that we have become heat wimps? I take those arguments seriously. Be a trooper! I tell myself.
  • Europeans say that AC is bad for your health. Yes! It would give us all nasty summer colds! I tell myself.
  • The heat only last for a few weeks each summer. But it costs thousands of dollars to combat with AC! I tell myself. This IS true. It's not mind games!
  • The heat coincides poorly with my cycle. It's only PMS! I'd feel much better if the heat wave was happening 2 weeks from now, I tell myself.
  • The heat inspires me to hit 'publish' on this blog. Look at how much I've posted in the last 5 days!

At 3 pm today, clouds begin to hang over the mountains on the western horizon. Good, I think. Perhaps they will bring rain. At least they will bring cloud cover. 

By 5pm, we can see striking lightning. We can see the smoke rising off the Flatirons south of Boulder. It is another fire. It is frightening. Parents of colleagues must evacuate their home. 

By 7pm, we can smell the smoke.

Homes. I also liked the cool, hard bricks of the older neighborhoods. Once upon a time, Denver allowed only brick exteriors on the first level of the houses. Fritz shivered at the brick. "It looks so cold," he said. We rented one of these brick houses. They do not conserve energy. At all. In the winter, the double brick wall means that the temperature of the wall itself is barely above freezing inside the house. The wall radiates coldness. An unintentional 'temperature sink.' But using the brick – it was a building code – meant to protect against fires. 

For the first time, I look at the eco-sensitive prairie grass yards in our neighborhood a little differently. I ask myself how easily they would burn. I imagine myself standing in the nearest stream with the boys and gasping for air like Laura Ingalls while a prairie fire burns around us. How quickly would our tightly packed wooden New Urbanist neighborhood burn? Would our house go up first, sans AC? Like a hot powder keg waiting to explode? How would I know the prairie grasses were burning with the smell of smoke already in the air?

I shiver thinking about the wooden structure, the 4% humidity, and the rain-less lightning flashes.

Best to go with an evaporative cooler, I decide. At least the house will be more moist and less like a powder keg. 

No, no. We can tough it out. Laura Ingalls survived; we will too.


Swistle said...

While I think it's possible to tough things out, and may even be good for character, I am not in favor of it unless I'm personally motivated to accomplish something by it. I can tough it out to save a considerable amount of money, but toughing it for the sake of toughing it isn't motivating to me.

It seems unbalanced, too, that one of the partners in a marriage would feel perfectly comfortable and the other would be suffering and building character. It's not that both of you are toughing it out: it's that he's fine, and you're toughing it out. If he'd gone with the house with mature trees for you, I could see you then going without a/c for him. But if he's got the hot house he wants, but he's not in it all day, it seems like the compromise is that you have the evaporative cooler to bring you to the level of comfort he's experiencing.

Ann Wyse said...

There is clearly not balance when it comes to the issue of temperature and comfort in our house. But when I think about the cost to remedy the situation - about $3K for a whole house air conditioner plus operating costs, the truth is... *I* can think of a lot of other things I'd like to spend $3K on.

Given this: do I do Fritz too much disservice by using him as my foil in this post?

Anonymous said...

Hang in there. It's almost over.

Katie said...

Hopefully today's cloud cover is cooling your house down. I've been wondering if you've moved everyone to the basement... ;)

Pregnantly Plump said...

My cousin lived in Las Vegas for a few years, and he said that the dry heat was way worse than our very humid heat. Your hair dryer comparison makes sense.
I was wondering if you guys were close to the fires. I hope it rains for you soon!
As for the cooling, I don't have much advice. It's in the 100s here, but I think all houses here have AC. Ours is set high, but it does come on a couple of times a day.

Suniverse said...

I've lived in both dry heat and wet, humid heat and I can safely say, I am a complete baby about both of them. I can't handle it anymore. I am too cranky. I don't even have the excuse of extreme age, I'm just mean when it's hot. It's like an affront to me.

It was over 100 here yesterday and will be in the mid to upper 90s today and tomorrow. I will be bitchy. And maybe stuffing ice cubes in my bra.

PS LOVE the Laura Ingalls Wilder imagery!

Anonymous said...

Ice cubes in the bra - that is like Maryrilyn Monroe putting her underwear in the fridge/freezer...
What is it that both our husbands love the heat, Ann? Did they live too long in Texas? The first summer I stayed at home with my firstborn, I hated the number 84 - this is how my husband let me set the AC (this was Austin!). And now, back in Germany, we rather drive south on the middle of the summer -just because my husband prefers the heat. And we all follow daddy...and my varicose veins get worse each summer.
I admire your ideas to cool the house - have you ever converted this work time into money? I wonder how hard you have to work until you reached 3K?

Ann Wyse said...

Interesting! I love these comparisons, even when I decide I'm woefully under compensated for my current work. So let's see:

At my current hourly rate, I would never reach 3K.
At the current babysitter hourly rate, 200 hours.
At the current Nanny hourly rate, 160 hours.
At the hourly billing rate for an architect of my experience, about 40 hours.
At the hourly *take-home* for an architect of my experience, about 100 hours.
At the pay rate of an English instructor (my-favorite-job-with-children-ever), about 120 hours.

I would guess I do no more than 1 hour per day into all this passive cooling stuff. It's 5 minutes here and there.