Air conditioning is once again a very hot topic


The call to begin the domestic air conditioning season was sounded the other night shortly after the temperature hit an unseasonably high 90 degrees. As the 8-year-old walked into his hot bedroom, he said the time had come for Dad to get off his duff and put the air conditioner in the window.

Knowing the primal rule of putting kids to bed -- promise them anything just to get the lights out -- I promised to get cracking on cooling down the house. For me it is never too early to think about air conditioning. Besides, I sympathized with the kid. He has my pores. When the temperature rises above 80 we both sweat like a couple of field horses.

This makes for a certain tension in the household because the kid's mother and older brother do not sweat. During nights that the 8-year-old and I are tossing about and gasping for air, the other two members of the household are snuggled under the sheets, sleeping soundly. In the middle of these restless nights I sometimes turn on the air conditioner. This change in climate satisfies those of us with active pores, but other members of the household say it makes them cold.

Air conditioning has become controversial. The price of Freon, the gas that air conditioners use to magically transform horrible hot air into pleasant breezes, is skyrocketing. Rules restrict supplies of these cooling gases to workers trained to recycle the gas and keep it from attacking the Earth's ozone layer. Moreover, there is talk in Washington of a new energy tax, an additional cost the utility industry seems happy to pass straight to us kilowatt-consuming customers. It may be politically incorrect, but I believe in paying almost any price for air conditioning. Garnish my wages if you must. Just put me in front of the vent.

Our rowhouse has two air conditioning systems. The bottom floors are cooled by a central air conditioning unit. The top floor, where the kids sleep, is cooled by a window air conditioner and a fan. This is probably highly inefficient, but it is the way the house came when we moved in, back when we kept books, not kids, on the top floor.

Home-improvement books advise that to get your central air conditioning system ready for action you should wash the dirt off the compressor coils with a garden hose. The books also suggest reading the owner's manual, then oiling all the approved spots with 30W motor oil.

My compressor is on the roof of my house, four flights up. It can't be reached by the hose. The owner's manual is in hiding. A few years ago, a guy from an air conditioning service gave the unit a quick checkup. But usually I get my central system ready for the season by crossing my fingers and pleading with the gods of compressors to "Please! Please! Please! Work your cooling magic."

Getting the window unit ready for duty in the kids' bedroom requires heavy lifting and blocks of wood. Here is a tip on how to move a heavy air conditioner: Get a gorilla or some other muscle-bound beast.

Here is a tip on how to keep your expensive air conditioner from crushing your even more expensive vinyl window frame: Put blocks of wood under the air conditioner both on the outside sill and between the tracks on the bottom of the window frame. The idea is to keep the unit level and evenly distribute the weight. This is not always easy. My quest for a perfectly balanced window air conditioner has lasted some three years.

Due to a severe shortage of muscle-bound beasts in our house, I usually function as the gorilla. As I hold the increasingly heavy air conditioner steady, my wife lowers the top sash of the window down on the top of the air conditioner frame.

Another tip: To keep a window air conditioner from falling out the window, wedge some blocks of wood between the sash and the window frame. The principle is simple: If the sash can't open, the air conditioner can't fall out.

The final step is attempting to seal the area between the air conditioner and the window frame. I unfolded the accordion vents attached to the air conditioner's frame. In theory, these vinyl vents are supposed to easily slide to the window frame, snugly blocking the hot outside air and pesky bugs. In reality, the gaps between the vents and the window frame are so big that squadrons of mosquitoes fly through them, until the gaps are sealed with duct tape.

Once the air conditioner is in the window and I am reasonably sure it won't bail out, I can't wait to switch it on. Even when the air outside is more pleasant than the air inside, it's good to know that when I hit the "cold" button, my frigid friend will deliver.

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