When I first moved into our house in Colorado, and discovered there was something on the roof that people called a Swamp Cooler, I was somewhat mystified. The three facts of being six thousand feet above sea level, a semi-arid climate and the description swamp cooler didn’t compute in any logical sense. However, there it was sitting on the roof, so it obviously had a purpose even though it wasn’t working at the time.

      I remembered this blog I had written some time ago, when I recently had to disconnect the swamp cooler and wrap it up for the winter. I didn’t have the blog site at the time so it was never published, but it still seems like a beacon of common sense in a world that is getting more and more complicated, so I decided to publish it this week.

      When I first encountered this anomaly on the roof, I decided to look up what it was and where it came from. I discovered it was also called an Evaporative Cooler, which sounds a little more socially acceptable than a swamp cooler, as well as being more accurate technologically. I still prefer Swamp Cooler.

      An earlier form of evaporative cooling, the Wind-catcher, was first used in Egypt and Persia thousands of years ago, in the form of wind shafts on the roofs of buildings. They caught the wind, passed it over subterranean water in a cistern, called a Ganat, and discharged the cooled air into the building.        

      More recently, the evaporative cooler has been the subject of numerous U.S. patents in the early 20th century and the use of the term swamp cooler may be due to the odour from algae produced by the early units. So much for my initial assumption that swamp coolers were in some way related to swamps, which are few and far between at six thousand feet.

      When I understood how this contraption worked in theory, and after I opened up the one on the roof, I was totally amazed by the simplicity of the design and the effectiveness of its operation.

      My impression was reinforced recently when the local power authority tried to get legislation passed banning the installation and use of swamp coolers. Compared to air conditioning they use almost no electricity and, unlike air conditioning, they humidify the air so you don’t get static electricity shocks off everything you touch. No wonder the power companies don’t like them.

      Basically, swamp coolers consist of box on your roof, or alongside your building, that contains a large drum intake fan driven by a small, low-power electric motor. The bottom of the box is a water reservoir fed by a valve-controlled supply from the house. A small electric pump in the reservoir raises the water up to the top of the box to what they call a spider – a plastic tube device that looks like a six-legged spider. The spider carries the water out to the top of the side doors of the box and the water then flows down through a straw-like mesh built into each of the four doors. The water ends up back in the reservoir at the bottom to be recycled. The drum fan pulls the outside air through the wet mesh and blows it down into the house. It cools as well as most air conditioners, humidifies the air and costs virtually nothing to operate. It also makes way less noise than an air conditioner.

      My reaction was to celebrate this discovery, and begin to look for more simple designs that work, but that have been abandoned in favour of more advanced technologies – in the case of the swamp cooler, technologies that break down more often, cost a fortune to operate, and have side effects (static electricity) that are damned annoying and potentially dangerous. Not to mention, again in the case of air conditioners, their contribution to air pollution – have you ever stood close to the outside of an air-conditioning unit and realized just how much heat they generate? I wonder what contribution to climate warming is attributable to air conditioning units, apart from their excessive use of electricity.

      So-called progress can be a blessing but, often times, its overall contribution is negative. So, maybe, it’s time to look for the best solutions to our problems, not just the latest ones.

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