Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Thirsty swamp boxes to vanish from roofs?

Newest AC overtaking 40-gallon-a-day gulpers

Arturo Fontes, 19, has plenty of tools to repair coolers for low-income residents as part of his training with the Fred G. Acosta Job Corps Center.

Arturo Fontes, 19, has plenty of tools to repair coolers for low-income residents as part of his training with the Fred G. Acosta Job Corps Center.

For many southern Arizonans, it’s a springtime ritual.

They climb on the roof, open the swamp cooler, scrape away at a year’s worth of scale and rust and shove in a new set of shredded-aspen pads.

After an hour or two of hard work, they get the payoff: a cool, humid home where electric bills rounded to the nearest dollar have fewer digits than the outside temperature.

Swamp coolers, which use evaporation to remove heat from desert air, have been a staple of cooling in the Southwest for almost a century. But the era when we use water for cooling in the desert might be slowly coming to a close.

Governments are beginning to consider bans, and modern insulation and high-efficiency air conditioning are turning builders and homeowners away from swamp coolers. Then there’s the 40-plus gallons of water they use every day.

“I think water is becoming so important that we are going to have to take drastic measures, and things like swamp coolers and outdoor misters might have to be part of that,” said builder John Wesley Miller, who hasn’t put a swamp cooler in a Tucson home in a decade and is helping develop a new set of Pima County water conservation laws.

Most swamp cooler owners make the choice because of cost, said Frank W. Naughton, president of Naughton’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling, a local swamp cooler dealer for more than 50 years.

A swamp cooler for a 1,200-square-foot home would run you a minimum of $1,200, including installation, at Naughton’s. Air conditioning for the same home would cost about $2,500 minimum, Naughton said.

At Arizona Maintenance, which has been selling swamp coolers here for more than 60 years, residential cooler costs range from about $700 to about $900 installed, said general manager Mike Boudreaux.

But over time, the biggest saving is from lower power bills.

A 2003 report from the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that cooling a Phoenix home with a swamp cooler takes about one-tenth as much electricity as air conditioning.

That’s a key reason Tucsonan John Scheers and his wife, Armida, had a new swamp cooler installed yesterday in their 1,200-square-foot home near Grant Road and Campbell Avenue.

“I don’t have any lust for the air conditioning. I find (the swamp cooler) considerably less expensive. The electric bill shows the difference,” said Scheers, a 73-year-old retired cab driver and security worker whose power bill is usually under $50 per month and has never topped $100.

Even with higher water bills factored in, the overall annual cost of evaporative coolers in Phoenix is $434 less than air conditioners, the DOE report said.

But those savings might be going by the wayside because high-efficiency heat pumps and modern insulation and windows are leveling the playing field, said Miller, builder of Armory Park del Sol, a Tucson neighborhood known for its energy-efficient homes.

“I think it’s reached a point where it’s a good trade-off. Our houses don’t cost as much to cool as swamp-cooler houses,” he said.

Bans considered

Southern Arizona governments are beginning to look at swamp coolers as a place to cut water use.

The DOE report estimated it takes about 3,000 gallons of water annually to produce electricity needed to air-condition a Phoenix home. A swamp cooler in a comparable home uses about 9,000 gallons, including what is needed to produce the electricity to run it, the report said.

Last year, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked supervisors to consider a county ban on swamp coolers in new construction. The proposal, aimed at less than 5 percent of new homes built countywide with swamp coolers only, was shot down in January by the advisory Pima County Water Conservation Citizens Task Force.

The panel, which later this year will recommend ordinance and code changes for unincorporated Pima County, rejected the proposal because other conservation methods would save more water and because swamp coolers seem to be on the way out anyway, said Kathleen Chavez, who coordinates water policy for Huckelberry’s office.

To help cut water use in the delicate San Pedro Watershed, Cochise County urges developers to use air conditioning in new homes. The Board of Supervisors there has not yet moved toward a swamp-cooler ban in new construction, said Judy Anderson, director of the Cochise County Planning Department.

“It’s been a topic of discussion, but it’s never been before the board as a proposal,” she said.

Miller thinks such laws are a waste of time because most builders and homeowners are turning to air conditioning on their own.

Not dead yet

Despite the hints that swamp coolers are on the way out, don’t sound the death knell yet, Boudreaux said.

It’s true that people are buying new homes with air conditioning, but some then head over to Arizona Maintenance for swamp coolers.

“They come all the time. They build these new homes, and they don’t have swamp coolers because the builders don’t offer them. They want the dual cooling,” he said.

Naughton concedes that the market for swamp coolers is shrinking. But he figures that when his toddler son takes over the family business, he will still have swamp cooler customers.

“You’re not going to wake up any time soon and say, ‘Nobody’s going to buy swamp coolers anymore.’”



• Water-saving coolers: www.sahra.arizona.edu/programs/ water_cons/home/cooler.htm

• “TUSD testing bus with evap cooling,” by Larry Copenhaver, Feb. 21, 2006


Online poll: Swamp coolers may be on the way out, but many of us remain loyal. What do you like best about coolers?
The smell when you turn it on at the beginning of summer.: 8%
It's easy to fix.: 3%
Annual maintenance has become a ritual I look forward to.: 0%
It's cheap, and it works - for most of the summer.: 36%
I can keep the house more open to enjoy Tucson's summer nights.: 16%
Baby, once you get refrigeration, you never go back.: 35%
233 users voted

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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