Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Whole-House Fan Fan

Two weeks ago I wrote about how I failed to fix our broken air conditioner, but on the plus side, managed NOT to barbeque myself with giant exposed electrical cables while doing some amateur and ill-advised work in our electrical panel. All good news aside, I am sad to report that our air conditioner is still broken.

I’m not going to lie to you. It has been rough here. Tensions are high. Nerves are frayed. Wits are at their end.

It is hot inside our house.

We have been without A/C for almost three weeks now, and unfortunately for us, those three weeks have been some of the hottest on record here in Northern California. Other places might have been hot as well, but I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I am afraid to turn on the TV for fear that it will either heat up the house even more or explode.

All I can tell you is our family would not do well in an equatorial country. Last Friday it was 109 degrees outside. Through the miracle of sagging and worn R40 insulation, it was only 94 degrees in our bedroom when we went to bed. Actually, I should say when I went to bed. My wife was sleeping downstairs where it was only 89 degrees. On Saturday morning she threatened to leave me and the kids and go stay at a friend’s house. She had a crazy look in her eyes. “You guys can’t come. There’s only room for me.”

I guess information, whether good or bad, is always handy to have. I now know that our cohesive family bond snaps like a dry twig around day four or five above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and we move into an every-man-for-himself scenario. Live and learn.

There are only two things keeping us from going to a full-scale Lord of the Flies situation at this point: Cold showers and our whole-house fan.

The whole-house fan is really the eighth wonder of the modern world. There are two main types of whole-house fans to choose from. The first is the ducted variety. These have a fan or fans mounted inside your attic, with ductwork that draws the air from the interior of the home. They are very quiet. We do not have that kind.

The second kind is the ceiling-mounted variety. These are basically a slightly smaller version of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter mounted to the ceiling of your hallway. These are incredibly loud. This is the kind we have.

Deafening prop wash noise aside, all whole-house fans work in the same manner. “The fan creates a ‘positive pressure’ in the attic and a ‘negative pressure’ inside the house, consequently drawing the cooler outside air in through open windows.”

I have not been up in the attic to experience what “positive pressure” feels like, but in the case of our home at least, “negative pressure” can be described better as “a howling 40-knot gale.” Our fan has two speed settings, and if you turn it on high, you have to make sure the children are tethered down.

The loudness and ferocity of the unit might be attributable to its size. We have the biggest model available in the free world. We were smart when we bought it a few years ago, shopping for it in the whole-house fan off-season. Because we purchased it in November we saved at least seven dollars, and were able to parlay that savings into an upgrade. The salesman sold us on the big one, presumably to best fit the size of our house, or possibly because the conversation went something like this:
Me: “Ooh, I want the big one!”
Salesman: “OK. Sign here quick.”

The key point in the operational description of the fan is really the term “cooler outside air.” This is critical, and in the case of our current three-week-long survival experiment, “cooler outside air” didn’t usually manifest itself until around midnight. This put us into a strange schedule of going to bed around one A.M. and sleeping until nine o’clock in the morning. By the time we get moving in the sluggish torpor of our deliciously cool 84-degree house, we are eating breakfast around eleven A.M. and having lunch at four o’clock. Basically, we’re now Italian.

Still, we can’t blame the whole-house fan for the lack of cool outside air. It can only do what it can do with the air it’s provided. On the plus side, even if it is not cooling us off as much as we might want, it is still cooling us down. Also, it provides a nice white noise while we sleep. It’s a lot like sleeping up inside the mechanical housing on an industrial wind turbine.

I love our whole-house fan. Not only for its economical cooling during normal summer weather, but for the safety it has provided us recently. I can say without hesitation that we would be dead without it. It is impossible to say whether we would have perished from heat stroke or from the wrath of mom, but one of them was definitely going to happen.

Thankfully, there was a break in the weather the other day and my wife decided begrudgingly to stay at home with us, and refrain from killing anyone. The A/C is scheduled to be actually fixed today, so our fingers are all crossed. It might just be the heat, but after three weeks of disappointment, I remain skeptical.

One thing is for sure, when the A/C actually does get fixed, we are going to have to ease ourselves back into the cooler temperatures. At this point 85 degrees inside the house actually feels comfortable. We went out to dinner the other night and our teeth were chattering inside the restaurant. I took the boys to the grocery store yesterday and they almost went hypothermic in the refrigerated aisle.

Still, having A/C back is going to be safer for everyone. My wife informs me that there is another heat wave coming, and she looks ready to snap any minute.

If you don’t hear from me next week, send someone to check on us.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. Wow, that's some water damage. Though it's great that you're moving forward, despite all that happened. Getting everything restored will not just lead to a more efficient HVAC system, but it's also a chance to do some renovations around the house, as well. Take care!

  2. Thank you Shelley, for your concern about our apparently unknown-to-us water damage problems. I look forward to completing all your aforementioned renovation projects, restoring everything to peak efficiency, and just generally moving forward, just as soon as I figure out what the hell you're talking about.
    Take care!