Summertime Sadness Slain

For the last few weeks, we’ve been going through a bit of drama in our little treehouse. It’s minuscule in the scheme of things, but Brandon and I are both amazed at how far word has traveled, how many friends and colleagues have approached with expressions of care and concern, asking in hushed tones, “Is it true your air conditioner died?”

I get it. Having your AC die in the middle of summer is something that strikes terror into the hearts of every modern Southerner. And rightfully so. We are all keenly aware of our own vulnerability, the horrible knowledge that we could someday find ourselves in this unenviable predicament, caught between the relentless sweltering heat and humidity and the prospect of replacing an entire HVAC unit, which could end up being close to a five-figure expense.

fire leopard

Back when I bought my condo, the inspector warned me that its HVAC system was original to the building, i.e., 26 years old. That sounded fine to me. I mean, whenever I meet someone who’s 26, I immediately think, “Whippersnapper!” Unlike a condenser unit, a human being isn’t made of inorganic matter that will last for thousands of years in a landfill. In my mind, for a piece of fine-tuned, well-manufactured mechanical equipment, 26 years should be the human equivalent of like 8, and I shouldn’t have to worry about replacing that sucker in my lifetime.

My thought process on this wasn’t quite in line with the inspector or the AC service guy who came that first summer to give it a check-up. They both advised me to start saving up my money, because this thing was a dinosaur that could sputter out any day, and then the entire system would need to be replaced and it would not be cheap.

That was five years ago, meaning our system is now 31 years old. This little engine-that-could has kept on going while we watched neighbor after neighbor succumb and be forced to install new units. This year we had a mild spring and got by without running the AC till June 1, a personal record. But we noticed it wasn’t feeling quite cool enough and decided to get it serviced and plan to bite the bullet and replace the whole thing next spring, allowing plenty of time for research and financial preparation so that we could make a smart purchase, not one under the extreme duress of summer.

We so very neatly laid those plans and started the information-gathering process about five weeks ago. Turns out, it takes longer than you might think to schedule time to meet with 2-3 different HVAC companies, get them to come out and inspect everything, advise on the optimal replacement system, receive written quotes, and get all your questions answered.

In the meantime, it would seem that the magical hamsters–who live inside the walls and power our AC with the energy they generate by running in their tiny exercise wheels–heard our discussions, took offense, and started slacking off on the job. Two weekends ago, we noticed the air conditioner was running nonstop but the temperature remained a balmy 81. Yesterday, it wouldn’t get below 85 and the humidity was no different than the outside air. It was time to accept the fact that, even though we could hear it running and feel some semblance of air coming from the vents, our AC was no longer living a full, productive life and had entered into a painful, end-of-life, semi-vegetative stage.

Brandon is an engineer, and he understands how things work. If you were to ask him about this whole ordeal, he’d give you a lot more technical details than I’m able to provide, probably without making a single reference to a magical hamster. As for me, I am blissfully unaware of how anything works, with the possible exception of a sentence or a final clearance sale. In the last couple weeks of this slow death-of-AC process, he’s pulled panels off the ceiling and defrosted strange metal structures (which I presume house all those hamster wheels), he’s completely taken apart the condenser unit outside, said things about air exchanges, fan motors overheating, hydronic coil units freezing, and faulty capacitors. Pretty much the only thing he’s said that I fully understood was on Friday night, when he said, “The fan isn’t moving. I’m gonna go poke it with a stick and see if I can get it to turn.” Like any dead body, sadly, it did not respond to stick-poking. Brandon made the difficult but necessary choice to shut off the breaker.

I’ve been confronted with plenty of dark news in my life, and in those moments I try to remember Bridge to Terabithia and think to myself, “Nothing crushes us!” That worked during my hip replacement, job furlough, copperhead bite, emergency appendectomy, and cancer treatment. I tried to put on a brave face and stay upbeat, but surviving a South Carolina summer without air conditioning? That sounds like something that would crush me pretty soundly.

By yesterday afternoon, with all the ceiling fans and auxiliary fans we could muster running, with the windows open to let in air but as much sunlight blocked out as possible by blinds and curtains, it was 85 degrees and a thousand percent humidity in the house. Brandon spent hours on the phone talking things over with various AC parts wholesalers and with the HVAC company to which we have now pledged both our fealty and a small fortune to replace everything (but that process will take a few more weeks, as it requires some HOA approvals, ordering of parts, and work schedule coordination).

Like any good wife, I’ve done my part to help, given my particular set of skills and expertise. While my brave, brilliant husband was out there in the heat dismantling our rusted, archaic condenser unit, formulating plans and strategies, handing himself the necessary tools, wiping his own brow, and fetching his own cool beverages to try to stay hydrated, I was inside battling the paper-wrinkling humidity and my own droplets of sweat so that I could bring you this visual representation of what our home feels like in July with a busted AC:

surface of the sun

Helpful, right?

Yesterday, the wonderful, workaholic owner of Premiere Heat and AC met Brandon at his warehouse to painstakingly sift through their collection of salvaged parts and loan us, free of charge, a new fan motor and fan blade to get us by until our new unit gets installed. But the borrowed fan motor’s bolts were not where they needed to be in order to attach to our existing unit. The new blade was a completely different shape than the old one and designed to suck air in rather than push air out (or maybe vice versa, I’m not sure. There’s a reason I never went into scientific writing.). Resuscitating our old unit with these patched-together borrowed bits and getting it to rally and give us a few more weeks of service seemed like a long shot to me.

“Maybe instead of you putting in all this effort for what may be a lost cause, we should just go buy a window unit to get us through the short term till we can replace the whole system,” I suggested. I knew it’d be terribly wasteful to drop probably $300 on window units we would have no use for by this time next month, but at that point I was hot, exhausted, and willing to set a pile of money in the middle of the blazing hot living room, let it spontaneously combust from the ambient temperature, and watch it burn to ash if it’d give us some relief.

“That’ll be our plan B,” Brandon said with confidence.

He was up bright and early this morning and, before even getting his coffee, he was out on the relatively cool screened porch with AC guts spread all around him, drilling holes in metal plates, sifting through washers, and bolting things together. Before I knew it, he had compiled this doohickey that, in retrospect, is the most beautiful piece of sculpture I have ever seen. He took it outside to the condenser unit and got it all fit together. We turned the air conditioner on and you know what? Sometimes it pays to tilt at those windmills because IT WORKS.


I did what I could to commemorate the importance of the moment, which was to play “We are the Champions” on my phone as he marched triumphantly upstairs, sweaty from battle. And to write down this entry so that all the ages will know of his epic victory. For this and a million other reasons, he will always be my hero.

mouse hero

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