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As you may have noticed, it has been a tad bit warm this year. In fact it has been one of the warmest Arizona summers ever recorded. It has also been a record breaker when it comes to number of days over 100 and 110 degrees. So, before air conditioning, before one phone call to AIRzona Comfort Solutions could transform your home into an all season oasis, how did people in Arizona beat the heat?

Architecture was a key part of surviving Arizona summers before the advent of air conditioning. Thick adobe and stone walls provide a respite of sorts for Native Americans, for Spanish colonists, Mexican, and then American transplants that emulated the locals. In the late 19th century, some people with a bit of money began constructing homes that sat above the ground or over a cellar to facilitate air flow. Often homes had a central hall with a door at each end to catch a cross breeze. Tall windows that would be opened on the shaded side of the house aided the flow through ventilation. Granted this might only bring the temperature down to 100 degrees in the house but that was a respite from a 110 or 115 degree day.

High ceilings to allow all of the hot air to travel to the top of the house, and attic ventilation, a second story, or second story with cupola served as a chimney to funnel the heat. Transom windows above doors were another element often incorporated into building designs. With the advent of electricity, ceiling fans magnified the affect, but still many people slept outside on hot summer evenings. Wet sheets were hung in front of windows to create an evaporative cooling affect, which worked well in the low humidity of the desert.

Guests at the Ford Hotel in Phoenix slept on the balcony while young men peddled to power overhead fans. In the entry for the travel journal of Edsel Ford, son of automotive tycoon Henry Ford, dated Friday, July 16, 1915, he noted, “Stayed around town (Kingman) all day until 4:30 on account of heat. Arrived at Needles, California 8:30 P.M. Slept on porch of hotel as heat very oppressive.”

In the 1930s innovative home owners took the idea of using evaporative cooling to a new level. Indirect coolers were devised that allowed air to pass over water-cooled coils using a fan. Some chose a direct cooler method by building a unit that consisted of a wooden frame covered in burlap that could be fitted into a window. before installation the burlap would be soaked in water. A fan placed in front would pull air through the screen. Either device worked relatively well as long as the relative humidity remained low.

In trying times, such as the entire year 2020, there is a tendency to look back in time to what is perceived as simpler times. This is the proverbial good old days. As we look back over a blistering summer, and consider surviving it in the pre air conditioning, pre AIRzona Comfort Solutions era, I prefer to think of this as the best of times.

Written by Jim Hinckley of Jim Hinckley’s America


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