Air conditioners always break at the perfect time

The central air conditioner went out at my friend's home last week on one of the hottest nights of this spring so far.

Before they went to bed, he and his wife turned on the fan of the unit to keep the air flowing, placed a box fan in the bedroom window to pull outside air into the stifling room, set another box fan on a chair at the foot of the bed and turned the ceiling fan on to push air down on them.

Despite all that, it was 85 degrees, he said, and the roar from those blades spinning at high speed made their room sound like an airport.

Hasn't that happened to all of us? At our house, we've had to go the fan route several times over the years, and even when everything is working properly, we keep two fans going at night for white noise in addition to an artificial breeze.

Why do the air conditioners in our homes and cars never play out during winter, when they're not missed? They usually die as soon as a heat wave hits.

The bad thing about using fans as a temporary measure is that they don't actually cool a room. They just push air around.

I'm no engineer, but I've read that a fan running in a closed room will actually raise the ambient temperature a bit because of the heat from the electric motor and the friction of blades slamming the air.

We do feel a cooling effect from room fans, of course, when they bring in fresh air from outside. What really cools us down, though, is when the forced air hits our bodies, which are perspiring from the heat.

The electrical wind helps evaporate the sweat, making us feel more comfortable.

That's why perspiring is such a great bodily function, no matter how much bad press it gets from the deodorant industry. We use antiperspirant to block our sweat glands, but we have those glands under our arms and everywhere else so that, when our perspiration evaporates, it cools the body like a car's radiator.

(Dogs have few such glands, so they have to sit around and pant on a hot day to expel the heat.)

We try to wipe away the sweat so as not to appear too hot, but that also defeats perspiration's function. If we were smart, we would risk unsightliness and let the water droplets stay in place to do their job.

Unlike mere fans, air conditioners do cool us, of course, and one way they do that is to remove the moisture from the room.

Especially here in the South, we've grown accustomed to our conditioned air. It's what made so many people move down from the North.

Nowadays, anytime I camp for the night, I always make sure that in addition to a light switch and a flush toilet, there's a thermostat nearby.

INTERSTATE AIR: It was a truly hot, sweltering day recently when we took some of the grandchildren to the zoo in Columbia. We drove across the river, at which point one of us adults told the kids that we had also crossed the state line.

Granddaughter Karson, 11, never at a loss for words, said: "I like South Carolina, but they have different rules."

Other young voices piped up in the minivan, so we never found out about those rules.

Perhaps it's just as well.

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