A century of cool
By BILL DURYEA
The 2-ton handler dedicated to the sprawling master bedroom and bath suite seemed to be lagging behind the rest of the 6,400-square-foot house. The thermostats were all reading 77 degrees, but the bedroom felt hotter, the owner said.
It's hard to know whether this level of finickiness was envisioned by Dr. Willis Carrier when he invented air conditioning 100 years ago today. How could he have known that when he solved the ventilation and cooling problems of a printing plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., he would beget a modern convenience that made development of the Sun Belt possible and extended the lives of the heat-battered people who live there?
Tommy Castellano, a 28-year veteran of the business and a man who grew up in West Tampa with only open windows to get cool by, knows well that we live and die by degrees.
"I don't understand how people survived without it," Castellano said. But it's so pervasive now, he's even installed air conditioning for a chicken coop.
"Come to find out it was illegal cockfighting," he said. "Roosters wouldn't fight if it was hot."
People seem to have lost their tolerance for heat, too.
Castellano remembers the desperation in the voice of the man who called once at 2 a.m., demanding immediate service because his son was in a full-body cast. Castellano took that call only to find out the man didn't have a child at all, much less one sweating in head-to-toe plaster.
Every call now is an emergency on some level. This explains why Castellano's business cards list his home number for emergency service and why one of his 16 repairmen is on call 24 hours a day.
"Used to be people would wait three days for a repairman, no problem," he said. "Now, people don't have to wait anymore. There's about 800 companies in the phone book. We've gone out on calls and there's already another company there. People are dialing every name in the book, seeing who shows up first."
Steve Bingham's first call of the day was the house on Davis Islands. He knew the house well because Castellano had installed the 12-ton system (Carrier, by the way) in May.
Bingham, 38, has felt the wrath of a perspiring homeowner before. He has also seen the same person bow in gratitude as soon as he knocks on the door.
"We're like saviors. You can last the day without a shower," he said. "But on a day like today, you're not going to last without a/c."
Bingham pulled into the driveway in an old Nissan pickup whose air conditioning benefits from regular rest. He went straight for the whopping condensers at the side of the house. They were humming nicely.
He climbed the stairs to the master bedroom and the closet where the handlers are located. His handheld thermostat indicated they were cooling just fine. He checked the filter in the ceiling return.
"Kind of dirty," he said.
The problem, he diagnosed, was that the door to the bedroom (which has a wall of west-facing windows) had been left open.
He closed the door and after a few minutes watched the numbers on the thermostat fall.
"Everything's blowing and going," he said, heading to his next call. "Wasn't nothing to that."
In 1851, Dr. John Gorrie of Apalachicola patented his steam-powered ice machine. He had the idea to pump air over a bucket of ice to cool malaria patients at the U.S. Marine Hospital. Gorrie discovered that ice would form on the internal coils of the machine. His refrigeration ideas were ridiculed, and he died destitute in 1855.
Willis Haviland Carrier improved on that concept and developed a refrigeration unit that could reliably control humidity and temperature. On July 17, 1902, Carrier's plan was put to work at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographic and Publishing Co. in Brooklyn, N.Y. The age of air conditioning began.
In the 1910s and '20s, department stores and movie palaces were among the first public gathering places to take advantage of the technology.
Congress was air-conditioned in 1928; the White House in 1929.
After World War II, great numbers of ordinary Americans began to live in air-conditioned homes. In 1960, 12 percent of the nation's homes were air-conditioned; now, 80 percent are -- and 96 percent in the South.
A Frigidare room air conditioner was advertised for $331.90 in July 1952 in the St. Petersburg Times. Earlier this month, a Maytag room air conditioner was advertised for $118.
Automotive air conditioning was not an instant hit -- only 10,500 cars were sold with the option by 1953.
In 1997, Florida households spent $1.8-billion just on air conditioning, according to latest federal statistics -- an average of $338 per home year.
-- Times wires
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