Hurricane Survival Kit: Portable Air Conditioning

Truck cab air conditioner

Truck cab air conditioner

Ever since I spent two days sweltering through Hurricane Ivan, I have been convinced that every home along the Gulf Coast should have a portable air conditioning kit.

I have seen them almost all my life. You have seen them, too. Astronauts use them to cool their suits while they are outside their spacecraft. Portable air conditioners were featured in the movie “Congo”, when Laura Linney opened up a case of the little things. Were those units real? I have no idea. But I sure wanted one while we waited for power to be restored in Panama City.

My family was lucky. We were without power for something less than 2 days. Other people in the area went without power much longer. And, of course, victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita went without power for even longer periods of time. No portable air conditioning unit could be expected to last forever, but it would help make a situation more comfortable for a while.

In fact, there are many elderly people who might benefit from some of the ideas that have inspired portable cooling systems through the years. Each year, many portions of the country experience a heat wave and elderly people, who live on fixed incomes, are often at risk from heat exposure. They tend to shut off their air conditioning if the local power companies don’t do it for them.

There are some high-powered air conditioning units that run off of relatively inexpensive battery systems. One such unit was built for boats. In fact, the marine air conditioning industry is somewhat developed. In addition to the Avi-Air system, I also found this Flagship Marine site that offers boat air conditioners.

In theory, you could take one of these boat systems and run it inside your house (you have to provide ventilation or you’ll die of carbon monoxide poisoning). Unfortunately, they cost $1500 to several thousand dollars. That’s a little too expensive for me, although if I were in charge of a hospital’s emergency planning I’d consider getting some of those systems. Or maybe they can spend a few extra dollars and get some military-quality air conditioning systems. These portable systems would have been ideal for those hospitals in New Orleans.

If you don’t have a budget to handle military-class cooling systems, you can try some other ideas. For example, KoolerAire has commercialized the old “blow a (battery-powered) fan (across a block of ice) trick. However, they are not without their critical rivals. Swampy had some not-so-nice things to say about KoolerAire when I first wrote this post in 2006.

There are some valid points raised in the Swampy FAQ. A lot of low-cost battery-operated fans that moisten the air with trays of water are available for as little as $20. If you live in the desert (like New Mexico, Arizona, western Texas, southern California, etc.) they might be helpful on a cloudy day. These are mini-swamp coolers and people who live in arid regions are familiar with the wet, soaked feeling of living in a swamp-cooled house. Me, I prefer refrigerated air when I can get it.

Refrigerated air, unfortunately, requires condensers and poisonous freon or some other type of gas. You can buy a self-contained system but you may be better off with one of the ice-cooled portable systems. But where can you get the ice in a middle of a hurricane? Some people will buy ice in advance, but blocks of ice are best and getting them is not going to be easy in some areas. You can try freezing a few 2-litre bottles filled with water a few days in advance of the storm’s approach and maybe you can use them to cool your family.

There is at least one company, Dometic, that offers cooling systems for campers. You know: refrigerators and freezers. So, theoretically, if the windstorm doesn’t blow your RV away, you might be able to make some ice.

If you can get to an area that has power, one intrepid camper offers suggestions on how to stay cool. But if you cannot get to any power, or cannot afford all those gizmos, there is still hope. One man has actually published his detailed plans for an ice-cooled system that you can build yourself for, hopefully, relatively little money.

Generally speaking, if a hurricane comes your way, I think you should get out of its way. But assuming that is not an option, or if you have high power bills in the summer and want to experiment with some possible cost-saving measures that require a little effort and sacrifice, well, I hope I’ve given you some ideas.

Have a great weekend.

For More Current Information …

Check out this article from Top Ten Topia, 10 Best Ways to Prepare for a Hurricane, for a more recent take on ideas for staying cool.