ALBANY, N.Y., June 29 (UPI) -- Several years ago, after a nationwide heat wave left several hundred people dead, New York's Erie County gave air conditioners to the elderly who could not afford them.
The Buffalo area is known for snow, not heat, but those living in the Northeast and the Midwest are more at risk for heat stress in the summer. That's due to the high humidity that often accompanies a stretch of 90-plus weather; not everyone in the Northeast and Midwest has air conditioning, nor are they acclimated to the heat as are people in the South, according to Dr. W. Larry Kenney of Pennsylvania State University, who studies cardiovascular responses to heat stress.
An elderly woman in Buffalo who did not drive asked me to take her to the appliance store to take advantage of Erie County's free air-conditioner program. She had to get a note from her doctor saying she needed the air conditioner for her health; that document had to be approved by the county, and then she got a voucher.
The woman got the smallest window air conditioner under the program, but it was still rather huge -- about 20 inches across and enormously heavy. She got it delivered, and then the problems began: She had metal casement windows, while most air conditioners only fit wooden double-hung windows. She planned to have a contractor knock out some bricks from her house and install the air conditioner, but she got sick, and dealing with a contractor seemed too difficult.
Air conditioners are a necessity for many of the elderly, especially those with heart conditions, and while the price has dropped considerably, installing the smallest window air conditioner seems more complicated and tedious than necessary.
Albany can have the humidity of Hong Kong, but I didn't get an air conditioner until 1994, when my mother was staying with me for the summer. I purchased a light-weight window air conditioner for the princely sum of $300, because it was all I could lift. It had a handle on the top that made lifting it easier, and it came out of the box with the plastic accordion sides attached and just had to be placed in the window.
After yeoman's service, the air conditioner pooped out in the middle of a heat wave last year. After Internet searching and calls to the manufacturer, I gave up trying to find a replacement.
I shopped around, researched and asked questions, but the clerks in many hardware stores and "big box" home supply stores seem to know less than I do, so I ended up buying the smallest air conditioner I could carry.
After I dragged it into the house, I spent a few hours wrestling with tiny screws, drenched in sweat and cursing the manufacturer for not attaching the accordion panels on each side of the air conditioner in the factory. Even though the instructions on the box said it could fit a 36-inch window, I discovered the accordion ends did not reach that far.
"No problem," said the clerk at the building supply store. "Build a wooden frame that will hold the unit in the window -- go home and measure what you need."
I returned with a nifty diagram of what I would need and asked a clerk to make one cut of 35 inches on an 8-foot plank, so I could fit it in my car.
"Can't do that, we can only cut plywood," the clerk said.
"How do people get these 8-foot and 10-foot planks home?" I asked.
"Most people have a truck or a SUV," said the clerk.
"I'm supposed to spend $35,000 on a truck or SUV to take home a couple of planks?" I asked.
"It's against our policy to cut wood except for plywood," he said.
At this point I asked for a manager, and by the time he arrived I had found that the store did sell three-foot planks -- news to both the clerk and the manager.
Doesn't it seem reasonable to expect that a small window air conditioner could be installed alone, without the use of power tools and special trips to a lumber yard? Doesn't it seem reasonable that air conditioners be built to fit more than the wooden double-hung window? I have aluminum double-hung windows, something air conditioner manufacturers seem never to have heard of.
And why can't there be a hole made at the bottom of the air conditioner so the water can drain easily when the air conditioner is level, instead of making it lean down by at least 5 degrees?
I have found that it is next to impossible to have the air conditioner tip down at the required angle and sit stably in the window -- because it's at an angle. If there are engineers who can offer solution, I'd like hear from you.
Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she always has considered caregiving her primary job. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org