Hot and dry

We are here in Tucson, far beyond the normal window of snowbird activity, because I wanted to stay and get a taste of Tucson’s heat after a cool winter.   Our Airstream travels will not resume until June.   In the weeks between now and departure, there lie at least 15 days of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees.

All the other snowbirds flew the coop in April.   The RV parks are decimated, and the service centers are quiet.   Nobody wants to be here when “the ice breaks up in the Santa Cruz River,” which is local slang for the first day of 100+ degrees.   That event usually occurs in May.   (The idea of ice in the Santa Cruz River is particularly ironic, since for most of its length through Tucson the river appears to be a dry wash, containing no visible water at all.)

But I did want to be here for the heat.   Unlike most people, I like it, at least when it’s the famous dry heat of the southwest.   We started reaching the upper 90s about a week ago and for the past three days we have flirted with 100 every day — reaching 99.5 in the shade of our back patio this afternoon at 4 p.m.   But although the weather service has claimed an official temperature of 100 today, I won’t say the ice of the Santa Cruz has broken yet, at least not according to the Luhr Standard Temperature Gauge.

It’s not nearly as unbearable as it sounds.   The mornings are gorgeous, running in the mid-60s.   We get up at 6 a.m. or so (even a shade doesn’t fully stop the sun from screaming in our eastern bedroom window), and open all the windows wide to catch the cool morning air and the sounds of the birds.   By 8 a.m. it has reached 72-75 degrees and we shut the windows again, and await the mid-day when the central air conditioner kicks on to keep the house at 79.   By then, the outside temperatures are well into the upper 80s, and the searing heat of the afternoon lies in wait.

We have learned self-defense techniques, of course.   Anything to be done outside, such as planting or bicycling, gets done in the early morning.   We never go out without a bottle of water, sunglasses and a very breathable broad sun hat.   I am wearing super-cool white shirts most days.   The black seats of the car are never scorching since the car sleeps in the shade of the carport, and there is nowhere it can go in the afternoon that isn’t air conditioned.   Beating the heat, it turns out, is much easier than beating the cold of a New England winter — and we don’t have to shovel the sunshine out of the way before leaving the house.

Heat, of course, is energy.   We are gradually finding that the energy is useful in ways that most people ignore.   I’d like to have solar electric panels on the roof of the house, as we do on the Airstream, but that project will have to wait until 2010.   In the meantime, the house came with an old-fashioned clothesline, and Eleanor has discovered that it does an impressive job of drying towels, which saves the energy the dryer would consume.   The trick is to get them off the line before too long.   She put a set of towels out there today and they came back not only dry, but rather crispy.   The combination of dry air, sunshine, and heat puts the gas dryer to shame.

Tonight we are grilling salmon on the little Weber.   The salmon was frozen solid, but Eleanor simply tossed it out on the weeds of our back yard (still sealed tightly in the original plastic package) and in about 30 minutes Emma flipped it.   Less than an hour later, the fish was perfectly defrosted.   I brushed the weed debris off the package and put it in the refrigerator.   Much longer and it would probably have started to cook.   Who needs a microwave when you’ve got Arizona sunshine?

The other aspect of our current climate is that this is the dry season.   I mean d-r-y, like Easterners have never experienced.   As I write this, the relative humidity is 6%, which is not unusual at all.   Hydration of humans and plants is the key to survival, so we (and most people who live here) keep a water bottle within reach at all times.   Eleanor has discovered that tomatoes left on the counter in a breathable package here will not go rotten, but they will slowly dehydrate. While they were gone I found a pack of tiny “grape” tomatoes that had been here for who-knows-how-long, and they were still perfectly edible.   A bit wrinkled, but tasty — almost like sun-dried tomatoes.   Apparently, we live in a food dehyrator.

Of course, the amusement of extraordinary heat would be lost if not for the miracle of central air conditioning.   We’ve never used our air for more than a few weeks, since we are not normally here for much of the warm season.   A setback thermostat and judicious use of natural air for morning cooling will help, but I’m still not looking forward to May’s electric bill.   If we were here in the summer I’m sure we would encounter sticker shock, but we’re just summer poseurs — we won’t be here for the long slog.

dsc_9887.jpgdsc_9886.jpgIn fact, we might soon encounter the opposite conditions.   Last June in Vermont we had several days that were cold enough to require furnace during the daytime, with cruel humidity.   So Eleanor has gotten to work on protecting our catalytic heater, with a custom cover.   Catalytic heaters can be killed by dust, and we travel to dusty places all the time.   Today she sewed up this neat cover, which is secured to the heater with little magnetic strips.   It comes off in a second and goes back on just as easily, with the magnets holding it tight during travel. Perfect!   (click the photos for larger views)

Perhaps in a month I’ll be eager to escape the heat, but probably not.   I am sure I will be pining for the dry air later this summer. There is something about life in the desert that appeals to me.   The heat isn’t just an obstacle, it’s an interesting aspect of being here.   It is the reason that we have lizards in the bougainvillea, and all sorts of other fascinating life.   We’ll absorb the heat while we can, in case we encounter a cool and rainy summer again in the northeast.


  1. Arnis Pape says

    At 6% humidity, there’s an inexpensive, energy saving alternative to central air — evaporative cooling.

  2. says

    Good to see you back on the air…our best to the ladies…I’m usually up by 0530, and hiding by 1030…let us know if you need a heat shovel…

  3. says

    Arnis, yes, evaporative coolers (“swamp coolers”) work very well here until the monsoon season arrives. Then in July and August when we have thunderstorms, they don’t work so well. But many older houses in Tucson still have swamp coolers, and some houses have both evaporative and “refrigerated” air, so they can switch from one to another as needed.

  4. Larry says

    Eleanor did a beautiful job on the heater cover. We have always line dried our laundry, which is gaining popularity as life-styles become more “Green”.

    I wish that I and the pug had the tolerance to the heat that you and your family do. Bill enjoyed being outside while I and the dogs appreciated the comfort of the trailer’s air conditioning.

    It was 104 for 2 days during our last trip to A-B. Like you, we savor the cool mornings and evenings.

    Sending hugs to you all.

  5. Terry says

    Rich, does your house have solar hot water, or a conventional water heater?
    Did Eleanor make a pattern for the catalytic heater cover, or just “wing it”? There’s nothing like the smell of burning dust in the morning…

  6. says

    Terry, we don’t have solar hot water. I would like to add it someday but after years of minimal water use in the Airstream, we have developed habits that make our gas bill extremely low. Also, we’re not here all year. So the payback is terrible for us.

    Eleanor didn’t make a pattern for the catalytic heater cover. She stared at it a long time and did multiple test fittings. It’s “custom”!

  7. says

    rich, you sound like our dear friend Herschel who as you know had a passion for the desert…I’m sure if he was still alive, he would love to visit you in “your desert”. He was so proud of his camel rides in “his desert”. Hope all is well.

  8. Karen says

    There you go pooh-poohing the Northeast again, Rich! I’ll have you know the temps are headed into the high eighties on Thursday. You have us beat on the lizards and bougain-whatnot though!

    We’re looking forward to seeing you guys soon. You’ll have to come up to North Hero to see our house and meet our new kittens!