When GerRee Anderson and her husband bought their Wheat Ridge home a couple of years ago, its aging metal evaporative cooler was working, but earlier this month it started to falter.
Then the evaporative cooler on their rental house in Denver stopped working.
"So now I have not one but two swamp coolers to figure out," Anderson said. "We're hoping that we can repair them. But the rental house, we had someone give that swamp cooler a tuneup last year, and they said, 'Yeah, this one's pretty old. You're about ready for a replacement.' When we had it priced out, we were in the ballpark for $4,000. So we're bracing ourselves for this not to be good news."
Evaporative coolers, which wet pads and a fan to vent cool air into a home, have become nearly as popular as air conditioners. That's partly because Xcel and other utility companies offer a rebate to homeowners whose evaporative cooling units and systems meet certain specifications.
"When I started my business, there were only about a dozen or so others that specialized in installing evaporative coolers," says Steve Brandt, who founded The Cooler Company Heating & Air in 1995. "Back then, more people had air conditioning. Evaporative coolers have gotten so popular that now there are 600 companies in town installing them. But, in my opinion, not that many know what they're doing."
Understand upfront costs
When homeowners learn they will spending four figures on something — especially something that goes by such a low-rent nickname — they understandably get sticker shock. Although evaporative coolers cost one-fourth as much to operate as air conditioning, the initial investments are similar.
Anderson is hoping that she won't have to replace both evaporative coolers. But she knows that buying a new cooler is a lot cheaper than paying to repair an attic and roof waterlogged by a leaking cooler duct, one of the most common consequences of a failing unit.
"It'll drain through the ductwork right into your house," says Jim Valdez, Denver's chief inspector of mechanical and plumbing projects. "If the swamp cooler wasn't installed to code, there's a lot that can go wrong."
Whoever installed the swamp coolers in Anderson's Wheat Ridge home and her Denver rental house definitely took the cheap route. There is only one vent in each house, and the units each are made of metal.
Go with a pro
There are two kinds of swamp coolers — metal units that typically cost less than $1,000 and appeal to do-it-yourselfers who patronize big-box stores, and the hard plastic units that are often three times more expensive, and favored by professional licensed contractors.
"The problem with the do-it-yourself handymen is that they'll buy an evap cooler at a box store to save money, then get on the roof and end up cutting through a strut and damaging the integrity of the roof," Valdez says. "They'll be, 'Oops! I cut a hole in the wrong place!' and cut another hole, and use a gallon bucket of tar to water-seal the first one. Or they'll put the cooler next to the sewer vent. That's a big problem.
"A lady called us the other day, saying when she runs her swamp cooler, the house smells like crap. Her cooler was next to the sewer vent, so when it runs, it pulls the gasses right out of there into her home. The same thing happens when someone installs a cooler next to a gas vent, like a boiler flue."
Those are the mistakes of a well-meaning DIY homeowner, or a subcontractor who skips the step of getting a city permit.
"We see a lot of problems that start with someone hiring a handyman who tells a homeowner, 'I can put that in for you,'" Valdez says. "There is a big money difference between a licensed contractor and a handyman. A huge difference. The licensed contractor is going to charge more, going to pull a permit, be inspected by us, and if the install is wrong, we have them come out and fix it. Everyday, we get complaints from homeowners who've been ripped off. We do the best we can to police it, but we can't station someone on every corner."
Know what to ask
How do homeowners avoid getting fleeced? Do your homework, say Valdez and Brandt.
Get bids from two to four licensed contractors. Before hiring the contractor you like most, consult the city licensing department to make sure the contractor is licensed and insured.
"A lot of these guys don't carry liability insurance," Brandt says. "If they hurt themselves on your property, they can sue you. If they tear a hole in your roof, you want to know that they'll be able to cover that.
"People need to realize that there are a lot of unlicensed contractors, probably 50 percent of the market that's not licensed at all. Or they have friends who are licensed, and they'll pull permits through their friend's business. Definitely ask to see a copy of the city license."
Claire Martin: 303-954-1477, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/byclairemartin
Repair or replace the swamp cooler?
Do your homework first. The upfront cost to hire a licensed contractor is steep, but you will save time, money (and unwelcome scents) in the long run.
Before hiring a company to install an evaporative cooler, ask these questions:
How many years has the company been in business?
How many evaporative coolers does the company install each year?
Are the installers on staff and trained in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), or are they contract workers?
How many vents inside the house will be connected to the cooler? (Multiple vents may mean a hefty rebate from Xcel.)
How does the company estimate the size of the cooler, relative to the size of your home?
Is your house a historic landmark? If so, that means extra paperwork and a Landmark Preservation review.