One small step for a house, one giant leap for man

May 05, 2001|By Rob Kasper

IN THE ONGOING struggle of man vs. house, it is rare when the man gets the upper hand. That is why I have been buzzing like a June bug lately, happily waving a package of rubber panels that will slip into the sides of my window unit air conditioners. I've won! I've won! I've won!

These folding pieces of rubber are known as "curtains," "accordions" or "panels." They can be a pain in the neck, especially this time of year. Their function is to snuggly fill the space between the sides of the air conditioner and the window frame, keeping out bugs and air. The trouble is they tend to fall apart right after you have lugged the 10-ton piece of machinery out of winter storage and heaved it into a window.

The struggle with side panels is part of the rite of spring known as installing the air conditioners, which goes something like this: You and a helper wrassle the air conditioner into a window. There is a tense moment when the air conditioner dangles from the window frame. It is easy to drop an air conditioner from a window, but not recommended.

The dangle period passes, you get the unit balanced in the window, then you unfold the sliding panels. This should be your moment of triumph, the time when you and the condenser are both purring away. But then you see daylight peeking through the panels. Instead of presenting an impenetrable wall of protection, the panels have developed cracks. So you either have to plug the holes or replace the panels.

Plugging holes requires using big rolls of duct tape, a fabric that holds many households together. Tape, however, is a temporary solution. It won't stick to the panels. For some reason - maybe it is excessive heat or strong-willed mosquitoes - the tape pops off by mid-July.

Replacing the panels presents its own set of problems. First, to install replacements, the air conditioner has to be lifted out of the window, a feat which I compare to moving Tony Siragusa, once The Goose has settled into a space.

There is the jerry-rig option, namely keeping the air conditioner in the window, then yanking out the crumbling panels and replacing them with cheap substitutes. High on my list of cheap substitutes is a slice of cardboard box. That is what I have used for the past few years for the air conditioner in a kid's bedroom window. I have cut a piece out of a box and shoved it into place. It has kept the bugs out. But it looked ugly.

The logical solution is to buy replacement panels. They are not easy to find. This year I started the hunt early, before I pulled the air conditioner out of storage. I recalled that a few years ago I had bought some replacement panels at the Sears parts shop in Hampden that sits next to I-83 just beyond the Pepsi sign.

I tried to give the place a call as I had done a few years back. But nowadays you can't call the Sears parts place in Hampden. Now you dial an 800 number (800-366-7278) that hooks you up to a voice-activated computer system located somewhere in the nether reaches of cyberspace.

Now instead of getting a local fella who hollers "Parts!" when he picks up the phone, you get a computer that tells you to holler "Parts!" into the phone.

I did that. Then, following the computer's instructions, I hollered "air conditioner" at the appropriate time.

Eventually I got a live human being on the line, with a sweet Southern accent, who told me that unless I knew the multi-digit part number that Sears has assigned to air conditioning replacement panels, I was out of luck.

"Couldn't you just holler `air conditioner replacement panels' at that computer of yours and see what comes up?" I asked. She said that was not the way the computer system worked.

I abandoned the high-tech approach and went for the common-sense solution. I drove to the parts shop. Getting there required making one tricky turn off 41st Street, just east of the bridge that crosses the Jones Falls Expressway. Inside the parts shop, I looked around for packages of replacement panels. They were not on display. This being the grass-cutting season, the shop was filled with parts for lawn mowers. A young man working the cash register told me I needed the replacement part number. I was saved by the woman who worked behind the counter. She seemed to know what I was talking about, and dispatched the young man to the back of the shop.

A few minutes later he emerged with two plastic bags containing two folding panels that, according to the label, are "genuine renewal parts" for Frigidaire, Gibson, Tappan, Kelvinator, White Westinghouse and Philco air conditioners. (For the record the part number printed on the bag is 5300126809 and they cost $9 each.)

I am not sure what brand of air conditioners I have. But I know I can trim these new panels to fit my units and by sundown tonight, I'll be ready for a long, hot summer.

Having new, sturdy side panels on my window unit air conditioners is a small victory. But I lead a small life.

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