Repair crews' workload heats up with weather

As air conditioners falter, they're working hard and running late

June 10, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

Waiting until the last possible day to turn on the air conditioning might have saved some costly kilowatts. But if your cooling system just wheezed and died when you flipped the switch, you're paying for it now in sweat.

The sudden onslaught of 90-degree weather since Saturday in Central Maryland has had air-conditioner repair crews running hard. And late.

"We're pretty well swamped. The work load has probably picked up triple compared to normal," said Chris Mergler, service manager at Clean Air Heating and Air Conditioning in Baltimore.

His crews were working 13-hour days and repair calls are booked to the end of the week.

"Everybody wants service right away," he said. "They're begging. ... People just hate to be warm."

In a premature start to another Chesapeake summer, Marylanders suffered yesterday through a third straight humid, 90-plus day, and they face at least one more hot day today before things cool down a bit. Air conditioners quit, schools closed, train tracks warped, and tourists coped as best they could.

The temperature reached 94 at BWI Marshall Airport for the third straight day, well short of the upper 90s forecasters had predicted and of the record of 98 for the date, set 75 years ago in downtown Baltimore.

The temperature reached 97 at the Inner Harbor and 100, briefly, at The Sun's weather station at Calvert and Centre streets.

The heat and sunshine failed to drive air quality to the Code Red levels had forecast, but it was miserable enough.

"It's pretty nasty out there," said meteorologist Brian Thompson at Penn State Weather Communication in State College, Pa. He called the suffocating heat "a little unusual for the beginning of June," though not unheard-of.

The Bermuda high lurking off the southeastern United States is standard summer fare for the Chesapeake region. But it's out there early this year, spinning clockwise and pumping warm, humid air north and east from the Gulf of Mexico.

Relief is in the forecast. Today's temperatures should be in the 90s again, with increasing clouds and a chance for afternoon showers, but Thompson said that "we're looking at a brief break from the heat at midweek. A cold front will bring slightly cooler air in."

Highs are expected to hold to the mid- to upper 80s from tomorrow through the weekend, slightly above the long-term average for this time of year.

Heat advisories were posted again for today across Maryland, from Washington County to the Atlantic, meaning that persistent high temperatures and humidities pose a risk of heat-related illnesses.

Four people were treated yesterday at Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie for heart attacks that their doctors think were linked to the weather. None was fatal, said hospital spokeswoman Allison Eatough.

Baltimore's health commissioner extended the city's Code Red heat alert through today, keeping cooling centers open, extending outreach to the most vulnerable residents and distributing water to the homeless.

The heat and strong sunshine caused a "sun kink" in rails along the MARC Camden Line, forcing a shutdown between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., said MTA spokeswoman Jo Greene. Service was restored for most of the evening rush.

Concern about similar heat-related problems slowed trains on the Penn Line, and a heat-related power outage near BWI yesterday morning caused 30-minute delays on the light rail line until power was restored.

Many students were sent home early because of a lack of air conditioning, including those in Baltimore County. One of the canceled afternoon activities was Franklin Middle School's eighth-grade graduation. There are no plans to reschedule, which irked at least one parent.

"We were looking forward to this," said Jeremiah Calp of Owings Mills, whose daughter Amanda Garrett, 14, was all set for the ceremony. "Many of us took the day off."

Baltimore County school spokesman Charles Herndon said schools will open for their final half-day schedules planned for today and tomorrow.

"It's not the kind of blazing heat [in the morning] we see in the mid- to late afternoon hours," he said. After cooling down somewhat overnight, "it should be fairly tolerable. ... We want to try, if at all possible, to have students in school and, if possible, learning."

Howard County's 73 schools are all air-conditioned, but two of them - Howard High in Ellicott City and Marriotts Ridge High in Marriottsville - closed at 12:30 p.m. when the air conditioning failed.

Carroll County opened six cooling centers. Harford County caseworkers were checking on the frail and disabled. Six Harford schools closed early because they lacked air conditioning, or because their air conditioning failed.

Plenty of homeowners had the same problem. Many are still waiting for service.

"A lot of things we're able to fix over the phone," said Clean Air's Chris Mergler. For example, clogged air filters can slow air flow through the system and cause the coils to freeze.

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