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Around the Foothills

We named the pump Willy Weepul Water Waster. He keeps us at a happy 75.

July 26, 1990|DOUG SMITH

For several weeks, life has been grim in the three-story gold-brick Italianate landmark at the corner of Harvard Street and Brand Boulevard, where The Times rents space.

From the outside, you'd never have guessed it, but inside it's been hot, muggy and stale. In the heat wave last month, the air-conditioning unit for the second floor collapsed from exhaustion, and it took a harried repairman a week to get it working.

Then it utterly died three weeks ago, just before I left on vacation. On returning last Monday, I had two important news items awaiting me.

The first came from the thermometer, which told me that the air-conditioning hadn't been repaired. It read 80 on the cool side of the room. As the day progressed, it hit the top of the scale at 95 as the sun radiated heat through the large west windows, which were sealed, of course, to keep cool air in.

The other piece of information was more promising. It came in a letter from Dorn-Platz & Co., Realtors, informing us that our building had a new owner, B. K. (Bill) Holderness, a developer who has bought up many an old Glendale building for rehabilitation.

The letter introduced Marsha MacPherson, Property Management Division, as his agent:

"If we can help you in any way," she wrote, "please do not hesitate to call on us."

I did not hesitate to call. MacPherson was not available. A woman named Carol, who took the call, said the new management was working on the problem. She said the same on Tuesday.

"We've had four men working most of the day," she said. "They informed me that they have it running."

I put little faith in that. Air-conditioning men are evasive by constitution.

For the past few years, our air-conditioning unit has broken down at the beginning of every summer and always runs either too hot or too cold. When you ask an air-conditioning man what's wrong, he will look at the wall behind your shoulder, mumble something metaphysical about the interrelatedness of all things and then poke into a duct with a screwdriver drawn from a holster at his side. Nothing ever changes.

To my not-very-veiled skepticism, Carol replied that if I still wasn't satisfied, I could put my complaints in writing.

That's an opening you don't give to a reporter. In the peak of discomfort, I composed a caustic recitation of the facts. I allowed them one more day to come through. They didn't, of course, but something else caused me to change my tune. The next day, Times management took the matter into its own hands.

That's when I met Chuck, an air-conditioning man whose can-do attitude I admired. His company, he boasted, had once air conditioned an asphalt parking lot on a summer day.

Chuck said he'd get us a heat pump. That's a machine that pumps heat right out of a room. It's about five feet tall and two feet square. He suggested we move the table where we usually read the day's newspapers. We'd have done anything.

Chuck and his helper, Tim, spent most of a day running a thick black power line halfway across the building to the breaker box and two one-inch red rubber hoses to the sink in the storage room. Chuck took pride in securing them neatly up the wall and through the drop ceiling. It was a clean job.

When he was ready to turn it on, he briefed me on the water. A heat pump, you see, pumps heat away by putting it into water. The water can't be allowed to get above 120 degrees, or the motor will draw too much electricity and stop.

To maintain that temperature, the water has to run at about three gallons per minute. Usually, Chuck said, the water would be pumped into a cooling tower and recirculated.

But we didn't have access to a cooling tower, so it had to go down the drain. Chuck had installed a new cold-water pipe through the wall to supply the water. He also cleared our drain with CO2 to make sure that it wouldn't overflow. It was a really clean job.

I couldn't help showing my distress. At that moment, I had a letter on my desk from the city of Glendale, asking my help in cutting commercial water use by 10%. The city had a chart showing the waste a tiny drip can cause and even created a conservation mascot called the Weepul, a yellow fuzz ball with feet.

Chuck understood the expression of self-reproach that crossed my face. He knew what to say.

Even with a cooling tower, some water would evaporate and more would have to be drawn off to prevent scale. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day are used to cool downtown Los Angeles, he said with a smile.

Old air conditioners, like ours, simply blow the heat into the atmosphere. But they're being phased out, Chuck said, because they're bad for the ozone layer.

He pulled a large hand switch. Our office roared like the inside of a cold storage locker. We'll endure it.

We named the pump Willy Weepul Water Waster. He keeps us at a happy 75 and, like a good reporter, he's ruthlessly honest.

He's constantly reminding that it takes 1,440 gallons of water to keep five people cool for eight hours. But not for long, we hope.

They've been working on the old unit. They say it's running. We'll see.

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