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It's 119? Not here

Determined homeowners reclaim their backyards with the latest cool tools.

August 17, 2006|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

NOT a mad dog or Englishman is out in today's afternoon sun. With a temperature just this side of spontaneous combustion, Palm Desert is eerily devoid of humans, like some post-apocalyptic "Twilight Zone" set. Solar lockdown is in full swing, everyone confined to AC quarters. Except for John Berger. He's headed outside into the 110-degree frying pan.

Dressed in shorts, sandals and polo shirt, the intrepid homeowner hands me my only protection, a bottle of Dasani, and we step from his Spanish-style home into the Day the Earth Caught Fire. "Not bad, is it?" he says, grinning on his patio.

Instead of a blast-furnace, I'm treated to a pleasantly balmy day that feels like it's in the 80s. "The misters make all the difference. It can be 120 degrees out, and you can be super-comfortable," says the affable former banker-turned-golf-services staffer at the J.W. Marriott Desert Springs Resort and Spa.

As Southern California swelters through one of the hottest summers on record, more homeowners are deciding, like Berger, to take the weather into their own hands and are finding that the heat doesn't have to burn up backyard time. Residents are turning down their backyard ovens as much as 20 degrees and more with a new generation of cooling tools adapted from industrial applications, such as misting systems, misting fans and portable air coolers.

Not content to spend summers housebound, Berger and his wife, Eileen, decided to reclaim their backyard with a misting system, a device that cools outdoor areas through the evaporation of a super-fine mist.

As Berger and I settle into chaise lounges with a view of his pool and palms, we chill to the whoosh of 50 tiny nozzles shooting out 3-foot-long plumes of fog from the periphery of the patio roof. The spray vaporizes before it touches us, leaving behind cooling clouds. Peering through this billowing hydro curtain, I get the sudden sensation that I'm tucked behind a Hawaiian waterfall. It's a tropical vacation moment in the middle of the desert.

Before the creation of his personal microclimate, Berger had to write off three months of backyard enjoyment, which grated on this ex-Seattle-ite who'd had too many days as a shut-in. "When you're in the desert, the yard is an extension of your house -- it's another room," says Berger, as Loggins & Messina create a margarita vibe on the sound system. "That's what you're here for, not to be cooped up."

To show the difference his misters make, Berger leads me on a harrowing expedition to the other side of the mist. In three strides, I'm a walking torch. We quickly beat a path for his curtain of cool, an item that's made him very popular with the neighbors. "It's not my personality. It's the misters," he says, with a laugh.

The word is getting out on the new weapons of climate control. Even hard-core desert rats are casting their lots with misting systems.

"The demand in the Coachella Valley has at least tripled," says Mike Lemche, general manager of Thousand Palms, Calif.-based MicroCool, which installed Berger's system and was the first company to put misting on the market back in the early '80s, mostly at restaurants.

Sales of portable air coolers, a high-tech version of the swamp cooler and a fixture on the sidelines of NFL games, are also booming.

"We're behind on production about two weeks," says Don Tennison, marketing director at Port-a-Cool Sales and Rentals in Escondido. "It's like the whole nation is out of stock. People are hot and desperate."

The final straw for Woodland Hills resident Linda Cohen came in July when her son got married outside on the hottest day ever recorded in Los Angeles County, when her town broiled in a Sahara-like 119 degrees. The next day she and her husband decided to spring for a misting system. Now, she says, "you can go out and barbecue without feeling you're being barbecued. You can live out there."

Whether you're in the desert, the San Fernando Valley or Los Feliz, an indoor summer is an oxymoron, not to mention an untenable breach in the time-honored rites of the backyard. Getting outside is the hallmark of summer, a time to downshift to the rhythms of childhood, secret barbecue recipes and family gatherings. There's something galling about the weather being able to shut down the season of open-air R&R, which has prompted humans over the years to try an assortment of schemes to outfox the solar gods.

Ancient Egyptians tried hanging damp mats and drapes to cool the hot breezes blowing through them, an idea that would later be the foundation of modern evaporative cooling. The Inca and Persians lugged ice down from snowy mountaintops. Ice factories in the 19th century cut out the mountain climbing, bringing blocks of frozen water right to doorsteps. The electric fan debuted in 1882, followed by airconditioning in 1902 and the swamp cooler in the 1930s -- all designed to make indoor life tolerable.

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