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After a mild summer, some welcome Southland heat wave

This week's heat wave could boost August's average, but so far it's been 3.2 degrees cooler than usual. Air conditioner use, and corresponding demand for electricity, haven't been this low in years.

August 26, 2009|Hector Becerra and Alexandra Zavis

For much of Southern California, this has been the summer the air conditioner stayed off.

The recession and vacant foreclosed houses have played a role. But so has a season that has been marked by overcast skies and relatively mild temperatures. So you could hardly blame employees of a water park for being thankful for the heat wave that descended on the Southland on Tuesday, bringing much-needed crowds.

"I get up and do my little sun dance every morning," said Mary Papadopoulos of Raging Waters in San Dimas on Tuesday. "June was really rough here because of June gloom."

Alejandro Gradilla, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, said the cooler summer was gentler on the pocketbook. Last year, he and his wife spent more than $200 some months on their Southern California Edison bills.

"This year we haven't even cracked $100," he said. "Last year, even the evening air was hotter. This year, just sitting on our apartment balcony at night has been enough to cool off. I absolutely love it."

With the exception of July, when temperatures were just a hair under the average, the summer has been decidedly mild since May.

So far, August has been 3.2 degrees cooler than average, said Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. June was almost 3 degrees cooler.

A heat wave has now moved into Southern California, bringing with it high temperatures and red flag fire dangers. For some residents, it feels like summer has finally arrived.

Patzert said Southern California has generally been getting hotter because of the effects of things like heat-capturing urban development -- a phenomenon known as the "urban heat island" -- but this season has been more like the ones experienced decades ago when summers tended to be more temperate.

"It's a throwback to the '50's. It's an Ozzie and Harriet summer," Patzert said. "This year, we had a summer bypass. We leap-frogged from spring to fall."

The cooler temperatures mean fewer people are using their air conditioners, decreasing demand for electrical power. Cal-ISO, the state's largest power grid operator, said this is the first summer in six years in which the organization has not issued a "flex alert" asking customers across the state to reduce power.

Because of the recession, officials expected peak power usage to be down 3% this summer, but instead it has dipped by 6.8%, said Cal-ISO's Stephanie McCorkle. She said it was hard to tell how much of that was due to the weather, but "weather conditions are a huge factor."

Southern California Edison, which serves 14 million people, also reports a decrease in power consumption, though officials there and at Cal-ISO said the situation could change quickly.

This week is a reminder of that. The heat wave is expected to peak Thursday and Friday with triple-digit temperatures in much of the region, and temperatures in the low- to mid-90s in downtown L.A.

"Weather is a key factor, but it could be a temporary situation," McCorkle said. "We could get a hellacious heat storm that's going to skew the numbers within a week. We are very much driven by the winds of Mother Nature, and we pay attention to her."

Though this month has been significantly cooler than average so far, Patzert said that's how July started before a heat wave swept over L.A. beginning July 19. Those sizzling days are the reason that month was only 0.2 degrees cooler than normal, he said. And though September is generally not the hottest month on average, it often records some of the most brutally hot days -- and often marks the return of Santa Ana winds and prime wildfire conditions.

Anna Menedjian, 33, a litigation consultant, said that in the last few days she has seen how quickly temperatures can shift, even in L.A.

"Yesterday it was so hot a dozen cans of sodas left next to the pool area all of a sudden spontaneously combusted," Menedjian recalled. "A few days before that I was wearing a long-sleeve sweater during the same time of the day."

At Raging Waters in San Dimas, the warming weather this week is helping business.

Denise Diaz, a teacher from Pomona, said she had been waiting for warmer days to bring her 9-year-old son to the park. She bought a summer pass, but Tuesday was only the second day she used it.

But it hasn't been all bad, Diaz said. "We haven't been putting the air conditioner on. That's kind of nice, saving some money."

The gloomier summer hasn't hurt tanning salon operators such as L.A. Sunset Tan. For some customers, getting their tan from a machine was more practical than waiting for a sunny day at the beach, said Nick D'Anna, manager of the West Hollywood salon.

"When you don't have pristine L.A. conditions, with the gloom or rain, people are more aware of what they look like," D'Anna said. "When it rains or it's gloomy in L.A., that's when you see a lot of people snap out of their tanning coma." --

hector.becerra@latimes.com

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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