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How does Prez Obama keep his cool?

He’s called “No drama Obama”. A cool customer, this US chief. But a lot has gone into maintaining the temperature of the White House, so presidents can take those big decisions in thermal comfort. Here’s a peek at over 200 years of air conditioning the First Home

| | Apr 9, 2015 | 9:49 am
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Image credits: Olga Zelenkova / Shutterstock.com

Image credits: Olga Zelenkova / Shutterstock.com

The abode of the POTUS (President of the United States) is a national monument. Tourists come to flock and gawk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC. The sprawling traditional country house, designed by James Hoban, is not only the official residence of the president since John Adams moved into it in 1800, but it’s also the principal presidential workplace. However, it was only in 1809, when President James Madison came to occupy it that the White House got its first heating system – a gravity-based Pettibone furnace – a device invented by Daniel Pettibone – that kept most American homes and public institutions warm in the early 19th century.

The furnace began its life as an iron/copper stove with a grate made of hollow bars for better heat transfer via currents of warmed air. Pettibone kept tinkering with it, till in 1807 he finally developed the “rarifying air-stove” – the first successful, large-scale central-heating system in the country. It evolved further into a brick and iron, with iron acting as a heat-exchanger to warm currents of outside air, which was then conveyed through insulated sheet-iron ductwork into various rooms.

And then, the White House had to wait for nearly three decades – 1837 – to get a primitive version of the first central heating system. This was replaced in 1840 by a gravity hot-air heating system while President Martin Van Buren was at the helm. It consisted of a self-contained furnace with an iron firebox enclosed by plastered brick ducts that extended to the furnace room. However, it was not a central heating system in the real sense of the term, as it provided heat only to the state rooms and the hallway.  Five years later, in 1845, the system was extended to the second floor of the White House.

It took another five years, and President Zachary Taylor, to extend the heating system to the family’s living quarters and to a few of the offices and the basement of the building.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce, who was then in office, ordered an upgrading of the heating system with the addition of a hot-water furnace that was considered not only more efficient, but also less of a health hazard, as the air was warmed directly by coils, instead of the warming happening outside of the air chamber.

In the 1860s, when President Abraham Lincoln occupied the White House, the heating system was further expanded to warm the entire White House.

The Ulysses Grant’s era ushered in a new ventilation system to provide thermal comfort for areas meant for socialising during summer. It was something basic – long cords near the fireplace, one to open the ventilator and another to close it.

Image credits: Shutterstock

Image credits: Shutterstock

With the unfortunate shooting of President James Garfield on July 2, 1881 – a warm summer day – a form of air conditioning was installed in the White House to make his last few days more comfortable. This rudimentary system forcibly expelled air through a long iron box that was encased with cotton screens. The air moved with electric blowers and was chilled by huge amounts of ice. The chilled air was then pumped into the rooms through a vent.

Trivia time

  • The First Lady Helen Taft, who loved entertaining, ordered a “Forty-quart Ice Cream Freezer” with direct current motor.
  • By the 1920s, the White House kitchen had an electric refrigerator.
  • The reason the Capitol Building was air conditioned in 1928 was because the US lawmakers started complaining about the place being stuffy. However, the senators took a while to get used to the artificially cooled interiors. The upshot of the White House and the Capitol being cooled was shorter summer breaks.
    Image credit: Shutterstock

    Image credit: Shutterstock

    Earlier, lawmakers took off for the summer and government departments worked with minimum staff till things begin to cool off in September. The government had to now function right round the year, as no one could complain that it was too hot to work!

It was only in 1910, almost three decades later, that another kind of system made its way into the White House, when President William Howard Taft occupied it. The system worked by forcing air by way of electric fans over ice blocks located in the attic. The chilled air was then made to pass through the air ducts of the existing heating system. But it wasn’t the most efficient kind of air conditioning and was, therefore, abandoned.

It was the presidency of Herbert Hoover in 1930 that first saw central air conditioning system in the West Wing of the White House. Carrier Engineering Company, which had two years earlier, in 1928, installed central air conditioning at the Chamber of the House of Representatives, was assigned the contract. This was done along with reconstruction work of the building after a freak fire caused major damage to the structure on Christmas Eve in 1929, just weeks after the big stock market crash. And in 1933, air conditioning units were installed in the private living quarters of the White House when Franklin D Roosevelt was in office, and on the second floor, a few years later. So, it was only in the 1930s that modern air conditioning came to the presidential home.

But FDR was not a big fan of the fan or ACs (pun intended), as they affected his sinuses. In a memo, Carrier employee, Logan Lewis is supposed to have written that the president “had a strong dislike of air-conditioning and never hesitated to say so”.

Air conditioning had become commonplace in homes, restaurants and office buildings during the Post-World War II economic boom. Therefore, air conditioning systems installed in the White House thereafter ceased to be of historical interest. But the economic crisis of the 1970s, prompted President Jimmy Carter to start a campaign for energy conservation. He set an example by getting solar energy panels on the roof of the West Wing in 1977. They were, however, removed in the 1980s.

The National Park Service got three solar energy systems on the White House grounds in 2002. A  system  of 167  photovoltaic panels was placed on the roof of the central maintenance building, and a solar thermal application for providing hot water for the grounds maintenance staff was added to the building. A third system was integrated into the roof of the cabana next to the pool and spa. It’s believed to heat water for the tub and shower, with overflow energy channeled to the outdoor pool.

And, oh, it looks like the White House is loyal to Carrier, based on a photograph of a unit outside the building. But of course, several companies may be chipping in to cool/heat the sprawling mansion.


The writer is the Associate Editor of Climate Control Middle East. She can be reached at pratibha@cpi-industry.com


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