In mid-September, the vast, sprawling, subtropical high-pressure dome that defines “southern California” weather slipped north from its usual loafing spot above the Arizona-Mexico border and became stationary centered over Utah’s Uintas Mountains.
At the same time, a large, cool high pressure region drifted south out of Manitoba and western Ontario and parked over the Ohio river valley.
As both air masses were nearly identical in size and intensity, they both stalled and started dueling for dominance. The weathermen said you might as well flip a coin and it might take as long as ten days for the weather to sort itself out.
The effect in the Los Angeles basin was to draw hot, saturated air from the Gulf of Mexico and Baja and to drop it into LA. In effect, LA became Houston with even worse air quality.
The effect on the productivity of the crews that Raymond was supervising was instantaneous and profound. Electronics were splashed with salty water as sweat poured down worker’s faces and rivelets of sweat trickled off the ends of their noses. The sweat stung their eyes. It was brutally hard to move, much less work. Paint did not dry nor did plaster base coats.
Even Raymond lost the zip to his step.
He had come in early, hoping that the end of third shift might be a little bit cooler. He was disappointed.
Talking to Javier, “We have air conditioning in these buildings. Why aren’t we running it? Do we need to run power to it?” Raymond asked.
“Naw, its got power. I think the problem is that we don’t have refrigerant. You would have to talk to the HVAC guys to know for sure.” Jave replied.
That led Raymond to the bowels of the building. The third shift HVAC guys verified what Jave had guessed. They had the hardware and it was wired to rock-and-roll. What they did not have was the refrigerant to fill the system. When Raymond asked if there were any work-arounds, a question he had learned to ask whenever he could not see a way through a problem, the HVAC guys got all shifty-eyed and evasive. Finally, the senior guy said, “You need to talk to Dirty Dan to get a good answer to that.”
Raymond was used to nicknames and he vaguely remembered hearing about “Dirty Dan.” That is the kind of nickname that sticks in a man’s memory. But he could not remember what he had heard about him, simply wondering what kind of man would have that kind of handle.
Raymond waited for Dirty Dan in the HVAC crib. It was a little cooler than ambient because it was in one of the sub-basements.
An older gentleman walked in. He was notable for wearing suspenders and for the fact that he was, well, grimy.
“Hello.” Raymond said, “Are you Dan?”
“Call me ‘Dirty Dan’.” he said. “Everybody does.”
“And why is that?” Raymond asked, truly interested.
“Well, probably because I mess around with old gas engines, an hit-n-misses and even a few old diesels. But mostly I mess around with steam engines.” Dirty Dan said. "That soot just doesn't scrub off."
“What can I do for you?” Dirty Dan said. “I take it that you are that Raymond Rojas fella.”
“I am.” Raymond agreed.
“I was running the trap-line to see why we couldn’t turn on the air conditioning. Everybody agrees it is because we don’t have refrigerant.” Raymond said.
“Yup. That’s a fact. It was over $350 a pound before we split from Cali. Now we can’t get it at any price. Cali, you know that is where they make the refrigerant, don’t you?” Dirty Dan informed him.
Suddenly, things dropped into place for Raymond. They were deeply and royally screwed if there were no substitutes for the approved refrigerant.
“What is so special about this refrigerant?” Raymond asked.
“It is the only one that is approved for use with this equipment. It is also the only one approved by the Napa Accords. And, by total coincidence, it happens to be made in northern Cali.” Dirty Dan said with a disgusted shake of his head.
“I don’t suppose there are any work-arounds?” Raymond asked without much hope.
A sparkle came to Dirty Dan’s eye. “There are always work-arounds. It just depends on if you are willing to work hard enough.” Dirty Dan said.
Dirty Dan poured himself a cup of freshly brewed coffee. He asked wordlessly, using gestures, if Raymond wanted a cup. Raymond figured soot was sterile so he agreed. It was good coffee.
“Dirty Dan, if this was your house...you being a top-notch HVAC guy...what would you do?” Raymond asked.
Dirty Dan leaned back in his chair. “Well, if it were me, and if I had a bunch of highly placed friends, I reckon I would have me a horse-race.”
“What do you mean by that?” Raymond asked. “You are going to have to spell things out for me.”
“There used to be a lot of things used for refrigerant: Ammonia for instance. But the technology wasn’t very good and it tended to leak. Fires would start or people would complain about the stink or there might be toxicity issues.” Dirty Dave said.
Then there were all kinds of Freon. Now we use halogenated silanes which are unGodly expensive. Some folks dabbled with using other, much less expensive gases for refrigerant but there is no way to know which would work best with this equipment.” Dirty Dan said.
“What other kinds of gases. Are they expensive?” Ramond asked.
“Nope, they are dirt cheap and easy to come by. Gases like butane and isobutane and propane.” Dirty Dan said. "Compared to the official refrigerant, the 50 pounds you will need for those 15 ton systems will be almost free."
“If it were me, I would pressure test the heck out of the systems on three of the islands and then have a horse race between those three gases.” Dirty Dan opined.
“How would we know which one worked best?” Raymond asked.
“For show, you probably ought to get some professor to run the experiment, but you will know in four hours just by putting your hand to an air duct.” Dirty Dan told him.