Laurel's Adventures in Home Repair   


How to Winterize a Swamp (Evaporative) Cooler

October 21 - 22, 2013 - Every fall

If you have never lived in the Southwest or in another arid climate, you have probably never heard of or used a swamp cooler.  Before my husband and I bought this house we were clueless.  We both came from more humid regions where only air conditioners were used to cool a home.

For years this was my husband's dreaded piece of equipment to maintain. I would point out the problems as they occurred: 

"Honey, there is water coming off the roof!"
"Darling, the cooler is blowing warm air." 
"Oh, dear, what is that rattling sound coming from the cooler?"

He would dutifully drag out the ladder, grab his tools and climb on the roof to look at the evaporative monster.  Which was frequently followed by a trip to the hardware store to buy a part.

Then as the years past, my husband was working out of town many times during the summer and fall months.  The responsibility of maintaining the cooler became mine.
Polar Vortex Preparation -- Or A Freeze is Coming NOW....What Do I Do?  (Nov 12, 2014)

If you waited until the last minute and that first winter freeze is  Then follow the steps here and do the rest later:

1) Turn off the water to your swamp cooler.
2) If your water line is outside.  Remove it or make darn sure all of the water is out of the line.

3) Cut off the power to the cooler.  Pull the plugs.

4) Drain all of the water out of the swamp cooler.  All of it!!

5)  If your swamp cooler has a damper....  which is the metal thing that slides between the cooler and your duct system, get it in.  Or all of your heat will go out.

6)  If you have no damper, cover your cooler.  If you can't find a real cover, plastic bags and duct tape work in a pinch.  Block anywhere cold air can get into your house.

I had two choices for taking care of the cooler, call a company that specializes in evaporative coolers to fix the problems or do it myself.

OK, the idea of climbing up on the roof was daunting to me.  I trip over cracks on sidewalks.  If I get up on the roof, I will probably fall off and kill myself.  So I paid for a company to maintain the cooler. This went on for only two years and the service was OK.  It was not cheap.

Until I had a really lousy service man to turn the cooler on, Spring 2012.  Not only did the punk have an attitude, he was kind of clueless about what should be done.  He only did the bare basics and did not fully prepare the machine.  At this point, I decided to teach myself how to maintain the cooler.

The Fall of 2012 I taught myself how to winterize my swamp cooler. I first looked at the manual.  I then made a few phone calls to my husband to confirm what the manual said.  It was pretty clear cut.  I also phoned him to let him know when I was going on the roof and I would call him when I got down.  If I did not call him back in a couple of hours, he should call 911 because I probably fell off the roof.

It is now Fall 2013, and based on the maintenance I have had to do all summer, the steps I follow this Fall are going to be done to help shorten the amount of things I will have to do in the spring when I turn the cooler back on. 

For instance, last year I drained the water from the unit, but did not clean out the mineral build-up.  I deciding last year to wait until spring to do that.  Not this year.

The first thing to do was gather the tools I would need:
  - Socket set (to remove the bolts on the panels)
  - A flat head and Phillips head screw drivers (just in case)
  - My large flat head screw driver for prying something if needed
  - Pliers and a slip joint pliers
  - A giant twist tie to tie up electrical plugs
  - WD-40 to loosen nuts and help get the damper in
  - Plastic scrapper to scrape off mineral build-up (NOT a metal scrapper!)
  - Plastic bags to dispose of mineral build-up waste and to carry everything to and from the roof
  - Ladder to get on the roof
  - Swamp cooler damper  (flat aluminum piece below)
  - Swamp cooler cover  (Oil cloth, made to fit swamp cooler)
  - Gloves, just in case my hands start getting too cut up.
  - Proper attire - loose pair of sweat pants, long sleeve t-shirt and floppy hat that covers back of my neck to prevent sunburn, shoes that cover feet and won't come off.
  Of note:  I needed later; a wire coat hanger, vinegar, plastic container, green scrub pads, a little wisk broom, and a scrub brush for cleaning.  Also, a large plastic contractor's bag and duct tape to cover the cooler panel with the holes.

Items to take to the roof

With pliers I removed copper tubing from the water source

Before climbing on the roof, I disconnected the copper tubing that leads to the swamp cooler at the valve on the water source.  My swamp cooler valve is on the outside of the house welded onto the side of an outdoor faucet.  The copper tube runs up over the roof to the swamp cooler. 

The valve was already turned off because I had not used the swamp cooler for about 2 weeks.   You need to disconnect the tube from the water source to drain any water in the tubing to protect it from freezing.  Since I am doing this weeks before a freeze, the inside of the pipe will have a chance to drain any water in it and dry out. 

After I removed the pipe, I discovered that my valve had a leak. I did tighten all of the nuts to confirm this. I contacted a plumber to come and repair this now, before winter.  Since he was not available until the next day, I put a bucket underneath to catch the water.

Copper tubing going up to the swamp cooler. Yes I know, I have peeling paint on the beams which were painted in 2014. 

I will watch the plumber closely to learn how to do this.  This way I can fix it the next time by myself.

The picture below shows the swamp cooler on the roof.  Copper tubing winds its way down the roof.

The brand and model of this cooler is a MasterCool Model ADA71. It was purchased May of 2011 when our last model, that lasted 10 years, rusted away and finally died.

The cooler got a few dents in it when my husband and his friend hauled it on the roof.  These coolers are very heavy and it was not easy for them.

White stuff on roof is from past water runoff incidents.

(The wood beams with peeling paint have been taken care of. See the wood beams here...)

Cooler on the roof.  The mountains in the background are in Mexico.

East side of cooler with damaged panel to be removed

The swamp cooler has three panels that I will remove.  The first panel I remove is on the east side of the cooler housing. I remove this panel first because this side has the electrical outlet.  This panel was badly damaged in Spring 2012 when some high winds ripped it off.  Fortunately the panel landed in my yard and not down the street. This is the reason I now put a cover over the whole cooler during the winter and spring. To hold everything together.

First panel removed. Blower housing is the round object inside.

Outlet inside of cooler

There are two items that plug into the outlet; the cooler motor and the water pump.

Both plugs should be unplugged before working on the cooler.

I unplug both and tie the cords out of the way with the long twist tie I had with me.  I don't want the cords dangling in the water.

I also removed the copper tubing that was attached to the cooler.  I want the air to circulate through the tubing to thoroughly dry it out.  I needed to use WD-40 to loosen the bolt.

Electrical cords twist-tied out of the way

Copper tubing removed from cooler

Panel on north end to be remove

The next panel to remove was the one on the north end of my cooler.  This panel gives you access to the cooling pads.  This panel comes out without screws.  You lift it up a little, then pull it out.  But to remove the cooling pads, you have to remove the panel on top also.  These two panels can be removed in either order.

North panel removed by lifting out. Cooling pads now exposed.

Top panel removed

Water hose removed from Water Distribution Housing

The black thing that sits on top of the pads is the Water Distribution Housing.  It has a water tube inside that distributes the water to the pads.  The water is pumped here from the water pump through a hose.  This hose needs to removed before the Water Distribution Housing is removed.

Pads removed from the cooler

Once the water distribution housing is removed, the pads lift out easily.  You now have access to the water reservoir below.  This is where most swamp coolers get real ugly. All the white stuff is the mineral build up.  El Paso has really hard water.  There is also dirt that has collected in the reservoir.  The water needs to be drained and the reservoir cleaned out. 

Important--No matter what, the water has to be drained.  You can wait until spring to do the cleaning, if you don't want to do it at this time.

This year, I am doing the cleaning during the fall, so I don't have to do it in the spring.  To remove the water for this cooler, there is a drain plug.  My problem with it last year was the difficulty of getting under the cooler to loosen it and tighten it back up.  So I decided to scoop the water out with a plastic container.  I soaked up the excess water with a rag.

Reservoir being cleaned up

The photo above shows the reservoir as I begin to clean it.  I am scrapping up what I can while I wait for it to dry out.  I will remove the water pump on the right to clean it up also.  The reservoir is made of plastic.  This is why I am only using a plastic scrapper.  If I become over zealous with a metal scrapper, I may put a hole in the plastic.

Water pump and water distribution housing to be cleaned.

I decided to wait until the reservoir dried out a bit to clean it further. I took the water distribution housing and water pump off the roof so I could clean them.  The pump is only a few months old and the reservoir and the tube were cleaned in June.  The tube had become clogged at that time.  I wanted it cleaned out now so it won't clog next summer.

First I had to remove the tube from the housing.  With my pliers I removed the plastic piece that holds the tube on.

White piece that holds water pipe onto water distribution housing.  Remove with pliers counter clockwise.

Removed water tube showing holes

The photo on the left shows the pvc tube with the holes which cannot be seen when the tube is attached to the housing.

Needless to say, the holes plug up first before the whole tube.

To clean the holes, I use a small Phillips screw driver which just fit inside the holes.  I place it in to each and every hole to clean them out.

I then use my straightened wire coat hanger to scrape the inside of the tube.  It just about reaches down the entire tube.

I then set the tube back in the housing and tilted it slightly and pored some white vinegar in to soak it.  I tilted the housing a little to keep the vinegar from running out of the hole in the housing. The tube was not completely covered so I rotated it an hour later.

Screw driver used to unplug the holes.

Tube soaking in vinegar

Removed bottom tray from water pump to clean

While the tube was soaking I went to work on the water pump.  I removed the tray on the bottom of the pump. I got off most of the dirt and then soaked it in vinegar.  I also cleaned the bottom half of the pump to clean off the dirt and mineral build up. 

DO NOT get water in the top half of the pump.  This part is not waterproof.  I ran the coat hanger down the water tube portion of the pump to make sure there were no debris.  I then set the pump in a bowl of water in the sink and plugged it in to flush out any dirt and to make sure it was pumping properly.  It was.

I also pored some vinegar into the hose that goes between the pump and the water distribution housing to clean it out.  I also ran the coat hanger through the hose to make sure there were no debris there.

With everything cleaned out, I put everything back together.

Cleaned up water distribution housing with water delivery tube attached.

Cleaned up water pump and attached hose to tube on the water distribution housing

I carried the cleaned housing and pump back up to the roof.  I cleaned up a little more in the reservoir and then pored some vinegar in the reservoir to soak over night.

I decide to complete the rest tomorrow. But before I tucked everything away, I decided to put the damper in place.

Install the Damper

This cooler is a downdraft cooler.  Meaning the air is forced down into the house.  The ducts in the house are used for heating and cooling.  If I do not put the cooler damper in, all of my furnace heat will go out of the roof through the cooler hole.  The damper needs to be installed between (under) the cooler and the roof.  Which means I have to lay on my back and slide under the cooler to get the damper in.
In the photo above you can see the very tight slit that the damper will go in.  About 2" from the bottom of the cooler.
The photo above shows the damper half way in.  I spray on a lot of WD-40 to get this done and more to finish the job.
The photo above shows the damper all the way in.  It hangs out about an inch.  I then poked my head inside the blower housing to make sure the damper completely covered the hole on top of the duct..

Reservoir cleaned up and water pump put back in place

The next morning I climbed back on the roof to check how the vinegar I pored in the reservoir did.  It got most of the minerals off.  I soaked up the vinegar to dry out the reservoir and ran my dust broom through to get out any remaining loose pieces.  The photo above shows the final clean-up.  It is almost impossible to get all of the white off.  Perhaps if I soaked it a few more days. But I wanted to finish this job up today.

Plastic bag duct taped onto north panel along top

I cleaned the north panel, the one with the holes in it.  I wanted to get off the mineral build-up in the lower right corner where the reservoir had over flowed in the past.

What I had decided to do overnight was to remove the cooling pads, clean them, and then store them in the garage in plastic bags until the spring.  It seems silly to clean them now and then have to hose them down again in the spring to get off the dust.

The problem that no pads would cause would be the holes in the north panel. They would let dust into the whole unit without the pads to stop the flow of air.  So I came up with the idea of covering the holes with a bag.

Granted ,the cooler housing is not air tight, but this would keep most of the dust out.


So I used a thick contractor plastic bag.  Taped it with duct tape along the top edge of the panel leaving the other three edges loose.

I then put the panel in place allowing the three loose edges of the bag to be caught against the edge.  The panel edge will hold the bag in place.  I then placed the top panel and side panel back on and secured all of the screws. I used a piece of duct tape to secure the copper tubing that was flopping loose against the side of the housing.

Before putting the panel on, I stored the water distribution housing that I had cleaned inside the unit.

With no cooling pads to move out of the way in the spring, all I will have to do is wipe off some surface dust, slide the cooling pads back in, reconnect the hose between the pump and water distribution housing, plug in the blower and pump, and hook up the water supply.  I should be able to do all of this in about 15 minutes.

In the spring I will also check on the tension of the belt and probably oil some of the moving parts. Neither should take much time unless I have to replace the belt.

Cooler panels all back on. Plastic bag blocking holes pinned down by edges of north panel

With the cooler finally closed back up all I had left to do on the roof was place the cooler cover on.

Swamp cooler covered and ready for winter

As for the pads, I sprayed them with white vinegar to get off some of the mineral deposits.  After letting them soak for a few hours, I hosed them down.  I then left them out for a few days to totally dry. I then placed them in plastic bags and stored them in the garage. 

I only purchased the pads this past summer, so the pads are good for at least one or two more summers before they become too crusted up with minerals to be useful.  You can see in the picture below that they are still in pretty good shape.

Swamp cooler pads sprayed with vinegar

What else did I do to prepare for winter?  I placed weather stripping on my doors.  See how I did this here...
Spring update - May 9, 2014

El Paso was starting to have a few more 90+ degree days, so it was time to take the cooler out of hibernation. 

Before climbing up on the roof, I reattached the copper tubing to the water supply.  I then carried all my tools and my cooler pads up to the roof.

We have had several days over the last few months where we had bad dusty wind storms.  I expected to find a layer of dust all over the inside of the cooler.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I did not.  The plastic bag taped over the cooler pad metal panel (the one with the holes) and the cover over the whole cooler, did the trick.  I had no cleaning to do. 

I took the cooler pads out of the two bags I had stored them in.  Of note, I tried something with the pads.  When I packed them away, I pored a couple tablespoons of Downy Unstopables Laundry Scent Boosters into the bags.  I wanted to see if this would change the cooler pad odor to something more pleasant when the pads were put back in.  It did.  I now have the pleasant smell of "Lush" blowing on me.  I only expect this to last for a day or so.  I guess you could sprinkle some of it in the water reservoir, but you would have to do this every few days.  Forget that.

The only thing I might have to replace, is the water shut off valve that is attached to the float.  I bent the float down so it would cut off sooner but the valve feels like it will go soon.  My next trip to the hardware store, I will pick up one.  I just have to watch for water coming off the roof.  For now, I  have to make sure I cut off the water when I turn off the cooler. 
See float valve replacement and other cooler maintenance on this page...
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How to Winterize a Swamp (Evaporative) Cooler
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