Low-power air conditioners are hot items in Baghdad

Khalida Waleed, 32, opens the new 5-ampere split-unit air conditioner. It's a hot commodity this season, with Iraqis desperate to stay cool despite just five hours or so of electricity a day.
Khalida Waleed, 32, opens the new 5-ampere split-unit air conditioner. It's a hot commodity this season, with Iraqis desperate to stay cool despite just five hours or so of electricity a day. Hannah Allam / MCT

BAGHDAD — Khalida Waleed has no idea who designed the new low-power air-conditioning unit she bought for her family a few weeks ago, but she knows what she would do if she ever met the mystery engineer.

"I'd kiss him!" she said, fluttering her eyelashes in a mock swoon.

Waleed is among thousands of Iraqis who are snapping up Baghdad's hottest summer appliance: a split-unit air conditioner that can cool a room on just five amperes, half the allotted power under the Iraqi government's 10-ampere pilot program, which promises a more equal distribution of the country's scarce electricity.

Traditional A/Cs, both window and split units, have become all but obsolete because they require a whopping 16 amperes, putting them out of reach for Iraqis limping along on about 10 amperes of electricity at any given time.

Other options such as air coolers, the noisy devices sometimes called swamp coolers in the United States, work by simple evaporation and don't stand a chance against Iraq's scorching 120-degree summers. And while ceiling fans stir the air, they can't really chill a room.

That's why the new low-power A/C model is not just a nifty gadget, it's a godsend for Iraqis who dread yet another season of soaking their beds with water or sleeping on the roof to keep cool. Even with price tags of up to $350 apiece, a fortune for many Iraqis, local merchants are scrambling to keep them in stock. Some stores have waiting lists, and owners hire neighborhood boys to keep close watch on the precious cargo piled outside storefronts to entice sweaty passers-by.

"Iraq is thirsty for these things," said Basim Majeed, a Baghdad appliance vendor who sells the 5-amp units to Iraqis as well as to government offices that buy in bulk. "I sleep beside mine!"

The 5-ampere air conditioner first appeared on the local market two years ago and only now is coming into its heyday. Iraqis said they initially were skeptical about parting with so much money, fearing breakdowns or a disappointing output. Others said they clung to the hope that the national power supply would improve enough this year to crank up their idle window units.

Now, with the mild spring weather quickly disappearing and state-supplied electricity hovering at a five hours or fewer each day, Iraqis are more willing to take the plunge.

Vendors said the low-power A/Cs have become wildly popular in recent months because they solve two problems. First, they require only five amperes of electricity, unlike the older versions, so even families on the government's electricity rationing plan or those who can afford only small portable generators can once again have air conditioning. Secondly, they're much quieter than window units because they're split, meaning the radiator fan and other mechanics are outside the home, connected by tubes to the indoor vent that shoots out cold air.

The units available in Iraq bear famous international brand names — LG, Carrier, Kelon — but they were all made in Chinese factories, vendors said. Of several customers interviewed about their 5-ampere split units, the only ones who expressed buyer's remorse were those who said they didn't fully understand the caveats: The unit works best in a small, enclosed room with the door shut. It's not ideal for a busy office, for example, or in a large, open family room.

"It didn't cool the office because we had customers all the time. If you wanted to feel cold, you had to sit directly under it," said Firas al Tamimi, whose company bought and then discarded one of the 5-amp units. "The government should improve the national electricity because all the other substitutes are unsuccessful."

Still, for many Iraqis bracing for a sixth miserable summer since the U.S.-led invasion destroyed the country's power infrastructure, the units are their best hope yet for a little relief.

Waleed, the woman who vowed to kiss the appliance's designer, had planned to sit out the summer in neighboring Syria until a relative told her about the newfangled cooler known here simply as a "split." After hearing rave reviews, Waleed plunked down $340 and surprised her family with the LG unit, which is now installed in the sealed living room, where they will sleep en masse all summer.

"I realized we have to make our own innovations because no one else will help us," she said. "When I brought the split home, everyone was so happy. My sister said, 'This is the summer we're going to beat the heat!' All the neighbors and relatives heard about it, and they went out got them, too."

Waleed, 32, said she's now saving up for her own unit and dreams of lounging in the privacy of her bedroom, reading and chatting on her cell phone as cool air wafts around her.

"I hate the heat more than the terrorism and the bombings," she said. "You feel hot, dirty, you can't eat and you feel thirsty all the time. Husbands and wives can't even bear to touch. You don't like anyone. You don't even like yourself."

(McClatchy special correspondent Jinan Hussein contributed.)