A Swamp Cooler For Burning Man


For those who don’t know, Burning Man is a week-long festival in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The event attracts a wide range of creative people from all over the world.

This year, [Jake] is going to bring his homemade evaporative ‘swamp cooler’ to help battle the heat. His design uses a medium-sized shipping container with two large holes cut out of it and two 200mm PC cooling fans embedded into the plastic. The fans blow air from the outside into the bin. Humidifier filters sourced from a local dump are inserted into the middle of the container. The filters acts as an absorbent material to hold melt-water being pumped in from another cooler chest above.

A 30 watt solar panel provides enough power to keep the swamp cooler going while giving enough juice to energize decorative LED interior lights along with some backup batteries for phones and cameras. [Jake]’s system contains a re-purposed A/C computer load center for the solar system. He plans to take temperature and humidity readings at the Burn, bringing back the data from the desert to share with the world.

[Jake] does warn about mold with this system though, but one of the advantages with the filters he chose is that they are pretreated with biocidal compounds. This should help to reduce the chance of mold growth. High humidity conditions are also a disadvantage with this type of cooler, but this is a non-issue in the extremely dry desert of The Playa.

If you plan to go to Burning Man, tell about your energy/cooling preparations. Will you be bringing a system similar to this? If so, let us know.

41 thoughts on “A Swamp Cooler For Burning Man

  1. Playa dust collects on the panels instantly and there always seems to be enough dust in the air to cut the efficiency of a panel down even significantly. My solar FIGJAM cooler worked in direct sunlight at home, but got almost no usable solar wattage BM because of the reduced efficiency.

    Still – would love to see how 30w panel works out (prove me wrong, please), as well as the beefy swamp cooler setup.

        1. I wonder if placing burlap on the bottom ofthe panel and allowing water to run through it would cool the panel enough to notice a difference? Is the covering on the yurt porous, if so would keeping it wet make a passive cooling system. But you may haul a tanker worth pf water with you. One of those time smaller is better

  2. Couple of things worry me about this design.

    Firstly I don’t think there is enough airflow for a hexayurt with this setup. You want to replace all the air inside the space within 2 minutes for the cooler to be effective. So you will want at least 300cfm for the basic 6ft hexayurt.

    I highly recommend this fan : http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B0000AY2Z6?pc_redir=1407694141&robot_redir=1

    It pushes a lot of air for very low power requirements. I just finished my build using this fan and it is quite amazing how much air this thing pushes.

    Secondly I’m not 100% sure, but I didn’t think PC fans were very good at static pressure. This design requires the fans blow into the evaporative pad meaning you need to build up enough pressure to force the air through the pad and into your space. I think you would get better results by reversing the setup here and drag the air through the evap material instead.

    Finally Jake, where’s all the brass?? ;-)

    1. Good point on the air flow. Every commercially built unit I have seen pulls the air through to medium. My parents used a swamp cooler for years. I think one key to i ther rffectiveness was that the squirrel cage blow slightly pressurized the home

      1. Yeah the positive pressure build up in your tent or yurt is really great at Burning Man. Keeps the dust at bay and the extra humidity from the process means you wake up without the dreaded ‘playa nose’!

        Remember to crack a vent somewhere though so the hot air has somewhere to escape.

    2. Hi Ben,

      Yeah, I’ve been worry about total airflow too, I may bring a different fan with me in case the 220 CFM pc fans aren’t enough. This particular humidifier material has a high flow through rate, the head is negligible so I expect nearly the full 220 CFM to make it through the “filter.”

      1. I would take a backup pump too. Those little cheap pumps have failed on me twice on the playa. I’ve read that some people have had better reliability by sealing around the cable entrance into the housing and around any other seals. Apparently they usually fail due to water getting into the electronics.

        I have to say though, when I saw this was a Jake von Slatt swamp cooler I had imagined big bellows pushing the air, and brass tube drip feed systems etc. Would love to see that contraption strapped to the top of a hexayurt! :-)

          1. Hehe…if you’re anything like us I bet you need another project for Burning Man like you need a hole in the head right now! :-)

            It could be pretty stunning though, I wonder if you could get a little steam engine to power the bellows?

    3. IIRC pc case fans generally produce high static pressure at low fan speeds, and some are specifically designed for it; for heat sinks and case designs with grates and lots of internal cable obstructions.

  3. Burning man is a bucket list item for me that’s likely not to get checked off, neither is the Dayton hamvention. I’m a cripple, and I wouldn’t attend burnomg mas with anything less that a school bus conversion or a house truck for shelter, both beyond my financial needs

    1. You should know nearly every burningman kickstarter ever made was funded, you could easily get a support group, and funding for your needs by asking. It may be a rich mans vacation, but they love to help each other. If you did it right, you could start a camp designed to help people with special needs, and attend every year without paying a dime.

      1. Or join one of the several existing camps that already do that – Mobility Camp (mobilitycamp.org) is the most prominent one I’m aware of. I’ve met many functionally crippled people out there.

  4. I’ve never felt the need for this while at BM. Your body adjusts to the heat pretty quickly, and it’s so dry that really all you need is some shade and you’re set. Afternoon naps in the shade are downright wonderful. Also since you have to haul any water out there with you, this idea seems pretty wasteful.
    That said, in the interest of success I would advise that you plan on dust getting everywhere, including in the water and on the filter. It’s very fine, like flour. And if it gets wet it’s really difficult to deal with, like flour. Every year there are people who try to set up a pool with some crazy filtration system but as far as I know they have all failed. The playa dust jams up the filters in a matter of hours. One guy was talking about using a centrifuge style the next year but I have no idea if it worked out for him.
    At a minimum I’d put an air filter on the intake air.. Maybe use a filter box off a car. Those seem to hold up ok (but even car air filters need to be blasted out on the way out of there).
    I wish you the best but the reality is that you become one with the dust. It will be in and on everything you see, wear, eat, etc. You will decide that this cooler box will not be worth the fuss to keep it operating, and that the solar powered lights are really the only value in it.

    1. Yeah you do adjust to the heat and dust easily enough. But for me, the swamp cooler comes into its own when I crash on Thursday morning after having not had enough sleep all week. I can get a good straight 6hrs of comfortable sleep in my tent right through the hottest part of the day and be ready for action again that evening.

      It really can be a life saver too when someone comes down with heatstroke and just need to be kept cool for a few hours.

      The dust isn’t actually that bad, at least on designs I’ve used in the past. The evap material usually catches most of it and it settles down into the bottom of the reservoir, so the device itself acts as its own filter. This is a reversed design though so you are right in that it might suffer the dust a little worse.

      1. after reading the other post about where they dropped 30 degrees in a yurt I changed my opinion to be more optimistic. My experience was with more open structures, a yurt is quite a solid structure that would block nearly all of the wind and maintain a temperature difference reasonably well. And without that wind kicking the dust up it might do pretty well.

        1. Yeah it has to be effective to be worthwhile for sure.

          Last year we upgraded our tent to a bigger model, but this meant we didn’t have enough airflow from the bucket cooler we had made. That year the thing totally didn’t seem worth the effort, I didn’t get my long sleep on Thursday and as a result I was the most unpleasant person on the playa on Saturday.

          In prior years with smaller tents it has been outstanding and well worth the little maintenance it requires. This year I’ve built a larger one so hopefully I can get my rest again.

  5. We had a member of our camp make up a swamp cooler for our hexayurt one year and it worked INCREDIBLY well. Everyone spouting “that won’t work, it’ll fail instantly” obviously hasn’t built one and ran it at BM.

    Ours was designed using a large box fan and a ~2’x2′ to ~2.5’x2.5′ ish cooler element. I believe the fan pushed through the element with sealing around the exterior of the fan to the cooling element, and sealed against the exterior of the yurt. We had a solar panel running to a battery management unit and from the battery we ran an inverter to spin the fan, direct from the battery we ran the pump. We dusted off the solar panel throughout the day as we walked by and saw it was dusty. I believe it was a 150W unit.

    We saw over a 30*f temperature drop, along with an incredibly relieving increase in humidity in the Yurt. And honestly it wasn’t until day 3 or 4 that the water started to smell off and I don’t know if that was from some dick pissing in the holding tank, or if it got some natural funk in there. It was a very sharp transition from one day to the next.

    The fan and pressure specs are important for efficient operation. I wasn’t involved in the design, but I know the guy tested 3 different fans before being satisfied with the one he went with.

    He later bought some more element, chopped it up and fit it w/ a 12v fan into a plastic milk crate. Unfold the critter, set it in a shallow pool of water and flick it on. Personal AC for your tent! Built out 4 or 5 of em for camp mates. Worked very well!

    1. making it piss-proof is probably an extremely underrated engineering goal.you never actually think someone will do that… and really everyone seems too chill for that sort of crap. but then drinking.

  6. You should also consider an electric car radiator fan, can find some cheap ones online, and they really crank up the airflow.

    I have a design but need to figure out the clockwork to actually turn a disc of the blue filter material into a dip bath, to clean it of dust, and wet it without using a pump.

    Would be sweet to figure out if could attach a couple peltiers to the outside of the case, and use the temp diff between the chilled water, and the Playa heat to drive the clockwork, thus saving all the solar juice to drive the fan.

    You should also consider taking some of the slinky aluminum duct used for bathroom fans. tape it onto the output holes, and cut holes into top of the back wall of hexayurt to dump the cold air into the space opposite of the door.

    Your dual tubs are pretty bulky too.
    My design is actually built around a plastic 5 gallon water carrier. You would have to fill pretty often, since with all the holes for air, you only get to use the bottom 2 gallons or so, unless you used another one with a siphon fill system.

    1. The smaller automotive radiator fans still draw a lot of power, like 80 watts. The fan listed above by Ben looks like a good option, but I think it’s a little pricey. Anyway, I used to work for a company that designed automotive cooling fans and I have a bunch of dumpstered prototype blades to play with.

      The unit is built in the same crate that everything else goes to the playa in, so it’s filled with other stuff during shipping. The size of the container also limited the size of solar panel I could include to 30 watts.

      Also, I think that many folks aren’t understanding that the unit will go _inside_ the Hexayurt and draw air through a filter in the wall so it’s safe from dust and peeing strangers.

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