POSTED ON AUGUST 15, 2012:
Wet Collar Worker
Long days, suffocating heat for air conditioning repair technicians
This summer stands out to Bob Omstead, owner of Omstead Service Company.
"It's the busiest I think we've ever been, and I've been doing this for 50 years," Olmstead said, describing his experience in the air conditioning repair industry. "It started in April and it ain't let up yet. I bet we get another month of it."
A working air conditioning system provides the only refuge from the record-breaking temperatures this summer, but machines can handle only so much strain.
"When it's been 110 and 112 degrees, air conditioners just have a hard time. If there's any weak leak, it's going to break during that time," said Mike Rampey, president of Broken Arrow-based Air Assurance.
Temperatures reached 112 in Tulsa from July 31 -- Aug. 2. This year's record-breaking summer stands out not only for the high temperature. Air conditioning units also seemed to be going out earlier than other years, industry experts said, making for a truly long, hot summer for repair technicians. When the units go out, it's not only the home residents who must endure the heat. The workers who repair the systems must also be strong enough to handle hours and hours of hot, sweaty work to get the air conditioning working again.
"They're sometimes putting systems in 'til midnight," Omstead said.
Mark Swanson, a technician with Air Assurance, said he's often worked 12-hour days starting at 7:30am this summer.
"We do emergency calls at night also," Swanson added.
Most of his jobs have involved repairing house units and systems.
"Sometimes they're up in the attics, and it's 140 degrees -- I would imagine 140, 150 degrees," Swanson said.
He has a bit of a mantra for getting through the day: "Just drink plenty of water, take your time and be safe."
The exertion takes its toll in noticeable ways, however.
"I lose 20 pounds every summer, and then I gain it back," Swanson said.
Rampey said safety is emphasized to the 20 or so technicians he has on staff. Rampey said workers are encouraged to take breaks whenever they feel the need.
"We haven't really had anybody get sick to speak of. We've had a few go home a little early just because they've been physically exhausted," Rampey said.
Despite the increased demand, for the most part local companies said they've been able to respond quickly to the needs of customers.
"If it's not that day, it's the next morning," said Mamie Moore, office manager for J & J Appliances.
Rampey said the nature of the call also makes a difference.
If the call involves elderly residents or sick children, "then we make every effort to make sure they get taken care of in the same day," Rampey said.
Swanson said Air Assurance provides plenty of water and sports drinks for workers. He takes a few extra steps during the worst of the summer heat.
"Three o'clock in the afternoon, it's pretty warm. I carry an umbrella that keeps me out of the sun. It helps," Swanson said.
Travel is part of the job. Swanson said he's travelled as far north as Owasso to make repairs this summer. In general, the company will travel as many as 70 miles to get to a repair site, he said.
Swanson has been a technician for roughly 30 years. He has his own pace for getting through the day.
"I don't really take a lot of breaks. A lunch break and that's it," Swanson said. For Swanson, lunch means 30 minutes of rest.
"I like to go sit down in an air conditioned place," he said. The meal itself can be important when the temperatures ratchet up. "I just eat less. And fruit. Plenty of fruit, water," Swanson said.
The job has its own perks.
Yes, technicians do sometimes get tips, said Moore, though workers sometimes feel no need to talk much about such offerings.
Other perks can be much more modest, but still meaningful in the moment.
"Customers always have water hoses I have access to," Swanson said, adding that sometimes he'll "just grab a water hose and pour it over my head."
Mikey Rollings first began doing air conditioning jobs when he was 16 with his father, also a longtime air conditioning repairman. The younger Rollings, 49, now operates Jim Rollings Air Conditioning & Heating.
"Sometimes you come home, get cleaned up and then somebody has a need again. You get calls at one-thirty at night," Rolling said.
Despite the hour, Rollings said he'll usually take the job.
"It's up to them. If they're telling you to come, then you go. If not, they're just going to call someone else," Rollings said.
Rollings said he relies on adrenaline to get through the long days, but that only lasts so long.
"I don't really notice how tired I get, then I get home, clean up," Rolling said. Before long, sleep overtakes him. "It catches up with me real fast," he said.
It's hard to describe the number of calls a technician takes in a typical day, but Rolling said it may be eight to 10, depending on the complexity of the job.
Rollings said most units are only designed to bring the indoor temperature down roughly 20 degrees compared to the outside temperature, so setting the thermostat at 50 degrees probably won't help residents too much. In general, keeping air conditioning systems at the same temperature with only minor variations in thermostat settings is the best advice, Rollings said.
Thought customers rarely like the price for repair, Rollings said it's not a bad idea for customers to get several estimates before selecting a repair company. Most often, the estimates should be similar to each other, he said, adding that the industry does have a few people who try to take advantage of desperate customers.
Despite the grumbles a customer may have over cost, "generally, they're really pretty happy," Rollings said, adding, "you're always the kind of savior-type guy, they're like, 'Yeah ... the air conditioning guy's here.'"
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