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FEAR AND LOAFING: Critical (Air) Condition (Air Conditioning Technician)

Rooftop A/C maintenance hardly a breeze for reporter in 114 degrees


I smell barbecue. This is troubling because there is no barbecue nearby, and the meat is probably my own knees. They're perched atop a metal plate heated to "sear" by the relentless afternoon sun.

The ultimate taunt is what I'm servicing outside on the hottest day of the year so far: air conditioners.

"I'm thankful to have a job," says Hacienda Air service technician Greg Stephens, 34. "I'm not gonna complain. There are so many people out of work that, even in this heat, I don't care."

The mercury climbed to 114 degrees as Stephens and I climbed to the rooftop A/C unit of Las Vegas resident Sonny Murphy. It's receiving a tune-up, an hourlong process Hacienda performs twice a year for its 2,200 valley clients.

A tune-up begins by tightening the connections without touching your sweaty screwdriver to the side of the exposed voltage panel. (Electricity must flow into the unit, because its flow is being measured.)

"Did you ever play Operation when you were a kid?" Stephens asks. "Remember that buzzer that went off? This is nothing like that buzzer at all. It will zap you and throw you across the roof."

Stephens, a valley native, entered the trade 12 years ago, before becoming a youth pastor at Calvary Chapel Spring Valley. Three months ago, he re-entered it to improve his job chances in North Carolina, where he plans to relocate in the coming months to establish a church.

"Years ago, my dad had a buddy with an air-conditioning company, and that's how I got my break," Stephens says. "It basically chose me rather than me choosing it."

Next, I'm told to take electrical readings with an amp reader. (Voltage shortages, burned contactors and weak motors all must be repaired. Any of these can cause an air-conditioning unit to seize.) There are way too many numbers, however, and they're way too tiny to read with eyes flooded by sweated-off SPF 45 sunscreen.

"Welcome to A/C service work," says Stephens, who notes that it pays $12 an hour to start.

Stephens claims that standing around all day like a bug in a magnifying glass doesn't bother him. As if to prove it, he totes only one water bottle to the roof, while my every step is accompanied by Aquafina swishing from every pocket.

"You get used to it," Stephens says as I try to recall the warning signs of heatstroke.

Stephens also maintains a chilled attitude toward his job's other health risks. On a recent second-story service call, the house next door was so close, he had to place his ladder nearly vertical.

"We're climbing up to this roof that's got this supersteep embankment," he recalls with a twinge of excitement, "and on the other side of the fence is three giant pit bulls."

Stephens has no health insurance, by the way, only workers' compensation. "So if I fall and die, hopefully my wife will be taken care of," he says.

As I take whatever a microfarad reading is, something catches the corner of my less-stinging eye. Closer inspection determines it to be a former pigeon -- a very former one. Judging from its state of decomposition, weeks have passed since it flew its mortal coop.

An unnecessary amount of "eww"-ing ensues. After I stop, Stephens reminds me to be thankful that I didn't stumble upon an equally common type of urban wildlife.

"A lot of times, you open one of these units and it's packed full of black widows," he says, explaining that the deadly spiders like to nest in cool, undisturbed areas.

Stephens calls this the only downside to the job that still gets to him: "Dude, I scream like a girl when I see black widows."

Mr. Murphy's unit is perfectly cool, blowing chilled air at 65 degrees and waste air at 85. (These readings are taken via a thin thermometer jammed into tiny duct holes pre-drilled for this purpose.)

The Freon had to be recharged a bit, but Stephens insisted on doing this himself. (A steep fine faces anyone who touches the patented chlorofluorocarbon without a license.)

My last duty is cleaning the coils, accomplished with a hose and attached canister of soap. Never did I think I could so thoroughly enjoy being splashed in the face with soapy bird-poop water.

"It feels great, doesn't it?" Stephens shouts over the noise.

Just when my workday doesn't seem capable of worsening, it ends by almost taking my life along with it. So much soapy bird-poop water has slicked Mr. Murphy's roof, the ladder slips on my way down. Luckily, it's steadied quickly by Stephens so I don't plummet 8 feet onto a concrete patio.

My next A/C repairman has an extra generous tip coming.

Fear and Loafing runs on the first Sunday of every month in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at

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