When it’s 108 degrees outside and the air conditioner gave up the ghost three days ago, everybody is happy to see Mike Atkins pull up to their house.

“I’m their hero,” the Eastern Oregon Heating and Air Conditioning technician said. “Unless I can’t fix it.”

The good jobs are the ones where Atkins can spend 20 minutes swapping out a bad part. The bad ones are when he has to tell someone their entire unit needs to be replaced.

Tuesday morning Atkins dealt with a residential air conditioner that was “kind of a mess” and involved crawling up into the house’s attic. The job took him longer than expected but his next job was an easy fix — the capacitor on a unit at a farm’s office building was shot and it only took a couple of minutes to diagnose the problem.

He said the sudden heat wave this summer, which came on earlier than usual, means he has been working 13-hour days trying to keep up.

When people complain they’ve been dealing with extreme heat in their house in the summer or freezing temperatures in the winter while they wait for a repair, Atkins understands it. Technicians do most of their work outdoors, and the hottest and coldest days of the year are their busiest.

“You’re either sweating or freezing,” he said.

Summer jobs repairing air conditioners usually mean dealing with insects, too, from black widow spiders in crawl spaces to wasps that like to make their home inside the air conditioning units. In his 13 years in the business Atkins said he has only been stung twice but he has gone through countless cans of wasp spray.

Despite the physical discomforts, there are perks to the job, too. Atkins said he enjoys being able to get outside every day, meeting new people and staying busy.

“It’s kind of nice just doing service work,” he said. “It’s different places, different problems. Every job is different. I’m not stuck in one little cubicle all day.”

He said each unit’s basic refrigeration system is the same, but there are so many different brands and types of air conditioners and heaters that it would be impossible to cover them all during training. Atkins has an associate’s degree from Walla Walla Community College’s HVAC repair program but said much of his expertise comes from years of experience.

“They can only teach you so much at school,” he said. “Most of it you learn on the job.”

Atkins is one of 13 employees total, including repair technicians and installation crews, who work for Eastern Oregon Heating and Air Conditioning. The company is based in Hermiston but services homes and businesses from Heppner to Athena to the Tri-Cities.

Tess Sabuco, general manager, said things have been crazy at the office during the triple-digit temperature streak.

“Last week we were pretty booked out,” she said. “We’ve kind of caught up now and we’re back to a couple of days (wait time).”

She said to save time for technicians she tries to ask questions about the system and how it is behaving before sending someone. She also prioritizes homes with infants or the elderly, both of which are more susceptible to negative side effects from heat or cold.

Nobody is very happy when they need their air conditioner or heater repaired, though.

“People are the same,” Sabuco said. “They don’t like to be really cold and they don’t like to be really hot.”

In order to prevent that from happening, Sabuco said people should keep their filters clean and get a technician to look at their system from time to time before it breaks in the middle of a heat wave. They can also “set it and forget it” in hot weather, using their thermostat to keep the building cool when they are going to be gone for a while instead of shutting the air conditioner off completely.

“Asking it to come back from 95 degrees to 74 is not good,” Sabuco said.

Putting too much strain on a unit means a visit from Atkins or another technician. And while that’s what he’s trained to do, Atkins would much rather fix an air conditioner that is starting to go bad in the spring than see someone spend days in a house that is 90 degrees indoors.

“Don’t wait until it’s 100 degrees to get your system checked,” he said.


Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

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