The other day I drove by a crane picking an old rooftop unit from a building’s roof. This kind of stuff always catches my eye, but this one was different; I helped install it in 1987.
I remember rigging it into place like it was this morning; giving the crane operator the “spool out” signal to set the unit on the curb. We used hand signals because “walky-talkies” were expensive.
While we didn’t have walkie-talkies, every mechanic had a mustache.
That’s right, back then we were called “air conditioning mechanics”. Technicians were folks who worked in laboratories. The term “technician” didn’t start gracing our ranks until 1990 or so, still a few years off.
I remember grabbing a quick burger after the job was done then driving around town looking for a working pay phone to check in with our service manager for the next job. The only way to make the call was to use the customer’s phone or find a pay phone; cell phones didn’t become common place until around 1997. So for now it was a pay phone, a can of Lysol, and a rag.
(If the can of Lysol and a rag has you confused, you’ve never had to use a payphone)
A typical 1987 weekday began with firing-up the service van and letting it warm up for ten or fifteen minutes before heading to the shop. You had to, early eighties trucks had carburetors with chokes, you weren’t going anywhere until the engine warmed up.
If it was summer, you drove with the windows down. Company owners didn’t spend money on A/C for service trucks. They also didn’t believe in radios; your tunes came from a boom box set between the seats.
Once at the office you received your list of calls for the day. If it was Monday, the on-call mechanic would hand the duty pager off to the next guy on rotation. Pagers were expensive, only the on-call mechanic carried one. If you carried a pager in the eighties you were either a A/C mechanic, a Doctor, or a drug dealer.
Arriving at the job, you grabbed your leather tool pouch (nylon tool bags didn’t exist yet), refrigeration gauges, and your electrical meters. The meters were usually made by Amprobe or Simpson. They were analog, made of Bakelite, were heavy and bulky, and very expensive. Digital meters were just hitting the market at that time, but they were expensive, sucked-up batteries quicker than congress sucks money, and you couldn’t read the red LED displays in bright sunlight.
Whatever you were working on, you could be pretty certain the control panel would be filled with relays, contactors, motorized sequencers, and about twenty miles of wire.
If you were unlucky and the unit was new, you may be greeted by a crude, first generation, electronic control board.
Those first generation control boards had no fault lights or digital displays to help you find the problem; nothing but a forest of resistors, transistors, and capacitors staring you in the face.
Troubleshooting guides for these “modern” wonders of technology were almost nonexistent at the time. But it didn’t matter, we worked our way through it because we had to. Why? We couldn’t use our cell phone to call “tech support” like you can today. Cell phones were rare back then. They were expensive to buy, expensive to use, and hard mounted in the vehicle. We were on our own.
The standard tools for locating refrigerant leaks were soap bubble solution and a halide torch. If you were into cutting-edge tools, a GE electronic refrigerant leak detector was available. But it was bulky, heavy, powered by an extension cord, and expensive. No, that was not a typo; leak detectors back then needed an extension cord…
Once we found the leak, we didn’t recover the refrigerant, we vented it. Back then it was legal to vent, and refrigerant recovery machine didn’t exist yet. Besides, a thirty-pound jug of R-22 was only about thirty dollars. A year later we heard talk of something called the “Montreal Protocol” but we had no idea what exactly it was, or how drastically it was going to affect our industry.
If you were working on threaded pipe, you were using cast iron pipe wrenches weighing about 20 pounds each. Aluminum wrenches were just entering the market but they cost more than you made in a week. The up side of cast iron wrenches was you got your weight lifting in without paying for a gym membership.
What’s the biggest difference between then and now? The stress. We may have been lugging around heavy tools and driving trucks without air conditioning, but our mental stress levels were nowhere near what technicians are exposed to today.
We would get out our list of calls for the day and that was it. The dispatcher wasn’t calling to ask if you could hurry it up because you have ten more calls ahead of you. They couldn’t; remember, we didn’t have cell phones.
There’s something to be said for the old days.