Reprint of the Tampa Tribune Article
Posted Aug 18, 2007 by Alex Vila
Updated Sep 15, 2007 at 09:36 PM
Rich Mullins tries his hand at air-conditioner repair.
By RICHARD MULLINS
The Tampa Tribune
This time of year, Lloyd Mishkel looks more like a superhero with each passing day.
Owner of Lloyd’s Heating and Cooling, he holds the keys to climate-controlled paradise, just as the August heat starts broiling the Tampa Bay area with swampish temperatures somewhere between 90 degrees and lethal.
“Summer is what separates the men from the boys,” says Lloyd, 57, a stocky and spry ex-Navy man with tightly cut salt-and-pepper hair and thick, scarred hands.
For air conditioner repair crews, these baking summer months are the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and Daytona 500 squeezed into 90 days of work. There are more desperate customers than anyone could ever help. “The office gets hundreds of calls a day lately - my wife takes them,” says Lloyd, who runs the business with his spouse, Kaylon. “But some still get to me.”
In no small way, people such as Lloyd make modern Florida life possible. For without AC, this state could still be a scarcely populated patch of swampy orange groves and cattle ranches tended by die-hards who can tolerate heat that cripples Northerners.
Today, Lloyd is busier than usual after two technicians left last week for another company, part of the cutthroat competition for AC talent.
“It’s hard keeping good trained guys when business is like this - people offer them so much money,” Lloyd says. “Now I gotta hire new guys.”
Luckily for Lloyd, today he has an enthusiastic amateur to help out: me.
Time: 9:30 a.m. Temperature: 85
Our first stop is in Tampa Palms, past an automated gate and deep within a condo development lined with trim landscaping and imported sports cars in the driveways.
Lloyd had already called the customer for a remote diagnosis: Is the fan running? Do you hear the compressor humming? Is it cooling at all?
Slipping between some box hedges, Lloyd spots the fatal problem. The unit outside suffers from a kind of personality disorder. The main fan started running backward, sucking air down into the unit instead of blasting it out.
The heat and bugs are already building and swirling up from the damp mulch around us. In 10 minutes, I get five mosquito bites.
Lloyd zips off a few bolts, wrenches off the motor and chucks it aside like a NASCAR pit crew heaving used tires. His phone rings three times during this one job - desperate pleas from other victims without AC.
“Yes, I should be there in 15, 20 minutes,” he tells one caller, pinching his phone between his ear and shoulder so he can use both hands to screw a new fan back into place.
With the flip of a switch, the fan roars back to life, and somewhere inside the home, cool air starts flowing from the vents.
Repair cost: $225.
That job was simple, Lloyd says. At least no one ransacked the unit. Lately, the price of scrap copper is pushing $3.50 a pound, triggering a bizarre wave of vandals to chop up AC units for the copper coils.
Lloyd makes mock karate chops on the machine and says, “You just cut here, here and here, and you can tear out the whole coil.” That’s a quick $50 at the scrap yard.
It’s a popular crime lately. The Hillsborough County Sherriff says new developments are easy pickings because people don’t suspect workers wandering around with spare parts.
It’s an oddly cruel crime in the summer, and Lloyd says he has churches, stores and residents call him saying, “Hey, the AC stopped,” and he finds a ravaged pile of metal where the AC unit used to be.
We make a rapid-fire tour of customers for a couple hours. One has a mucky swamp in the back yard and an AC unit low on Freon. Standing in the soppy goop, we pump in some more gas, and the fan starts blowing wicked hot air, just like it should.
Time: 11 a.m. Temperature: 115 (above the AC unit). Ugh.
The next customer has a balky unit up in a roasting hot attic with a bad Freon leak. That happens over time because the coils vibrate so much. That means ripping out the whole coil in an attic space the size of a car trunk.
Over time, the heat starts to wilt my ability to think. Thoughts slow down into a fuzzy fog of uncoordinated murmurs. What should I ask Lloyd next? Um, um, dunno. Maybe I’ll just let him ramble.
Time: Noon. Temperature: I’ll just say unimaginably hot in that attic.
Personally, I loathe the swampy heat of summer. So the basic idea of air conditioning seems mystical to me - and it hasn’t really changed in the 100 years since it was invented.
A typical house AC unit compresses gas into a big coil - that square thing outside your house. All that pressure heats up the gas, and a big fan blows air across it, cooling it off.
A pump then pushes the high-pressure gas into your house and through a smaller coil of copper, typically in the attic or garage. Releasing that pressure lets the gas expand, and its temperature plummets close to 30 degrees.
Another fan then blows air across the ice-cold coils, through the vents and into your house. The gas then goes back outside to restart the cycle
What helps AC guys such as Lloyd pay their mortgages is that a single breakdown anywhere in the system wrecks the whole process - a faulty fan, a creaky compressor, some frayed control wires, a clogged drain pipe, a leak in the coils.
In case you’re curious, a hero of mine lately is Willis Haviland Carrier, the official “father of air conditioning,” who first took early prototypes of refrigeration and patented an Apparatus for Treating Air way back in 1906 and installed one in a Brooklyn, N.Y., printing plant.
Yes, Carrier, like the company that makes air conditioners.
I would guess that very soon after, the world saw its first spousal dispute over the thermostat.
Lloyd didn’t plan on this kind of work. He was born on a chicken farm in New Jersey and spent 20 years in the Navy steering ships and as chief engineer. Once, while afloat in a ship with a broken air conditioner, he had to learn AC repair by trial and error.
“We were 1,000 miles out at sea and couldn’t just call a repair guy,” Lloyd says. “So we figured it out, and I kept tinkering with it until I got serious.”
Once out of the Navy, a veterans program helped Lloyd pay for air conditioning classes at a community college. In the 1990s, he started a repair company in Birmingham, Ala. In 1997, he moved the business to Tampa and makes 75 percent of his sales between March and October.
Despite the near-guaranteed revenue of selling air conditioning in Florida, the work isn’t for everyone.
First, it’s deadly hot, because … well … there’s no air conditioning, which is pretty much why Lloyd shows up.
Hornets especially like to nest in the metal electrical boxes. In winter, snakes like to curl up against the warm compressor motors. And rats like to chew into attic ductwork.
“I’ve learned to look before I reach in somewhere,” Lloyd says.
For repair crews, busy days of summer stretch to 15 hours a day, seven days a week.
Still, the pay is good for a skilled trade. A midlevel repair technician can earn $60,000 to $70,000 a year. Experienced installers who put in new systems can earn $80,000 or more. (Installers have a better job, in my opinion. There’s less detective work, and it’s simpler to start fresh than to repair a creaking unit.)
Brandon Organ Transplant
Time: 1:22 p.m. Temperature: 92
Like many things in life, fixing the problem sometimes just isn’t worth the trouble. You have to start over and eject the wheezing, leaking, squeaking problem whole hog.
That’s why we drive to Brandon, where Lloyd’s crew is installing a brand-spankin’-new unit for Eveline Zajac. But there’s a glitch. The crew has accidentally brought the wrong brand unit, a Goodman, not an Amana, and Eveline paid a premium for an Amana and wants one. We heave the Goodman back into Lloyd’s truck, and he heads to the distributor.
“It’s just miserable hot in there, and I even like it hot,” she says. “Normally, I’m under blankets freezing and my husband is laying there naked, sweating. But this was too much even for me.”
I start to suspect that more and more marital problems start at the thermostat.
Up on a ladder in the garage, Daniel Figueroa chops away at old ductwork, preparing it for a clean transplanted unit. Daniel is a wiry guy who works at the slow, deliberate pace of someone accustomed to the heat. If it’s 92 outside, it’s easily 100 in the nook of a space Daniel has to work.
An hour later, Lloyd returns with the right equipment and asks, “Has Daniel started talking to the unit? Sometimes he talks to the unit. It’s always a ‘she.’ Sometimes he rubs its sides or curses at it in Spanish. ‘Come on baby. Work for me.’”
Total cost of the job: $5,000.
One Day Closer
Lloyd has stacks of customers to visit - and he could probably work 24 hours a day until October and still not keep up with demand.
If Lloyd has one piece of advice for frantic customers who can’t reach a repair crew, it’s this: Get a second opinion.
He has seen too many AC companies diabolically offer “summer pricing”: higher prices just because people are hot and desperate. He has seen customers who had AC contractors just pull a price from midair - billing for $7,000 when the job should cost $2,000.
“Instead of spending two nights in a hotel for $200 and taking the time to shop around, they [customers] spend thousands more than they should,” Lloyd says.
Every once in a while, I run into native Floridians who scoff at the summer heat and say, “Awwww, this is nothing. I grew up with no AC.” That may be true, but I defy them to honestly say they would give up air conditioning to go back to their idealized, sticky youth.
As my day with Lloyd ends, I realize what’s really keeping him in business.
Each house we pass probably has an AC system whirring away. And with each passing hour, that unit is steadily growing older - slowly growing closer to a total breakdown. So is every AC unit in the Bay area.
In an hour, I’m home, reclining with a cool beverage in my own air-conditioned bliss.
Time: 5 p.m. Temperature: 80. (That’s as cool as my spouse accepts in the house.)
Somewhere, Lloyd and his crew are just getting going on their evening repair calls.
Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919 or