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Working Hard To Keep Cool During Heat Wave

Aired 9/3/13 on KPBS News.

We’ve been experiencing a heat wave in San Diego, which means air-conditioner repairman Mike Eckhart has been busy. A portrait of one laborer who works hard to keep everyone cool when it’s hot.

Mike Eckhart has been fixing air conditioners for 20 years. His daughter took this photograph of him.

When I arrived on the third floor rooftop in downtown La Jolla, the first things I noticed were the heat and the noise.

The heat I expected; San Diego was in the middle of the only real heat wave this summer. In some spots throughout the county, temps topped 100 degrees.

The noise surprised me, as I stepped into a small, roofless room where a giant piece of machinery with fans, motors and belts hummed along at one deafening note. This behemoth was busy cooling all the suites and restaurants in the building, and it had some catch-up work to do: earlier that day, the behemoth busted.

That was when they called Mike Eckhart.

Eckhart has been fixing air conditioners for 20 years. He works for a locally-owned family business called Jackson & Blanc.

"My job is fixing air conditioners and making people happy," says Eckhart, whose old-school handlebar mustache bends toward the chin. There's the technical side of his job, and the people-person side. "When you don’t have air conditioning, people get a little hot under the collar," he says. It's part of his job to diffuse tempers and reassure people.

The day we met, it was humid. Apparently, a little humidity is one of the worst things that can happen to an air conditioner. "When we’ve got humidity coming in, I know my day is going to be a hot and sweaty day," Eckhart says. "And tempers are going to be flared wherever I go."

Eckhart's job is hard - harder than I anticipated. As a commercial air conditioner repairman, he works on a lot of rooftops, where the sun beats down on him and his tools. "You go down to reach for a wrench and it will be over 100 degrees, so if you don’t have gloves on, you’ll burn your hand just trying to pick up tools," Eckhart says.

He's often bringing heavy equipment and coolant up onto the roof. Sometimes the only way to do that is by tying a rope to the haul and pulling it off the ground, hand over hand.

Nevertheless, Eckhart tries to stay in good spirits. Someone in the sushi bar downstairs offered him a cold soft drink, which he downs quickly.

"On a day like today, just having some one say 'thank you' or offer you a cold drink, that’s my reward."

After a couple of hours on one site, the day wraps and Eckhart packs up his tools and grabs his wide-brimmed Amish hat that his mother-in-law sent him from Pennsylvania. "It's a field worker's hat," he explains. "I'm kind of like a field worker, without the strawberries."

He didn't want me to see his van. "A technician's van at the end of a work week is always a mess," he explains.

I get a glimpse, and it's not bad at all, just a lot of tools, ropes and pulleys. The cab includes an extra shirt to swap out between jobs and 3 gallons of water. There are pictures of his daughters taped to the dashboard.

"Getting home and seeing your kids smile at you and taking a nice cool shower and being able to lay back," Eckhart shakes his head. "That’s one of the best things in the world." That, and a cold front, I think to myself as I walk back to my car where I plan to blast the air conditioning.

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