Field Service in 1986: a World of Payphones, Heavy Tools and Less Stress

The other day I drove by a crane picking an old rooftop HVAC unit from a building’s roof. This kind of stuff always catches my eye, but this one was different — I installed that old unit back in 1986. I remember rigging it into place like it was this morning; giving the crane operator the hand signal to “spool out” and set the unit on its curb. We used hand signals because business owners thought “walky-talkies” were too expensive to give to mechanics.

That’s right, back then we were called “air conditioning mechanics” and a technician was someone who worked on electronics. The name “technician” didn’t start gracing our ranks until 1990 or so; still a few years off.

I remember after the job was finished I grabbed a quick burger and drove around town looking for a working pay phone. We had to check in with our service manager after every job and the only way to make the call was to use the customer’s phone or find a pay phone; cell phones weren’t commonplace until around 1997.

Eighties Vans: No Radios or Air Conditioning

A typical 1986 weekday began by firing-up the service van and letting it warm up for 10 or 15 minutes before heading to the shop. You had to, because the trucks had carburetors with chokes back then, and you weren’t going anywhere until the engine warmed up.

If it was summer, you drove with the windows down because company owners didn’t spend the extra 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, and if it was Monday, the on-call mechanic would hand the duty pager off to the next guy on rotation. Pagers were expensive, so only the mechanic on duty carried one. The only people carrying pagers back then were A/C mechanics and doctors.

Old School Tools, Like 30-Pound Wrenches

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, and were heavy, bulky and very expensive. Digital meters were just hitting the market at that time, but they were expensive and the red LED displays couldn’t be read in direct 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, it may have a crude, first generation, electronic control board.

Those first generation control boards had no fault indicator 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. It didn’t matter, we worked our way through it because we had to. Remember, we couldn’t call “tech support” on our cell phones like you guys can today; 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.

If you were working on threaded pipe, you were using cast iron pipe wrenches that weighed about 30 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.

Once we found the leak, we didn’t recover the refrigerant, we vented it. Back then it was legal to vent, and there was no such thing as a “refrigerant recovery machine”. Besides, a thirty pound jug of “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.

Simpler Times

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.  You had peace and quiet, you could give your full attention to what you were doing.

There’s something to be said for the old days.

Read more about field service on The SmartVan

ABOUT Patrick Peterson

Patrick Peterson of ZenHVAC has seen the HVAC industry from all angles, serving as a technician, manufacturer’s tech rep, salesman, technical trainer and business owner.