An air conditioning service vehicle sits outside a home in Northside San Antonio.
An air conditioning service vehicle sits outside a home in North San Antonio. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

Perhaps no one saves summer like the technicians burning up San Antonio’s roads repairing and replacing air conditioning systems that aim to keep homes and offices cool and dry during record heat waves.

Despite sweltering triple-digit temperatures in some areas, 87 percent of American homes stay cool thanks to some kind of air conditioning equipment – until they don’t.

When the cold air stops coming, causing thermostats to climb and tempers to flare, local HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) contractors rush to the rescue.

“We don’t take our vacations in the summer – ever,” said Vince Gillette, president of Gillette Air Conditioning, the company his father started in 1959.

Americans’ reliance on air conditioning in their homes and workplaces is at an all-time high, and some can’t imagine life without it. In fact, San Antonio holds the distinction of having the first air-conditioned high-rise office building: the Milam Building, which opened in 1928.

Today, air conditioning accounts for 12 percent of total annual home energy expenditures in the United States, but 27 percent in the hot and humid South and Southeast regions, according to the latest EIA Residential Energy Consumption Survey (RECS).

And it shows on the hottest days. Recently, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the flow of electric power to more than 25 million Texas customers, reported a demand record of 73,259 megawatts. That was July 19, when temperatures in San Antonio reached a toasty 99 degrees, following four consecutive 100-plus degree days at the start of the month.

Because homeowners in the South report a preference for keeping indoor daytime temperatures at 74 to 76 degrees – though many keep it even cooler – it’s days like these that put pressure on central HVAC units and on the specialists who keep them running.

Some 16,228 HVAC contractors work in the state, according to Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) lists, and 1,032 individuals are licensed in Bexar County.

Gillette employs 160 people and operates 75 vehicles for both service and construction/installation. Currently working seven days a week, nearly around the clock, Gillette’s service technicians respond to repair calls across the city. The construction division is also on the move, working to remodel systems in 14 area schools before the fall semester starts later this month.

“Summers are just busy. You plan for it,” Gillette said.

But as those triple-digits start to appear, breakdowns happen because most HVAC systems are designed for temperatures between 75 and 98 degrees, Gillette said. “Every degree above 98, the systems that are marginally sized are losing ground.”

He keeps his cool, however, even during these busy days. “We’re thankful for what we get,” he said. “This is how we make a living.”

The Texas Air Conditioning Contractors Association (TACCA) of Greater San Antonio is a group of 50 mostly large HVAC companies in town. TACCA provides a locator service for consumers seeking qualified, licensed HVAC repairs.

“Especially during the summer in San Antonio area there are unlicensed, uninsured, and untrained, nonprofessional bad actors that offer HVAC repair services, but perform shoddy work, which could leave a consumer with potentially thousands of dollars in future repairs and possibly voiding any warranty claims,” said Dawn Thompson, TACCA executive director. “All of our members are licensed by the TDLR.”

TACCA Board President Pat Beyer said his company’s technicians also work long days responding to service calls, often within the same day. “Everybody calls in a panic,” he said.

As one of the bigger companies in town, Beyer Boys operates 20 trucks for residential service and another eight for systems replacement.

“We’ve got a lot of units breaking,” Beyer said, especially systems that are more than 10 years old, which is forcing homeowner to make “some pretty big decisions.” Many of those older systems used the refrigerant R22, or Freon, he said, which is being phased out and getting costlier to replace as it can no longer be manufactured in or imported to the U.S. “It’s like buying gold,” he said.

For any HVAC system, regular upkeep is important. “If you haven’t done the maintenance by now, you’re probably going to notice it,” Beyer said. “It also affects your energy use and will cost more to run.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.