Cobwebs, dust and 130-degree attics: Hot days for AC technicians

Air conditioning is a ‘life-support system,’ as heat kills more people than any other weather-related cause.

Air conditioning is an important public health resource, technicians have to contend not only with the physical demands of the job, but also the emotional

As temperatures reached the mid-90s on Friday afternoon, Darrell Word swiped at cobwebs and crept into a residential crawl space in a College Park home. The skeleton of a long-dead mouse lay on the dusty ground. An air conditioning unit hummed in the background.

The co-owner of Maintenance Unlimited Heating & Cooling, Word is used to handling air conditioning maintenance checks like this one, particularly during periods of extreme heat. His College Park company, founded in 2001, has five employees and plenty of work making repair calls in the heat.

Over 174 years of recordkeeping, this year’s June was Earth’s hottest, and scientists anticipate that July will break that record and be the warmest month ever recorded. The National Weather Service predicts that temperatures will reach the high 90s in Atlanta this weekend.

Call volume, Word said, is highly weather-dependent and began to pick up in recent weeks as persistent heat settled over Atlanta. Phil Mutz, the general manager at Moncrief Air in Atlanta, has had similar experience, with demand increasing after July 4th.

It’s difficult to predict how long any repairs will take, Mutz said, and that means technicians’ schedules are variable and chaotic. He does, however, have one guarantee whenever temperatures soar past 92 degrees: “It’s going to be crazy.”

“We’re unfortunately seeing that air conditioning is becoming increasingly a life-support system,” said Evan Mallen, a researcher at Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab. “Heat kills more people than any other weather-related cause.”

Technicians often witness the toll heat takes on a person’s mind and body — one of the most difficult parts of the job, Mutz said.

“What’s really hard as a technician is you go to a house where a person is really suffering,” he said. “Sometimes you’re sitting there staring at an elderly person who really doesn’t have an option of going anywhere, or a mother juggling a few kids ... and there’s nothing that you can do.”

Word has likewise met people in distress, noting that it’s particularly challenging to see elderly people suffer through extreme heat without air conditioning.

“We’ve walked in some houses that are 80 or 90 degrees and you have a person in their late 70s just sitting in front of a fan in a chair,” he said.

Darrell Word, technician and co-owner of Maintenance Unlimited Heating & Cooling, services an AC unit in College Park on Friday, July 28, 2023. (Katelyn Myrick/

Credit: Katelyn Myrick

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Credit: Katelyn Myrick

A home, Mallen said, serves as “solar oven,” meaning that without air conditioning, an interior space can be hotter than the external temperature because heat is trapped.

Mutz is no stranger to trapped heat — he said that attics can routinely reach 130 degrees. Word, who routinely wiped beads of sweat on his sleeve as he worked in a College Park attic, stays hydrated with a special hydrogen water bottle.

“You only have 5 or 10 minutes before you start getting a little delirious,” Mutz said of being in an attic. “And then the sweat is dripping from everything so hard that your fingers don’t work, you can’t grab anything.”

Just as heat is not evenly distributed throughout a home, it’s also not equally spread across a city, Mallen said. Within Atlanta, he explained that more affluent communities tend to have greater air conditioning access.

Air conditioning maintenance can create a significant financial burden: repairs for central cooling systems typically cost between $500 and $1,500, while system replacements usually fall anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000, Mutz said.

Word often struggles to break bad financial news to customers, particularly those whose resources are already limited.

“Even if you can manage it, nobody wants to spend thousands and thousands of dollars unexpectedly,” he said. “But for the ones that just really can’t do it... and it’s 90 degrees out and you have to leave them — it’s rough. It’s rough.”

Air conditioning not only poses fiscal costs, but also environmental ones, Mallen said, since greater energy use creates more carbon emissions. He added that cooling interiors can increase local exterior temperatures, as the heat is transferred outside.

Given the recent heat extremes, however, Mallen “can’t in good conscience recommend that people don’t use (air conditioning).”

For all of the challenges of the profession — from finding old snake skins under homes to bearing the weight of others’ suffering — Word still finds joy in his work.

“To make someone’s day and feel like you’ve saved a life when it’s this hot, when it’s dangerous,” he said. “At the end of the day, you feel good.”

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at