José Guerrero’s phone buzzes from morning to midnight with sweaty pleas for help: The air conditioner fan has just stopped. My grandma is stuck in a 90 degree house. My kids are overheating. Please come, it’s so hot.
As Phoenix weathers a record 20 straight days of 110-degree or higher temperatures, Mr. Guerrero, 33, has emerged as perhaps the most essential worker in a city desperate to stay cool: the AC repairman.
“We live in a town where you have to have it,” he said. “If they need us, let’s go.”
Summer is always his busy season, but air conditioning service companies around the Southwest are seeing voracious demand – a result of record temperatures scorching the country from Florida to California, compounded by a lack of skilled technicians and equipment.
So now, Mr. Guerrero, his two brothers and their father spread out seven days a week, heading to stuffy attics and tar-shingled roofs across the Valley of the Sun to coax ailing air conditioners back to life. They’re fixing leaking refrigerant lines, replacing burnt capacitors and trying to bring Phoenix’s temperature down a few degrees.
But keeping the city cool is a sweltering job. They cope with the heat by gulping down water and wrapping wet towels around their necks, and try to avoid burning their hands on a hot plate or passing out in crawl spaces where they say temperatures can soar to 150 degrees.
“We call it sleeping,” José Guerrero said. “It’s bad up there.”
The men use thermometers to measure temperatures inside houses and around the machinery, which often soar well beyond the outdoor air. “163 degrees in the attic,” reported Edi Guerrero, 30, another brother, after returning home drenched in sweat one afternoon.
Most white-collar workers around Phoenix hunkered down inside their air-conditioned homes or icy offices.
But about 20 percent of Arizona workers spend their days outside, according to an analysis of the Union of Concerned Scientists, harvesting crops and powering Arizona’s growth by building new roads, semiconductor factories and condos.
The state legislature rejected efforts to write heat protections into law, but this week, Gov. Katie Hobbs said her administration will send inspectors to check whether workers have access to adequate water, shade and rest in the extreme heat.
On Saturday, Guerrero’s youngest brother, Alex, 22, was spending the 116-degree afternoon checking air conditioners at an apartment complex when he felt his breath quicken and his eyes droop. He asked his girlfriend to drive him home, and as he staggered inside, he called his mother. and collapsed.
“Next thing I knew, I was on the ground,” he said.
The family called 911 and while they waited for paramedics to arrive, they knew from experience to cool him down with wet towels and gave him sips of a sports drink. Half an hour later, he sat shirtless in the family’s trailer, shivering but recovering: “It was too damn hot.”
The Guerreros never planned for air conditioning to become the family industry.
Roberto Guerrero, 51, who immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Phoenix 30 years ago, said it’s a second career after a sudden illness in 2008 left him paralyzed. During a painful three-year recovery, as he learned to walk and pick up spoons again, the family’s savings were depleted, and they were evicted.
“I had to do something,” Mr. Guerrero said.
He initially tried to sell air conditioners, but said he realized that while few people wanted to buy, everyone needed repairs.
José said he joined his father after losing his corporate job with a delivery app during the pandemic. The elder Mr. Guerrero still walks with a slight limp, so climbing to the roof, where most residential air conditioners sit, is treacherous even with the safety of a strong rope.
José’s parents, siblings and three of his children live together in a run-down trailer at the Sun ‘n Sand trailer park on the edge of an interstate in northwest Phoenix. They eat homemade enchiladas and watch television huddled around a kitchen table, talking about the day’s work and joking about who wilts the fastest in the heat.
They own their trailer, but José and Roberto say they dream of buying some land west of Phoenix, where they can raise chickens and horses and plant fruit trees, like their relatives in Chihuahua.
They are tired of patching up the trailer, and are still fixing a flimsy roof that peeled off in a windstorm months ago. They recently replaced their wheezing old window AC unit with a new wall mounted one.
And living in the country, Joseph said, could give him an excuse to ignore the service calls that ping his phone on weekends.
Sometimes, the Soldiers worry that they are not charging enough. Repairs can run from $500 for a relatively simple fix, to $10,000 for a new unit, and most of their customers can’t afford nearly that much.
They say they end up taking hundreds of dollars off repair bills for struggling customers by taking fruit or homemade food. instead. The other day, a customer whose house hit over 100 degrees slipped $100 into Jose’s hand, and asked him to do what he could. When another customer couldn’t afford the labor costs of installing an electrical part, José said he offered to walk him through it on FaceTime.
“It’s the reason we’re poor, but we’re happy,” said the elder Mr. Guerrero.
In the pre-dawn Tuesday morning, it was already 93 degrees when José and his father stopped at a home in a working-class neighborhood in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa.
The customer, Nestor Flores, a roofer, called the Guerreros when his June electric bill hit $570. His leaky rooftop air conditioner was constantly running at full speed while only burning hot air, making the house so swampy that his three children began spending summer days with their grandparents. He said José charged him thousands less than other repair companies.
“He’s cutting me a break,” Mr. Flores said.
Joseph was already sweating through his work shirt as he climbed up a ladder, steadied by his father, and onto the roof glistening with bird poop. He pulled out a drill and undid the bolts holding the 500-pound unit in place.
He had to work fast. Other calls were coming in, and the temperature was just zooming over 100. In an hour, the roof would be a pan.
Later that afternoon, Phoenix officially broke its record for the longest stretch of 110-degree days ever. It was big news for weathermen and news outlets across the region, and for the Guerreros, a reminder of even bleaker weeks ahead.
“We’ve been here all our lives,” Joseph said. “You don’t get used to it.”