July 24, 2010 10:11:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Friday afternoon while waiting on traffic at the intersection of Military Road and Highway 12 John Lancaster takes a call on his cell phone. It''s just after 4 o''clock, and, depending on whose thermometer you''re looking at, the air outside is triple-digit hot.
The caller wants to know what he can do about a failing window unit air conditioner. The traffic clears and as Lancaster angles the white Chevy 3500 pickup that serves as his office, parts house and lunch room on to 12, he gamely tries to counsel his caller on how to revive his a.c. before admitting he might just go ahead and get a new unit.
"All I do is central units," Lancaster later says. "I can''t afford to throw my back out on a window unit."
Lancaster can''t afford to throw his back out because he is a one-man show, and July and August in the South are for an air conditioning repairman what November and December are for department stores.
"My business is like a garden, you work your tail off in the summer, and you live off of it in the winter," he said.
This time of year Lancaster is tilling that garden from 7:30 in the morning until he gives out in the evening. "From can to cain''t," as he puts it.
"Last night an older lady called me and said, ''John, I''m burning up.'' I have a problem telling someone they''re going to burn up."
On the way home from that job, Lancaster got a call from Hubert Perkins, who coached Lancaster when he played little league baseball. The motor on Perkins'' central unit was locking up, and on this Friday afternoon Lancaster is headed to Steens to have a look.
Lancaster''s dad, J.T., is well regarded in the New Hope area for his magic touch with broken appliances, and it was in his dad''s shop John got his start. Through his former father in law, Hebert Junkin, Lancaster got a job and worked 15 years for Brislin, Inc. Since then he''s been on his own. He relies on word-of-mouth for business.
"I don''t even have my name in the phone book," he says.
Lancaster says he makes about 10 service calls a day and with weather consistently in the high 90s, he says "there are not enough hours in the day.
"If anybody is in the air conditioning business in Columbus and not working today, they don''t want to," he says.
Most units are not engineered to drop the temperature the amount needed on 100-plus degree days, says Lancaster. As a result, they run constantly, burning up motors and overloading capacitors.
"They just can''t handle this heat."
Hubert and Cora Perkins live in a modular home on Fernbank Road, east of Steens. Upon arriving Lancaster whips out an infrared thermometer and points it at their asphalt driveway.
"141 degrees," he says. The ground next to the ailing air conditioner is 122 degrees. Lancaster said he''s worked in some 145-degree attics.
The unit is on the west side of the home and is unshaded. Lancaster says trees can make a big difference in the cooling efficiency of a unit.
"People will lose a tree in a storm and then they will call me saying, ''This thing is not cooling like it should.''
"I''m telling you, it (trees) makes a difference."
Lancaster turns off the power to Perkins'' unit and in a matter of minutes he has removed the motor and replaced it with one exhumed from the back of his truck.
"Y''all care for a Coke or a Diet Pepsi," Perkins offers.
"I''ll take one when I go, Lancaster replies.
"I''ll give you one if you fix it," Perkins jokes.
"We''ll, I''m sure gonna get one," Lancaster says under his breath.
Twice Lancaster has to remove the motor to make modifications. Then he and Perkins realize the motor is turning faster than it should.
He doesn''t have the exact motor needed for Perkins'' unit, but at 5 o''clock on a Friday afternoon, he thinks he knows where he can find one. By 7 o''clock he''s located the needed motor and installed it for Perkins.
When I called Cora Perkins Saturday afternoon, she said her unit "is working great.
"We''ve known John since he was a little boy," she said. "I''m sure we''ll be calling him again."
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.