Middle EastWorld

‘No time to rest’ for AC workers in sweltering Saudi

RIYADH: Mohammed Sayed wipes sweat from his brow as he repairs another broken air conditioning unit at the height of the Saudi summer, his most stressful time of year. The 28-year-old Sudanese national and his fellow technicians clock long hours as temperatures in the capital Riyadh clear 40 degrees Celsius on a daily basis, highlighting the Gulf kingdom’s dependence on machines the government is trying to make less environmentally taxing. “The summer season brings abnormal work pressure.

It is very stressful… there is no time to rest,” Sayed tells AFP as his colleagues climb ladders to replace the dust-choked filter of the latest faltering unit at a villa in eastern Riyadh. Within minutes, the team has also inspected the fan, compressor and level of Freon refrigerant, all under the watchful eye of Mishal Ayyad, the grateful homeowner. “The air conditioner is the beating heart of the Saudi home,” Ayyad says. From bedrooms to living rooms and even kitchens, it is not uncommon for every room in a Saudi home to have its own air conditioning unit that hums around-the-clock during the high-temperature months of April to October.

The intensive use leads to frequent malfunctions, meaning Sayed and his team are called to repair dozens of units per day. Their work continues even between the hottest hours of 12:00 pm and 3:00 pm, a period which the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development says is off-limits for outdoor labor from June to September. “Unfortunately we are forced to work during this period, but I try as much as possible to have our work be inside homes and not on outdoor units,” Sayed says. The white van that shuttles the technicians around has a weak air conditioning system, making it difficult to cool down between stops — an irony that is not lost on the group.

Saudi Arabia is no stranger to hot weather, and those who don’t travel abroad to cooler locations depend on air conditioning to get through the summer months. The research firm Enerdata says air conditioning makes up more than 70 percent of household electricity consumption, the highest portion in the world. The Saudi Energy Efficiency Centre, which was established in 2010 and provides a similar breakdown of household consumption, has tried in recent years to introduce new insulation standards for buildings, and efficiency standards for individual air conditioners. It says improved insulation alone could reduce energy consumed by the units by up to 40 percent.

“The region will gradually move towards adopting more efficient solutions in cooling systems, such as systems that rely on solar energy and renewable energy,” says Ibrahim Al-Ghitani, an energy sector expert based in the United Arab Emirates. For individual consumers, various initiatives offer cash incentives for Saudis to swap out old window units with newer, better models. Under one scheme, citizens can obtain a discount of 900 Saudi riyals ($240) on up to six high-efficiency air conditioners. But until these programs spur widespread change, many Saudis will need to keep their existing machines running, meaning technicians will remain in high demand.

Fares Al-Faridi, who owns a repair company in Riyadh, laments that most people don’t bother to request maintenance until there is a problem, sometimes leading to serious damage. “It is better to perform maintenance to improve the quality of the air conditioner while it is working, rather than repair it while it is not working,” he says. It is a message he tries to drive home to his more than 100,000 followers on X, formerly Twitter, along with brief tutorials on the features of an air conditioner’s remote control and what mysterious sounds emanating from a unit might portend.

“My phone does not stop receiving requests” during the summer, Faridi says, noting that his company hired 25 additional technicians this year to stay on top of the heavy workload. Despite the stress, he is not one to complain. After all, the summer rush is good business. “Our greatest enemy is the winter season,” he says with a laugh. Sayed, the Sudanese technician, largely agrees, though he says he dreads the occasions when he is unable to fix an air conditioner on the spot, meaning it must be moved offsite for repair or replaced altogether. The fact that clients in this situation often fly into a rage underscores, he says, that “no one goes without air conditioning in the summer in Saudi Arabia”. – AFP

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