Energetic Care

Loloum, T., & Fürst, M. F.

Energetic Care: Repair and maintenance labor on HVAC infrastructures


At the grid edge: homes, neighbourhoods and energy markets (Energy Anthropology Network)
16th EASA Biennial Conference
European Association of Social Anthropologists
Lisboa, Portugal

While energy transitions are often framed in terms of technoscientific innovation, this paper explores how energy systems are shaped by repair and maintenance. We focus on HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) technologies to question how energy efficient buildings perform after installation (Wade, Hitchings & Shipworth, 2016). This interest towards technicians, caretakers, facility managers and trainers involved in HVAC maintenance aims to provide novel insights on processes of energy optimization, incremental innovation and breakdown. Based on ethnographic accounts and semi-structured interviews with technicians, entrepreneurs and experts from Switzerland, the paper first considers the mundane and affective relationships produced by maintenance and repair work, and their consequences on social ordering, daily comfort and mutual care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017; Harvey & Knox, 2013).

We then put these workplace interactions into perspective with broader structural conditions (Murphy, 2015; Mattern, 2018) of the HVAC sector in Switzerland: the evolving regulatory framework (energy efficiency and CO2 reductions goals; safety, quality, and comfort standards), labor conditions (wage, labor shortage, immigration, gender, training, etc.) and market dynamics (liberalization of energy markets, joint-ventures, new market entrants, digitization, energy contracting).

The study suggests that HVAC maintenance and care go beyond the reproduction of a status quo around ageing infrastructures. Maintainers are seen as key drivers for innovation, precisely because their work mediates energy users, infrastructures and producers. Their roles as middlemen are also critical in the inclusion of users and their control over energy systems, especially in a context of market deregulation, technological complexification and digitization.