She is one of the very few female air-conditioning engineers in Irish history. Meet Ruth Gill

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Photo of Ruth Gill in her work clothes. She is an air conditioning engineer in Dublin, Ireland.

Dublin, Ireland – January, 2021

I started in the trade in 2007. Originally, I wanted to join the fire brigade. And I was told that they looked favorably on people who had a trade background, so I went to this institution called FÁS (recently rebranded into SOLAS). And they kinda look after all the apprenticeships so I went down and had a meeting with them, and we discussed the different apprenticeships they have available.

Follow Ruth Gill on Instagram @HVACgirlo
Pictures by Leah O’ Carroll @audiofonikk

I applied for four or five of them and the one I got was on refrigeration. So, then I joined a company and then found the current company that I am in as of today. Day to day is service and maintenance and repairs, normally it is Monday to Friday type of thing. But then we have a lot of over-time, office work, a lot of hotel work and a lot of data centers. That’s the big kinda thing here in Ireland cause the climate is “so favorable being cold a lot” so there is a lot of free cooling so data centers, that’s the big thing for us right now.

Air conditioning engineer Ruth Gill is confident.

I’ll be honest I didn’t like it for a while, but I guess it was just at the start when you kind of don’t know when you’re kind of feeling your way around. The last two or three years I started an Instagram account and kind of decided to properly follow people and take more interest and take “more pride in my work” and just wanted to learn as much as I can and I really kind of started to enjoy what I do since then.

I was bullied a bit at the first company. Not a work bully but slight comments like “What are you doing in the trade? Shouldn’t you be a hairdresser? Or a nurse?” Just one or two people.

I think the main challenges are just kind of breaking through and  people getting to see women in this trade, thriving in this trade because there are generally not a lot of female trade workers.

Actually my sister, who is working in a company in charge of trade apprenticeship, I told her I was doing this interview and she texted me last night and she said “In the history of the refrigeration trade in Ireland only seven women have signed up for it and only four have actually completed it!”

Ruth smiling by a window.

Knowing how to multi-task is definitely an advantage of being a woman in the trade. But I don’t want to be seen as a novelty either because, sometimes people, they want to be kind but they sound condescending like, “Hey it must be very tough for you” and well, it’s like any other job! I’m well able for it. Sometimes some people will try to help me carry the ladder or the tools and yes, they want to be kind but it’s just condescending to me. Because I know what I am doing.

This job can be very physical at times, because you are carrying compressors and you’re carrying a bottle of nitrogen and sometimes you’re getting dirty because you are climbing into things to clean coils and I think is a mixture of those type of things and physical challenges that could be the reason why there are more men than women in the trade.

Generally, apprenticeships in Ireland, are not really “posh”. Everyone there is about to become a carpenter or join the trade. Sometimes people ask me if I am an electrician and I go like “No this has its own trade” and they go like “Oh I didn’t know!” I think there is not much available information in the schools about the trade, about the opportunities in this sector.

Ruth Gill in the back of her vehicle with air conditioning maintenance equipment.

Mainly on Instagram is where I find other females in different trades and we start conversations. Like, a couple of females in “The Irish Refrigeration Institute” where they run social media and accounting and so I connect with them.

Normally my daily work routine starts 8:30am or 6:00am so, depending on the site I could be there for the day or I could be there for a couple of weeks. And we look for a wide variety of equipment, it could be air-handlers, fan-coils, VRFs, splits, jeez, actually it could be anything. Now that I think of it we started taking into the new hybrid stuff and the datacenter, they have their own kind of gear with chillers so depending on the site it could be maintenance or a call-out for repairs.

Covid19 shut down all of the buildings here in Ireland from March till May but three of us kept working and I was one of them because of the data centers. Only a handful of us had security access into these. The data centers, they are like “Fort Knox”, the security is just crazy to access and get into them. So, I had to work all the way through it but then it completely shut down for two months, from March till May during the first lockdown.

Ruth Gill has her hands full with an air conditioning unit.

We are on the second lockdown right now, but it is not as severe since they kept schools open, they kept the building sites open, so, for me, the first lockdown I just had to work it through, I suppose the same goes in several other parts of the world.

Things seem to be getting better, the buildings had workers come back and a lot of the offices are planning to re-open by the end of this month. They’re letting us know now. Some of the managers are finally thinking about properly taking care of their ACs saying “we need proper ventilation and keep it properly clean” when for years their systems haven’t been serviced. Also a lot of the hotels are planning to re-open this month.

Ruth smiles at the camera while maintaining an HVAC unit.

For me personally my job is only a struggle with family when I am on calls because sometimes you have to miss events and sometimes you get a call late at 2am in the morning. There will be days when you have to work for 18 hours because you are on call. But generally it’s fine because the company I am with has a lot of flexibility, like today, for example, since I started at 6 am I have the rest of the afternoon free to do what I please, so, I would say generally there is no problem work-wise that affects a family life. I see a lot of people in the US where they tend to be saying “Heating season” is “80-90 hours a week season” and that rarely happens here.

If I could change one thing in the trade, I think that the college section has to change. The curriculum is very outdated, it hasn’t been updated in the last 20 years and there’s obviously a lot of new technology like the hybrid systems from Mitsubishi, R-32 gases. Some lads that I work with, they don’t know about the R-32 and that requires its own recovery bottle and there are small things like these that I think the colleges should update.

To the females undecided about the trade I would definitely say go for it! Give it two or three work weeks. It might be completely different from what you think it is. If you think physically that’s gonna be a barrier, it’s not.

Ruth smiling on a rooftop of a building.

Besides, there’s a tool for everything, there’s aids for everything and you are going to be supervised anyway so it’s just mentally that you need to overcome, just face it if you really want it, just try it like I said, experience the job for like two or three weeks.

I think HVAC generally should be a more respected trade, people have a mishmash of things, there’s a lot going on that people don’t get to see, there are calculations and complex things. Often people go like “are you an electrician?” but no, there’s a lot more in this trade than just cleaning filters.