These days, contractors and their customers find themselves endeavoring to maintain not only comfort - but something far more important. The NEWS
interviewed contractors around the country who are taking steps to handle unexpected weather and extreme conditions that may compromise safety. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have provided safety tips and action items for businesses and consumers who can be adversely affected by this year’s strange weather patterns.
The national weather picture painted across the nightly news is at best inconvenient and at worst tragic. In between lies a multitude of weather conditions. Hail, wildfires, torrential rains, floods, drought, and record breaking heat, have dealt a handful of troublesome weather challenges. Arguments as to the cause of these wild weather patterns have pushed to the forefront again and those touting global warming are being met head on by those placing blame on normal, cyclical changes.
MELTING AWAY HEAT DANGER
One weather challenge that contractors are likely the most familiar with is extreme temperature. The record-breaking temperatures rolling through the nation this summer are bringing the heat full on. When combined with the humidity and other factors, the heat index is often hitting over 100°F and, according to CNN.com, a break in these temperatures is not coming soon.
During this kind of heat, taking care of HVACR service calls first requires contractors to take care of their technicians. Different strategies are employed by each contractor and hydration is the key. Many contractors provide lots of water and ice as a start to their heat safety strategies.
Karl Roth, CEO of A.N. Roth Co. in Louisville, Ky., not only provides water, but he has also changed some of his tactics to compensate for the intense heat. His company provides each work crew with a 10’ x 10’ canopy to provide shelter from the sun, and he has temporarily suspended working in attics.
Larry Taylor, president of AirRite Air Conditioning Co. Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, recognizes the need for jobsite safety as well. “Technicians have to be careful. Just laying tools on the ground can be hazardous,” he said. “On the ground they become too hot to pick up. I have seen technicians burned and blistered from this mistake. The work team has to be careful where they lay their tools to prevent these accidents.”
Drinking lots of water and having a safe jobsite are just a few strategies that contribute to technician safety in extreme heat. Another key to heat safety is knowledge. Knowing and understanding the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke are arguably just as important as knowing how to troubleshoot a system. (See the Heat Related Illness sidebar below.) At Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning in Plano, Texas, Paul Sammataro regularly discusses the importance of recognizing heat stroke, the importance of hydration, and the importance of recognizing if other co-workers are experiencing heat-related problems.
“Also, I do not mandate limited breaks,” he said. “If our technicians need a break they are free to take as many as needed. If I didn’t trust them to get the job done professionally, and in a timely manner, they know they would need to find employment elsewhere.”
The heat may take its toll on technicians, but it also takes a toll on HVACR equipment. Problems rising from extreme heat and humidity require contractors and technicians to not only brave the working conditions, but to also meet the occasional challenge of equipment that is outmatched by the weather.
Greg Crumpton, president and founder of AirTight in Charlotte, N.C., pointed out that his commercial contracting company’s equipment is typically engineered for a 95 degree ambient load. “Anything above that is chaos,” he said. “We work to explain that to customers and suggest supplemental cooling systems and/or redundancy.”
Equipment in Texas has to work hard too, and according to Taylor, in some situations, it is just too hot for the a/c to function properly.
“I was on a job the other day where the condensing air entering temperature was too high for the equipment to operate and it was cutting off on high pressure safeties when nothing was wrong with the equipment,” he explained. “When this happens, we have to become very creative in coming up with ways to keep it operating without creating a hazardous condition.”
Other hazards to capture the national stage this summer are heavy rains and flooding. The heavy rains and thunderstorms have made business for John McCarthy Sr., owner and president of McCarthy’s One Hour in Omaha, Neb., difficult at times. His area has been unseasonably cool, but according to McCarthy, the rainy season never stopped.
“The rain makes it difficult to install new systems, although it is possible,” he said. “It does, however, shorten the days when we can do a/c tune-ups. Those cannot be done in the storms and it provides the challenge of trying to reschedule those tune-ups that had to be cancelled.”
The heavy rains in some portions of the country are causing widespread flooding and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that the flooding will continue. In an article released the first week of July 2011, forecasters from NOAA’s National Weather Service said that, “Many rivers in the upper Midwest and northern Plains remain above flood stage and the threat for more flooding will continue throughout the summer. With rivers running high and soils completely saturated, just a small amount of rain could trigger more flooding, including areas that have already seen major to record flooding.”
Although advance warning can make it easier for technicians to stay safe before a flood, there are multiple safety concerns for technicians to consider after a flood. Once the waters have receded, affected HVAC equipment will need to be cleaned and repaired or replaced. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that flood cleanup workers be current on their tetanus shots as well as wear plastic or rubber gloves, boots, and other protective clothing. Washing hands frequently is also recommended to protect cleanup workers from ingesting chemicals and other pollutants that may have been mixed through the floodwaters and deposited on items as the waters receded.
Once work has begun, it is important to check to see if the property a contractor is working on is scheduled to be razed. If not, assess the units for damage and proceed with cleanup and repair. (See Cleaning Procedures sidebar below.)
Extreme heat and widespread flooding have been problems to many, but contractors have also been dealing with some regional issues this summer. The July 5 dust storm that rolled through Phoenix was described by the Associated Press (AP) as “massive.” Dust storms, although an almost yearly occurrence in Arizona, aren’t usually this large. The National Weather Service estimated that this dust storm reached a peak height of at least 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The day after the dust storm, local news stations reported that car washes were packed and that residents should check their filters and likely change them as well.
Power outages have been trouble for some areas, especially after the heavy thunderstorms and tornadoes that have swept across the country. Often a power outage is minimal and localized, but in the case of these larger storms the idea of hundreds of thousands of customers being out of power for more than a day or two or three is not unheard of. Russ Donnici, president of Mechanical Air Service Inc. in San Jose, Calif., has implemented an emergency plan in case his area loses power.
“We have an internet based digital phone system and our concern is it going down; and it has,” he said. “In preparation for a potential problem I had several of our phone lines hard wired into our office so we can plug in a conventional phone if needed. If our internet phone does go down, we can access it with a cell phone or laptop or smart phone and direct it to forward calls to our service department’s cell phone.”
PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED
Wild weather seasons have happened before, but with the increased intensity this year; no end to the heat, rain, floods, or tornadoes in sight; and hurricane season around the corner, the government is asking businesses and individuals to be informed and be prepared. The sky is likely not falling, but nonchalance toward business preparedness and weather safety could have greater consequences than expected. One survival book summed its entire contents up with this: “Survival doesn’t go to the strong, it goes to the prepared.”
Armed with knowledge and a plan, prepared contractors and technicians facing extreme weather situations will likely survive and continue to thrive in the HVACR industry, despite the circumstances of the weather.
Sidebar: Safety TipsTip #1 - Heat Advisory
Drink enough water that you never become thirsty. Avoid drinks with caffeine, alcohol, and large amounts of sugar.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tip #2 - Flooding
Before working in flooded areas, be sure that your tetanus shot is current - within the last 10 years. Consider all water unsafe until local authorities announce otherwise.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration Tip #3 - Tornado
Do not try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle. If you see a tornado, stop the vehicle and get out. Do not get under the vehicle. Lie down flat in a gully, ditch, or low spot on the ground and protect your head with an object or your arms.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tip #4 - Dust Storm
If dense dust is observed blowing across or approaching a roadway, pull your vehicle off the pavement as far as possible, set the emergency brake, and turn off lights. These storms usually pass in 10-30 minutes.
- National Weather Service Tip #5 - Power Outage
Assume all electrical lines are hot.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency
Sidebar: Heat Related Illness
Heat-related deaths and illness are preventable yet annually many people succumb to extreme heat. From 1979-2003 more people in America died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. People suffer heat-related illness when their bodies are unable to compensate and properly cool themselves. The body normally cools itself by sweating. But under some conditions, sweating just isn’t enough. In such cases, a person’s body temperature rises rapidly. Very high body temperatures may damage the brain or other vital organs. HEAT STROKE
Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature. The body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. Body temperature may rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided.
Warning signs of heat stroke vary but may include: an extremely high body temperature (above 103°F, orally); red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating); rapid, strong pulse; throbbing headache; dizziness; nausea; confusion; unconsciousness. HEAT EXHAUSTION
Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. It is the body’s response to an excessive loss of the water and salt contained in sweat. Those most prone to heat exhaustion are elderly people, people with high blood pressure, and people working or exercising in a hot environment.
Warning signs of heat exhaustion include: heavy sweating; paleness; muscle cramps; tiredness; weakness; dizziness; headache; nausea or vomiting; and fainting.
- Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Find out more about heat related illness, how to avoid it, and what to do if it occurs. Go to www.cdc.gov and search “Extreme Heat Prevention Guide.”
Sidebar: Cleaning Procedures
• Remove all flood-contaminated insulation surrounding and within HVAC system components. Discard these contaminated materials appropriately following applicable federal, state, and local regulations.
• Remove contaminated HVAC filter media and discard appropriately following applicable federal, state, and local regulations.
• After removing any insulation and filters, clean all flood-contaminated HVAC system component surfaces with a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner to remove dirt, debris, and microorganisms. Pay special attention to filter racks, drain pans, bends and horizontal sections of air ducts where debris can collect.
• After removing any insulation or debris, disinfect all HVAC system component surfaces while the HVAC system is not operating. Use a solution of 1 cup of household chlorine bleach in a gallon of water. Do not mix bleach with other cleaning products that contain ammonia.
• Conduct the cleaning and disinfection activities in a clean-to-dirty work progression. Consider the use of auxiliary fans to supply “clean” air to the worker position and carry aerosolized contaminant and disinfectant in the clean-to-dirty direction, away from the worker’s breathing zones and towards the point of filtration and exhaust.
- Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
These are just five of the steps to prepare for cleaning and resuming HVAC operations. Read the complete suggested procedures. Go to www.cdc.gov and search “Flood Contaminated HVAC Systems.” For more information on preparing your business, go to www.ready.gov. Do you have a wild weather story you’d like to share? Send your story via e-mail to email@example.com or join
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