North America was hit hard by an unexpected heat wave this summer. Scientists argued and forecasters predicted, but no one thought that the entire lower 48 states would experience 90°F or higher temperatures on the same day in mid-July. The heat began in the West, breaking records in states such as California and Arizona, bringing temperatures near 119Â°. According to one citizen, it was "hotter for longer than ever before, and the weather patterns that caused the scorching temperatures were positively freakish." As the sweltering temperature moved to the East, it left in its path a trail of deaths, forest fires, and heat exhaustion. One good thing did come from the heat this summer - HVAC's busy season was hopping.
BUSINESS IS GROWINGAfter talking to multiple contractors, The NEWSfound that many HVAC contractors struggled to keep up and worked hard to handle the load this summer.
"It's been a real struggle to juggle the schedules that included contract work," said David Yates, president, F.W. Behler Inc., York, Pa. "As odd as it seemed, a good deal of the work previously scheduled was for heating systems." Yates' maintenance and nonemergency customers opted to wait, accommodating the heightened installation and repairs of new and old a/c units.
"Last summer's heat wave was short lived and presented few challenges as compared to this year's," noted Yates.
"The heat just helps motivate our customers to make a decision earlier than normal," said Leland Smith, owner of Service Champions Heating and Air Conditioning, Yorba Linda, Calif. "Also, their disposable income that would normally go for other home improvements has been coming our way for comfort by way of their air conditioning."
Service Champions revenues and profits have so far increased this year. In June of 2005, the company's growth was 165 percent over 2004. This June, its growth was 150 percent compared to June 2005. July 2005's growth was 167 percent over 2004 and July 2006's growth was 173 percent over 2005.
"For us, the heat always helps," said Smith. "We grow year after year and have been pretty consistent in our growth, but it would have been difficult for us to reach the sales this year without the heat."
Smith cautioned contractors celebrating the heat to watch for sales laziness. He was concerned that sales during a heat wave often come easier and the tactics salespeople used in July would not work in September. "If salespeople don't realize the difference from July with heat and September without heat, their sales will drop drastically," commented Smith. "We are trying to get them to realize that they will have to work harder and not become so complacent, realizing that the customer is not going to be as motivated."
CHILLING OUTAlthough the heat is great for a contractor's business, it is incredibly tough on technicians. Seasonal elements plague HVAC technicians, leaving them vulnerable to the dangers of sun exposure and heat exhaustion.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), high temperature and humidity, direct sun or heat, limited air movement, physical exertion, poor physical condition, some medicines, inadequate tolerance for hot workplaces, and insufficient water intake can all lead to heat stress.
Heat stress is broken into four categories - heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat rashes. OSHA produced multiple fact sheets and quick reference cards this summer, suggesting that those working in the heat drink small amounts of water frequently; wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing; take frequent short breaks in the shade; eat smaller meals before work activity; and avoid caffeine, alcohol, and large amounts of sugar.
Technicians weren't the only ones responsible for their elemental safety this summer. OSHA also released a fact sheet instructing employers to reduce physical demands, provide recovery areas, reschedule hot jobs, and monitor workers who are at risk.
"We have been running training on hydration and delivering daily advisements," said David Staples, general manager, R.S. Andrews, Atlanta. "We are also starting early and ending early, while providing technicians the job time to do a good job, rest, and keep cool."
With the extreme heat this summer it has been a challenge to keep technicians cool, productive, and safe all at the same time. "We've conducted more safety meetings in the past two weeks than we have over a year's time," said Yates. "We also canceled or refused work that would be dangerous for already stressed technicians."
Yates' company postponed loft units and a/c installs that included attic or loft work, instead loaning out a few "window shakers" to customers without air conditioning. "We supply technicians with purified water, lots of ice, ice vests, and fans," commented Mark Schneider, co-owner of Pacific Aire Inc., Ventura, Calif. "Technicians will also temporarily disconnect ducts and run air conditioning into the attic."
HELP WANTEDTemporary solutions are wonderful for temporary problems, such as increased work orders due to increased temperatures. Keeping a consistent workload and adequate staff, however, are not temporary problems. Russ Donnici, owner of Mechanical Air Service Inc., San Jose, Calif., considers hiring temporary help a bad way to increase business.
"You can't control the quality of your work as well," he said. "We have found that clients are willing to wait a little bit because they know they will get the service and quality they want."
Smith agrees with Donnici. When it comes to hiring temporary workers, he doesn't. "There are two ways to get more out of your installation department during times like this," he said. "We never hire temporary workers."
Smith's company trains all of its install apprentices to become the next lead installer. "When demand is high, we always have several apprentices that are ready to move up to lead installer positions and we generally plan this by hiring additional apprentices just prior to the summer to work with the new leads."
His company also pulls service technicians over to the installation department during high demand times.
"These service technicians are the ones who came from our installation department and have moved up to service," noted Smith. "When we move them, we negotiate with them that when demand is high, we will ask them to install."
Some companies actually had to turn away business this summer due to the lack of qualified and available technicians. Schneider noted that his company has had more business than they can handle. "We have exceeded our expected growth this summer," he said. "We could have done much more if we'd had more installers.
"It would be nice to hire more qualified people, but our labor pool is dry," said D. Brian Baker, president, Custom Vac Ltd. Winnipeg, Manitoba. "Many of the techs aren't qualified, yet the companies are hiring them because they can't find anyone else."
Publication date: 09/04/2006