For many of us, snow in January and February isn’t such a big deal; we shake our fists at the groundhog and go about our business, maybe a bit later than usual. For folks living down South and in parts of the Southwest, however, the first few weeks of 2010 could become the coldest, snowiest winter days in recent history.
Contractors and their customers won’t be forgetting them any time soon.
Jason Putman, vice president, operations and business development at Pro-Air Services Inc., Huntsville, Ala., said, “We have had much colder temps this winter than in recent history. We saw the backwaters of the Tennessee River freeze this year. It has been decades since that has happened.” The company serves customers throughout the Tennessee Valley.
“We have indeed had almost unprecedented weather and problems in southwest Florida,” added Fred Kobie, owner of Kobie Kooling Inc., Fort. Myers, Fla. “Our part of the world is almost entirely heated with electric strip heaters.” The resulting power draw can make customers’ electric bills seem more like summer’s a/c-based bills, though the electric backup heating is generally much less efficient than most central cooling systems.
“The average heater will draw over 40 amps of electricity, causing a huge draw on the power grid and overloading the utility companies,” explained Kobie. “In addition, the electricity used to provide heat is more than triple of that to provide cooling, so power bills went through the roof.”
Kobie said these types of efficiency considerations create “a strong argument to bring the use of heat pumps back to the front line for replacements, to add that ‘Go Green’ motto to the heating side of our equation. We are very inefficient in our heating habits and although we don’t need it often, when we do, we do!”
Ian McKeen, VP of marketing for Service Experts, Richardson, Texas, has been watching replacement trends among its members, and the timing of calls related specifically to weather patterns and promotional tools. Service Experts’ District 1 is mostly the South (Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina). According to McKeen, service-related calls through the first six weeks of the year were up 37 percent over 2009.
“We are currently running a North America equipment-related promotion that District 1 is participating in, and equipment-replacement calls in that district are up 84 percent,” he said. Roughly about 21 percent of those calls came in after hours. “On the surface it doesn’t look like the equipment is holding up,” he said. “However, it could be a combination of a number of factors.”
These include a pent-up consumer demand that is being expressed due to a better economic outlook, the increased advertising, and the favorable weather. Weather extremes are also putting an additional strain on equipment that may be running on borrowed time, or that has not been serviced and maintained appropriately, said McKeen.
The group’s District 2 (South and North Carolina, into Maryland and Virginia) is experiencing service calls up 10 percent. In District 7 (Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma), service is up about 44 percent over 2009 for the same period. “Cold weather and unseasonable snow conditions tend to drive a spike in call volume,” McKeen said. The areas also are being affected by the same North American promotion and weather conditions.
POPULATION EFFECTSContractors are reporting that in the most heavily affected areas, consumer perceptions may be playing a more pivotal role than the equipment’s actual condition. “We also are dealing with a dual population of residents and tourists or snowbirds,” said Kobie in Florida. “The residents are folks that rarely use heat normally; they had to adjust to weather that reached below freezing temperatures.
“To wake up in the middle of a cold night and change a 50°F Florida home to 68-70° is not easy, and the industry was inundated with no-heat service calls, when in fact all was normal except the user,” he said. “Learning to set the thermostat before getting that cold is new to Floridians, and they will have a learning curve for years to come.”
The visitors are probably still enjoying higher-than-up-north temperatures. “They had to put on the heat in a condo or town house with a small electric heater that was not designed for the large load,” Kobie said. “Up north that gas furnace makes it nice and toasty in the house real quick. Down South that 5-kW heater feels like the toaster in front of a fan, and people were very uncomfortable for weeks.”
Operator errors, or at least perceptions, were a major issue. “In our industry, most homeowners are challenged with hot and cold rooms,” said McKeen. “During colder-than-average days they might notice that one of their rooms is unseasonably cold, or they could be experiencing cold blow, which drives them to believe that they have a service issue with their equipment.”
Service Experts’ advertising also drove some of those calls; timing is everything, and so is luck, which gave consumers that advertising information during highly unseasonable cold spells. “If we’re out there driving a promotion, you can say this is what it costs to fix, but they could be looking at proactively driving the replacement sale,” said McKeen.
“In the first 10 days of January, we had the largest amount of the customer promo material in the market, coupled with the weather that drove both an increase in service-related calls and calls related to the equipment promotion. The spikes were fairly dramatic in service during the first two weeks, but the equipment kept spiking up even through the rest of January as the weather had returned to more normal averages.”
Consumer emotions run high when people see snow, he said. “If the news media is talking about how the orange farmers’ crops are going to take a big hit, it takes a category such as ours and brings it into the spotlight.” In addition to the loss of crops, the media reported that a local Florida Power and Light plant that provides heated discharge water for Manatees (now referred to as “Manatee Park”) had over a hundred animals huddled around the discharge to stay alive. “That was definitely different,” said Kobie.
The biggest problems for these contractors were related to travel. “Certain cities have limited infrastructure (salt/sanders and snow plows) in place to deal with these conditions, thus it made it harder to get to customers’ homes,” McKeen said. “We wanted to make certain that our technicians were always safe in these bad conditions, from driving to slipping on ice getting to and from the units.”
In addition to its regular technical support at call centers, “We made sure that the customer service representatives worked on their soft skills, as you will have people that are anxious about this weather,” he said. It’s important to have the reps express empathy on the phone.
THE EQUIPMENTEquipment running on borrowed time, or that may have existing operational problems, had a harder time during the weather extremes. Pro-Air service manager Calvin Colbert said the company saw heat pumps not performing well in the cold weather, problems with units running on electric heat strips, and water-source heat pumps running on lower loop temps with the boiler operating full bore.
“With the economic situation we’ve gone through, you’ve got a lot of pent-up demand,” McKeen reiterated. “Some of these systems repaired over the last two years may have finally been pushed over the edge due to the extreme weather, and combined with the promotion, more customers are now replacing versus repairing.”
In general, however, customers’ heating systems have been up to the task during the extreme cold, within its capabilities. “The gas pack systems have performed very well,” said Colbert, though some heat pumps had defrost problems and longer run times. “The 410A heat pump systems are performing very well in the colder temps,” he added. “And ductless split systems without electric strip heat have been up to the task of colder-than-normal temps.”
“We had massive loss of crops and frozen fields of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, etc.,” said Kobie. “The area looked like a winter wonderland because farmers turned on sprinklers to keep the crops warm and then the water froze. We had large ice sculptures on our farm from the broken pipes and sprinklers spraying patterns in the fields.
“It was even that cold today [mid February] at 5 a.m. - 32° at my farm with ice on my windshield,” said Kobie in Fort Myers. “There are not a lot of ice scrapers at our auto parts stores!”