Although the HVAC industry has been around for more than a century, portable heating and cooling is a relative rookie to the scene.

Having just made a mark in the U.S. beginning in the 1980s, the market has continued to grow and evolve into what we see today.

“It was a slow start, because there was really no market and no one really quite knew what to do with them,” said Clark Michel, vice president, Atlas Sales and Rentals Inc. “There were a few years in the beginning before anybody had the idea to rent them, which, as it turns out, was great exposure for the product, because a lot of people saw it, and after they saw it, they liked it. But once we defined applications such as hospitals and server rooms, then the market started to get some traction, and when people saw it work, they liked it. It only grew from there.”

Computerized Comfort

The growth of PCs and the Internet helped spur interest in portable cooling.

“We see IT managers looking at portable air conditioning as a major, viable option,” said Mike Paulson, president, AmeriCool Inc. “Years before, the biggest problem was getting people to know the product even existed, that there was something out there that you can roll in, plug in, and instantly cool. Now, you’re looking at 60-70 percent of the business for portable air conditioning being IT-related. It’s still a viable option in manufacturing and outdoor events, but the IT market has really embraced it. You have so many companies that are renting and leasing space, and our product gives them the option to take it with them if they want. They aren’t making that capital expenditure, improving the space they’re in, and then having to leave the equipment. With our products, if they up and leave, they can take it with them, sell it, or move it from room to room.”

In addition to the e-commerce boom of the late 1990s, portable cooling was also a factor in an earlier computer craze.

“The advent of the (mid-80s) computer boom coincided with the introduction of this product, so the market kind of found itself, in a sense,” said Garth Tagge, national sales manager, Spot Coolers. “Once that was discovered, the distributors pushed real hard into the market.”

The IT market has been a big boon for the portable cooling market because businesses and institutions can’t afford to let IT equipment fail, even for a second. Portable cooling is gaining a following as a popular prevention method.

“It can be used as the primary source of cooling, or it can be used as the supplemental source of cooling,” said Eddie Stevenson, marketing manager, MovinCool. “The units can be used for redundant cooling and if it gets a little too hot, the unit kicks on.”

Recession Digression

As the economy soured, and manufacturing companies began closing their doors, the need for portable personal cooling declined in industrial settings.

“Right when I got hired on in 2000, there were still a lot of applications in manufacturing, but that kind of died down as manufacturing moved away from the U.S.,” said Stevenson. “We then started seeing a surge in computer-room cooling, and that has kind of led the way. The focus has shifted to cooling equipment rather than people or manufacturing processes, so that’s why we evolved our product line to include ceiling mount units, which are more geared toward that.

“Now we’re starting to see a little shift with a resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S., so we’re starting to see some of those industrial-manufacturer applications coming back a little bit.”

Manufacturers touted the ability for their units to last a long time — even under rough industrial conditions. Leon Aldridge, director of marketing, Port-A-Cool LLC, said his company is still using some of its very first units.

“The units will last as long as the basic components,” he said. “They’ll last forever.”

Michel said the 110-V units, which can plug directly into a standard socket, have become more user-friendly and are very popular.

“We’ve seen more features, benefits, and accessories,” he said. “What was a good idea back then had been made more user-friendly, easier to work with, and more versatile. It’s adapted to the needs of the market without changing very much.”

As the applications of portable heating and cooling have become more defined over the last 20 years, so have the designs. Tagge said, by design, portable air conditioners have become mostly limited to units that can fit through a standard 3-foot door.

“You always want to make units with more capacity, because there are a lot of interior applications in the commercial areas that have demand for higher capacity cooling, but if you can only get a 5-ton unit through a door, you’re limiting the size of the equipment you can put in there,” Tagge said. “So now they’re trying to make equipment that is slimmer, smaller, and will fit through a doorway. If you have an interior application, you have to be able to get that equipment into that space.”

LeeAnne Perkins, national advertising manager, Heat Controller Inc. said portable cooling units make sense in many situations.

“Portable air conditioning units won’t cover every cooling requirement, and have limitations in terms of the area that can be conditioned, but when used properly, they can be a practical solution to keeping cool,” she said. “The list of applications, while not exhaustive, illustrates the many situations where a portable solution makes sense, whether for comfort, convenience, or for multipurposing.”

At the end of the day, there’s going to be a continual need for portable heating and cooling as long as the heating and air conditioning industry continues churning out comfort.

“Any business can be a customer because any business can have an air conditioning failure,” Tagge said. “There’s always going to be those people and comfort issues. We’re here to help solve their problems.”

Publication date: 7/1/2013 

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