After a winter that left many areas of the country covered in record snowfall, the summer season, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, is expected to be exceptionally hot across much of North America.

Portable heating and cooling manufacturers are preparing for the outside temperatures and the interest in portable HVAC equipment, which many acknowledge is also heating up.

The growing buzz on portable equipment has manifested itself in different ways. Garth Tagge, national sales manager, Spot Coolers, acknowledges that portable equipment has morphed from a perceived luxury into a necessity.

“I think of the evolution of portable HVAC equipment in the same vein as cable TV. When it was first introduced into the marketplace, cable was a luxury that many people wanted, but not all could justify. However, over time, cable TV has transformed itself from a luxury to a utility, similar to telephone or power,” he said. “Every house now has some form of cable or satellite TV. While not quite at that same level, portable air conditioning is now expected to be part of most a/c shutdowns, installations, or repair projects to provide either temporary or supplemental cooling while the main source is nonoperational. Most office and IT [information technology] managers are aware of the availability for temporary cooling and now specify it when they must shut the existing systems off.”

Clark Michel, vice president, Atlas Sales & Rentals Inc., said interest in portables is “absolutely becoming stronger,” which is something that bodes well for the future.

“This equipment has become widely accepted by contractors and building owners for a broader range of applications, both temporary and permanent,” Michel said. “Because they’re so versatile, they solve a wide variety of comfort-related problems.”

Tina Behnke, digital media manager, AirPac Inc., said interest in portables is increasing, though not at the same rate as it was during its infancy. That said, the market is consistent in standard areas, such as server rooms, industrial plant applications, etc. Despite the slow progress in portables, Behnke said interest is booming in a related sector.

“Interest is emerging in rental markets for both air conditioners and heaters, where governmental and industry regulations dictate use of temporary air conditioning and heating during construction and the build-out phase of LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] and environmentally conscious construction projects,” she said.

Making Things Happen

While demand seems consistent at worst, everyone with a stake in the portable HVAC sector seems to have a different prediction for the future.

David Keller, manager, heat management department, MovinCool, said he believes there will be a bigger focus on cooling humans rather than processes in the next five to 10 years. On top of that, he also would like to see some increased scrutiny.

“With the increased popularity of portable cooling and heating, MovinCool believes there should be a standard to protect consumers so they would know the true performance of their portable air conditioner,” Keller said.

Mike Paulson, president, AmeriCool Inc., considers the continued versatility of units and cooling capacity to be the next big breakthrough in the portable market. He also is looking for more consumer education on what to look for in a portable unit, as he said they often can last 15-20 years, if manufactured correctly.

“Americool is making our units more versatile in order to offer customers more bang for their buck,” Paulson said. “Wider operating ranges, units with multiple configurations, and more accessories coming standard with the units are a few of the those customer incentives.

“I believe there will be a continued growth in ‘capacity in a box.’ New, emerging, and efficient technologies will continue to grow in cooling capacity, utilizing the same footprint.”

Pat Rucker, president, Entech Sales & Service, said his company has worked at adding to its rental fleet and has increased its sales in that arena. He is looking for ways to make the installation process easier, especially as portable heating and cooling becomes more popular in commercial applications.

“We would like to see new buildings going up with provisions to provide connections to make it quick and easy to hook up rental equipment in case of emergencies,” Rucker said.

Leon Cogswell, director of sales, room air products, Heat Controller, said he believes higher efficiencies and improved condensate management are on the horizon as the portable category grows at a rapid rate.”

“We anticipate a steady increase in demand as acceptance and awareness of the advantages and applications grows,” Cogswell said. “We believe portables — both cooling only and cooling/heating combinations — will become a significantly larger portion of the overall room air landscape in the next few years.”

Ben Wulf, CEO, Port-A-Cool LLC, noted his company is constantly investigating new markets and sectors in hopes of meeting the growing demand.

“Portable cooling will continue to focus upon cooling efficiencies while providing the bells and whistles that are attractive for usage,” said Wulf. “Adding digital control panels is one example of end-user friendliness that has been demanded from our customers. Also, due to the acceptance of evaporative cooling throughout various markets, we will drive more application-specific products to meet the needs that are unique for customers in niches for whom we are not currently providing a solution.”

Future Files

Behnke said, in the future, more importance needs to be placed on how portable equipment is used, rather than what it does.

She noted when the portable market expanded many companies with no HVAC experience started buying in, wanting a piece of the pie. That’s led to some interesting situations. “Portable heaters and air conditioners are cost-effective solutions, but the products must be properly applied,” Behnke said. “The truth is a portable unit won’t solve every heating or cooling problem. We often walk away from jobs or recommend a different solution when we know a portable unit will not adequately solve the heating or cooling problem. It gives the whole industry a black eye when general rental and equipment sales companies, with little or no HVAC training, use portable heaters and air conditioners to solve problems where another product would work better. [We should want] more honesty and integrity across the board. It’s better for our industry and, ultimately, the end user.”

As the industry evolves, Tagge expects to see more specialty equipment designed to serve various emerging sectors. On top of that, he is also expecting to see a drastic change in the portable arena.

“I anticipate you will see some consolidation and attrition in the industry,” he said. “In the present state, there are many suppliers. Most of these are local suppliers with one or two locations. There are over 100 of these small, local companies spread across the country.”

Conversely, Tagge added there are just a handful of portable a/c suppliers with national footprints. “As the market continues to gain velocity, the need for national footprint suppliers will increase. Much of the demand fueling market expansion will come from nationally positioned companies targeting multilocation end users and national service companies. These companies require service providers to supply trained, safe, vetted, insured, and consistent service and personnel. Using numerous small suppliers in each location will not meet their specifications. As a result, you are likely to see the portable air conditioning market evolve from its present ‘cottage industry’ structure to a more nationally dominated business model with fewer, larger suppliers.”

Publication date: 6/30/2014

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