Portable heaters and air conditioners offer numerous benefits for HVAC contractors, including speedy installation and reduced downtime for customers. Additionally, as customers become frantic amidst rising summer temperatures and failing equipment, these units offer the perfect temporary solution during contractors’ busy seasons.
The NEWS reached out to several contractors to find out how they use portable heating units and air conditioners.
ADDRESSING HOT SPOTS
Greg Crumpton, vice president of critical environments and facilities, Service Logic, Charlotte, North Carolina, said the company’s 15 brands across the country all use portable units.
“Every one of our companies has portable air conditioners in their warehouses for emergency deployment to shoot out locally,” he explained. “Co-location facilities use them a lot for spot cooling, and they’re very valuable to address situational hot spots. Co-location facilities are subject to whatever the customer puts in the space. A lot of these locations have to supplement poor choices of customers by using spot coolers instead of addressing the problem systematically.”
Additionally, from a contracting standpoint, Crumpton said Service Logic companies use portable units if they are doing an upgrade or replacement.
“We will bring in spot coolers to handle an area for the weekend or whatever the situation requires. We work with a manufacturer who is all about after-hours service and delivery. That’s important. We do own some units, but we also rent some on demand.”
It’s extremely important to be cognizant of the power requirements when using a portable unit, Crumpton noted.
“If you think about an office building, it’s designed to handle some core cooling and then a lot of peripheral cubes, so to speak,” he explained. “So, if you bring in a high-powered spot cooler, you have to be able to provision enough cooling for it. Being cognizant of the power availability in the environment is very important, because when you are running air conditioning, you’re moving heat. You’re not creating or destroying energy; you’re moving energy. So, if you’re cooling office space, you still have a tremendous amount of heat to move out of the office. So, how do you make that happen? Is it through a stairwell to the roof? How are you getting the heat out of the building? A lot of people use a spot cooler and just dump the heat above the ceiling. That works really well as long as the building is running. But at 6 p.m., when the building shuts off, our on-call guy gets the call that the spot cooler stopped working. Once he gets out there, he finds that the spot cooler quit working because the plenum above the ceiling is at a temperature of 115°F, and it just can’t work in that environment. It really comes back to deployment and understanding where you’re putting them, how you’re placing them, and the dynamic of the building.”
MEETING CUSTOMER NEEDS
Moon Air Inc. in Elkton, Maryland, uses portable units when it has a customer who needs immediate comfort, but for whatever reason, the company cannot obtain equipment or provide the manpower to do the installation.
“It’s all about meeting the client’s needs,” said Steve Moon, owner, Moon Air. “We’ve been using portables for a long time — I built my first one 20 years ago. They are the best options in these situations because they are fast to hook up and deliver comfort immediately.”
Moon said he keeps a fleet of portables on hand because the company’s motto is: Comfort in your home today.
“Being able to deliver comfort now helps close more sales,” he added. “When everyone has a waiting list, this gives us an edge.”
Rich Morgan, president, Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. in Mesa, Arizona, said his company often utilizes portable HVAC units.
“We provide our clients with portable air conditioners in situations where they have no air conditioning in the home or a portion of their home while they are waiting for the completion of a new air conditioning installation,” he said. “We also provide this service for clients who purchased their systems from us in the event of a component failure, where the necessary parts are not immediately available and are being shipped from the factory.”
Magic Touch has been supplying customers with temporary relief for at least a decade, Morgan noted. “In Phoenix, having no working air conditioner is always an emergency. Any client who has only one air conditioner serving the whole home will automatically be offered a portable air conditioner unit until their unit can be repaired. Clients who purchased the original unit from us get top priority. Homes occupied by the elderly or infants also get top priority.”
Offering temporary air conditioning to customers is extremely important in Arizona, especially when customers are unable to leave their homes, Morgan said.
“Many times, homeowners with the means to do so will opt to stay at a hotel or with nearby friends or family when their home is without air conditioning,” he said. “However, there are many people who are already faced with the unexpected cost of replacing an older air conditioner who simply cannot afford to stay at a hotel or may not have anyone to stay with. The portable air conditioners we provide are not only a convenience in this situation but a necessity in Phoenix, where summer ambient temperatures can reach as high as 120°, which can translate to as high as 100° inside the home. We’ve also had clients who simply cannot leave their homes when the air conditioning is down due to medical issues or people who work from home.”
Magic Touch owns its own portable units because they are constantly needed, according to Morgan.
“Typically, we will wait until the end of the season each year and purchase a few more when they go on sale for use in the following season,” he said. “Since we’ve been doing this for years, we have more than a few, so rarely do we run into a situation where they are all out on loan at the same time. Our philosophy on how to differentiate ourselves from the competition is to provide value-added services to our clients that our competition doesn’t. Offering portable air conditioners is one such perk that we believe shows our clients we will go the extra mile for them. I equate this to car dealerships that provide a loaner car while your car is in for repairs. Not many do it, so it’s a pleasant surprise to their clients versus the customers of their competition who have to arrange for rides back and forth or call an Uber.”
Paul Ainsworth, owner of M.L. Building Technologies in Millsboro, Delaware, said while he has used portable units in emergency situations, the situation doesn’t happen very often in his line of residential work.
“I have a great working relationship with my equipment supplier and have been able to get what I need to make emergency repairs in an extremely timely manner,” he said. “I also have clients who actually understand the value and importance of proper preventive maintenance. With that said, I’ve had a few situations over the past several years where a piece of equipment has failed, and I was not able to make repairs quickly enough, but I was able to provide a portable spot cooler that helped to alleviate the uncomfortable situation.”
Ainsworth said he keeps two portable units in his shop for these types of emergencies.
“I don’t charge extra for this service, and I believe it shows my commitment to my clients’ comfort and safety,” he added. “I have a wide range of clients, some who are older and have health issues and some who have small children and pets. I always try to be as responsive as I can to all of them.”
Some contractors entice customers by offering them the use of portable units if they sign an agreement or buy a new system.
“We use them as closing tools on new system sales,” said Scott Merritt, owner, Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning, Columbus, Ohio. “We say, ‘Mr. Smith, if you sign today, I will go ahead and grab a portable air conditioner out of my truck and leave it with you until we can install your system in a few days.’
“The other need for portable units is if we have unresolved issues in the service department because we are waiting on parts for some reason,” Merritt continued. “Keeping the customer comfortable, or at least giving them one room to be comfortable in during the heat, is very important. HVAC is about comfort. If we can’t provide that at all times, we are in the wrong business.”
Fire & Ice has provided its customers with portable units for the last five years, Merritt noted.
“Portables are versatile and small,” he said. “They fit most places and solve a need. We keep about 15 portable air conditioners and 15 portable electric oil heaters in stock. If we give one out, the customer is required to sign a responsibility waiver if anything goes wrong with it.
“These units don’t last long,” Merritt continued. “They’re always being moved around, customers damage them, or sometimes they just disappear. However, taking a customer’s comfort seriously 100 percent of the time is how good reputations are built and how companies grow. Portable units are an investment in your reputation. There is no better investment out there than your reputation.”
Des Moines, Iowa-based Service Legends guarantees its club members that their systems will be back up and running within 24 hours or the company will put them up in a hotel, according to Brian Leech, owner of the company.
“If, for some reason, a part is delayed from a manufacturer or something of that nature, we keep somewhere between 60 and 80 portable heaters and about 20 portable air conditioning units in our shop,” Leech said. “We check them out to our service technicians so they have them on their vans. For non-club members, if it’s a scenario where they’re waiting on a part or if they have a major repair on a system and want to go over their options, we’ll provide some temporary heating or cooling for them. Additionally, if they invest in a new system, their current system is inoperable, and our install board is full, we’ll provide them with a portable unit to keep them comfortable until we can get to them.”
The company tends to have more portable heaters than air conditioners because it generally puts more heaters in homes than air conditioning units, Leech noted.
“We will put three or four heaters in a home versus one air conditioner,” he said. “Comfort aside, the impact of a home dropping below 30° can be pretty costly for a homeowner.”
Offering this service is very beneficial from a customer service standpoint, Leech added.
“Americans have become very comfortable and are used to comfort,” he said. “If you go back one hundred years, people back then would probably think we’re nuts because we can’t go a couple of days without comfort. We’re a pretty privileged country — we’re spoiled. But, if that’s what homeowners want, that’s what we’re going to provide.”
Leech also noted that it took a while for the company to get a system in place to manage its stock of portable units.
“There have been many times we’ve had to go out and invest in more, because we had too many out in homes,” he said. “Anything over 78° or below 40° and we’re putting them in homes. It’s a pretty normalized thing for us. We’ve lost quite a few portable heaters in homes before we had our tracking system in place. So, it does take a good inventory check and balance system.”
Using portables as closing tools works, but it requires a significant amount of organization, according to Steve Schmidt, president of Frederick Air Inc. in Frederick, Maryland.
“We have an ‘Always Cool’ guarantee — or ‘Always Warm’ guarantee during the winter — which states if you sign a contract with us, we’re going to figure out how to get you heating or cooling today,” he said. “And it might be as simple as adding R-22 or supplying a temporary portable solution. We’ve been offering this guarantee for a long time, but we’ve never advertised it. So, for the last two years, I’ve been saying it on the radio, and we’ve been delivering on that promise. I travel around a lot and talk to contractors, and I tell them we consistently have people waiting five or six weeks in the summer for us to replace their systems. They all say, ‘Oh, no, not in my town. You couldn’t do that here.’ I tell them they’re out of their minds, because don’t tell me the Washington area heat is not as bad as other places, because it is.”
“The biggest piece is the up-front demonstration of value,” added Dave Schmidt, Steve Schmidt’s son and sales manager for Frederick Air. “We get to the customer and explain that they’re not making a right-now decision. They’re spending $13,000 on a 10-15 year relationship with somebody, and do they really want to go with the guy who can come tomorrow in the middle of the summer? There’s a reason they can do it in the next couple of days, and there’s a reason why we have a backlog.”
Frederick Air’s salesmen are prepped with the portable units, and the company has built a system on how to track them, check them in and out of the warehouse, and how to know where they are.
“The way I always did it was, if you sign a contract, you get air conditioning. Dave’s been a little more lax in that,” said Steve Schmidt. “He says, ‘If we come out and give you an estimate, you can have air conditioning while you’re deciding,’ which doesn’t always work. We go do an estimate, give them air conditioning, and they go with someone else. So, what’s the worst that can happen? There’s a customer out there somewhere who didn’t use us, but thinks we’re great because we went above and beyond. Even if they made some decision based on price or whatever, when their neighbor asks, ‘Who should I go with?’ They’re going to remember Frederick Air.
“What is the reason you would ever use a portable unit? Schmidt continued. “I guess it would be because you have some sort of compassion for your customers — that would be nice. But the real reason is, we’re developing a backlog of systems to be installed at a later date. If we didn’t do that, we’d be throwing all those jobs away. I think its imperative [to offer portable air conditioning]. Sometimes we have 60-70 people waiting for us to install systems. What happens if we only had 10? What happens when we do those jobs? Now we don’t have any work. So, to me, the success of the summer depends on capturing every one of those jobs and enabling them to wait for us.”
Publication date: 7/3/2017