Winter weather can be both a blessing and a curse for HVAC contractors. While some warmer areas of the country are relatively unaffected by cooling temperatures, most regions prepare for snowfall and an increased demand in service calls. The slow months become a relic of time gone by, and business hits a fever pitch, but it is important to note that no two winter seasons are the same.
Last year’s winter months brought forth an uptick in fuel costs but also surprised most by being significantly warmer than usual. The 2017-2018 winter season looks to continue the first trend while subverting the second.
“Average household expenditures for all major home heating fuels will rise this winter because of expected colder weather and higher energy costs,” stated the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s short-term winter fuels outlook. “Average increases vary by fuel with natural gas expenditures forecast to rise by 12 percent, home heating oil by 17 percent, electricity by 8 percent, and propane by 18 percent. Most of the increase reflects expected colder weather rather than higher energy costs.”
These fuel forecasts should once again bode well for HVAC contractors throughout the winter, many of whom have dealt with varying weather-related issues throughout 2017.
Outside of the fuel forecast, the actual weather across the country is set to be shaped greatly by La Niña.
“La Niña is in place across the Pacific Ocean, and it is going to have a significant [impact] on the weather across the U.S. and Canada this winter,” said Chris Orr, certified consulting meteorologist. “Colder than normal temperatures will be widespread, and wetter than normal weather conditions will dominate.”
La Niña is the ribbon of colder than normal sea temperatures stretching from Indonesia to northern Peru. It tends to shift across the Northern Hemisphere so that the fast-moving jet stream 30,000 feet above the ground will dip toward the equator over the western half of the country. As the jet stream travels across the eastern U.S., it will curve slightly northward before continuing across the north-central Atlantic Ocean.
According to Orr, this pattern will bring wetter, colder than normal weather to much of the western and north-central U.S. Deeper than normal snow will fall across the western mountain ranges as powerful storm systems plow across the Pacific Ocean and slam into the Pacific Northwest.
The far Southeast (Florida, southeast Georgia, and adjacent areas of South Carolina and Mississippi) will be drier and warmer than normal. Winter storms will travel north of this area, which means moisture will be sparse, and warm air will dominate.
Orr also noted the other area that will experience wetter than normal weather will stretch from the central Mississippi River Valley to the Ohio Valley and eastern Great Lakes.
“This region will have a high risk of winter storms featuring everything from freezing rain to heavy snow,” he said. “The greatest chance for this weather pattern to lock in will be from late December to mid-February. The beginning and end of the winter season will feature changeable weather, which will vary considerably from the middle of winter.
“But, when the pattern locks in, look for nasty winter weather to come in streaks of 10-14 days without a break,” Orr continued. “Even then, the breaks will be short lived — only a half-week or so.”
The cold, winter weather is expected to ease slowly throughout the spring of 2018. The dry, warm weather will continue across the far Southeast, and the wet weather will rapidly dry up across the Ohio Valley.
The EIA’s outlook also noted that while there is an expectation of colder temperatures compared with last winter, temperatures across the eastern U.S. are expected to be comparable to the average of the previous five winters, and temperatures in the western states are forecast to be about 7 percent colder than the previous five winters’ average.
A RISE IN PREPARATION
Chuck Blouse, sales engineer, Williams Service Co., said his team, which is located in York, Pennsylvania, isn’t planning anything in particular to prepare for the winter months.
“We just take whatever comes our way, and we struggle with work for the technicians if the weather is too mild,” he said. “We thrive on the coldest days of winter and just make do when the weather doesn’t make for a lot of run time on heating equipment.”
For those contractors who are selling heat pumps to the nearly half of all U.S. households heating primarily with natural gas, it will be important to know the EIA expects those homes to spend $69 (12 percent) more this winter compared with last winter. The increase in forecast expenditures compared with last winter is driven by a 9 percent increase in consumption and a 2 percent increase in price.
Heating-oil households will also see increases in spending, according to the EIA, as they are set to spend an average of $215 (17 percent) more this winter than last winter, reflecting retail prices that are 25 cents/gallon (10 percent) higher and consumption that is 6 percent higher than last year.
While the percentage of households nationwide using heating oil only hovers around 5 percent, that number is somewhere in the 21 percent range in the Northeast, which will be most focused on this rise.
William Blaze is the president of Advanced Air in Fort Myers, Florida. For Blaze, and far too many contractors across the U.S., this winter season will vary drastically from others due to the aftermath of Hurricane’s Harvey and Irma.
“Our biggest concern right now is recovering from Hurricane Irma,” he said. “We primarily sell straight-cool a/c systems with emergency heat. Rarely do we sell a heat pump, and we never sell gas. Our winter season sees the return of all our seasonal Floridians [snowbirds].
“Generally, we see an increase in business in October [on their way in] and April [on their way out],” Blaze continued. “There is no heating season to speak of, so very little work is generated due to cold fronts. Daytime highs are in the 70s and lows are in the 60s.”
Blaze added one area of concern is from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28 as business declines significantly.
“Everyone spends their money in December,” he said. “They’re not looking for systems or enhancements. Fortunately, we sell a lot of maintenance agreements that keep us going.”
Publication date: 11/13/2017