It’s a dilemma many contractors and homeowners face, summer after summer … as temperatures spike, the demand for cooling relief does as well. While a boon for the HVAC industry, it’s also a time when contractors struggle to provide customers with solutions to beat the heat while working to juggle busy schedules.
Traditionally, portable air conditioning units come into play to keep folks cool until the air can be fixed. But that assumption’s been evolving. Portables can also be an efficient spot solution for just one area, versus having to cool or heat a whole home. And as people come to expect more and better from the devices that serve them, there’s heightened interest in seeking out more diverse uses where they can be deployed.
Customers are also increasingly looking ahead to plan for emergencies where portable a/c might be needed, according to manufacturers. Nevertheless, the market for unplanned rentals remains strong, and manufacturers remain committed to serving customers’ needs for portable cooling on the spot.
As with many tools, appliances, and technology on the market today, consumers are looking for portable a/c units that serve more than one purpose.
“Customers are demanding more from PAC [portable air conditioning] units now than they have previously,” said TJ Wheeler, vice president of marketing and product management, Friedrich Air Conditioning Co. “They expect them to work like a regular air conditioner, and for that to really be true, it requires the unit to actually exchange the heat from inside to outside.”
That requires dual-hose technology so that the unit can not only condition the indoor space but also create a condenser air exchange, similar to a window unit or a split unit. Wheeler pointed to the Friedrich ZoneAire as an example. It’s a larger dual-hose portable model, available as either a three-in-one system that operates as an air conditioner, dehumidifier, and fan, or a four-in-one, which also includes heating capabilities.
“Single-hose units are more compact and convenient at times, but they cannot perform the same as the dual-hose models,” Wheeler said.
The ZoneAire has snap-in hoses for quick installation and startup, a window kit to vent the unit to the outside, a self-evaporating condensation system, a 24-hour timer, a three-speed fan, and washable antimicrobial filters.
“The ZoneAire portable unit with the heat pump option is one of few on the market with both cooling and heating capabilities, and it’s designed to accommodate bedrooms, garages, dorm rooms, or home offices,” said Brittany Calderon, product manager at Friedrich.
It offers cooling from 11,600 to 13,500 Btu and heating from 10,700 Btu.
“Consumers love the convenience, flexibility, and simplicity,” Wheeler said. “And the ability to address a wide range of spot cooling and heating needs. This versatility allows for users to make any room comfortable while optimizing space with a single unit. Dual-hose systems allow for cooling up to 40 percent faster than single-hose, resulting in lowered energy costs.
“I believe that we will see companies focusing on improving energy efficiency, ease of use, and decreasing noise levels even more going forward,” he added.
Increased performance capabilities give contractors the flexibility for additional uses.
“Because the right portable units, like our Friedrich ZoneAire options, can be used as actual space conditioning equipment and not just spot cooling, we are seeing the adoption of PAC units for long-term solutions and in emergency situations,” said Wheeler. “Portables are still a great solution for traditional applications, including for areas with very short cooling seasons like the Pacific Northwest, or for temporary solutions where system requirements have changed, such as converting an office into a meeting space. However, we also are seeing uses expand as consumer and contractor creativity takes hold.”
John Moore, operations manager at Spot Coolers, summed up the way the industry is heading in one word: mainstream.
“In today’s world, discomfort isn’t tolerated, and our business systems must run 24/7,” he said. “Portables have evolved from machines cooling hot workspaces in factories and specialty units used by events companies to tools used to solve problems in a tremendous range of applications every day.”
Manufacturers are increasingly working with customers to help develop site-specific portable air solutions for longer-term needs.
“The range of applications is increasing for portables in terms of meeting specific application criteria,” said Doria Goldman, marketing director at KwiKool. “This means customers are demanding a specifically designed product that more closely meets their needs.”
One such need is the health care industry, where it’s essential to control air temperature and purification in hospitals and high-tech health labs. To address this, KwiKool has created the BioKool, a 1.1-ton HEPA filtered portable air conditioner that the company says will specifically address challenges faced by medical staff, clean room facilities, and laboratories by significantly cutting down on airborne particulates and microorganisms, while reducing the potential for air conditioner-related contaminants.
The BioKool combines standard dual ducting with a 4-inch HEPA filter that screens out 99.99 percent of particulates greater than .3 microns in size. It uses KwiKool’s exclusive I/O Integral condenser system, which completely isolates the condenser section from the conditioned space to prevent cross-contamination and maintain balanced air pressure. It also has a smooth, non-porous evaporator insulation that repels moisture, reducing the risk that mold or other microbes could attach to surfaces inside the unit, plus a UV light inside each air chamber that irradiates the cool air stream and the internal surfaces of the evaporator chamber.
Hand in hand with increased performance effectiveness are advances in technology that could make the logistics of sending out and retrieving portable rental units easier. Wally Meissner, Midwest area manager at Spot Coolers, said the company is currently testing GPS systems that would help track portable units.
“Managing a rental fleet with thousands of units in every major market in the U.S. can become a logistical nightmare, so the ability to track and move equipment through GPS systems is becoming more of a necessity,” he said. “We’ve had several customers, especially large industrials, who will rent several units and, at the end of the rental period, can’t find them because the facility is too large.”
Meissner said they’ve had multiple requests for trackable equipment and are working on several test models. Spot Coolers already uses GPS tracking in its trucks. Adding it to the units themselves would help with inventory control, help customers keep track of the location of equipment on larger jobs, and assist customers who move equipment from one location to another.
“We’re also doing some testing on self-diagnostics, so it could alert us if there’s a failure of the equipment,” he added.
Portable air conditioning is both a rental and a sales business.
“You have to have a rental fleet that can service any size customer at any time, quickly,” said Ken Swanson, founder of Spot Coolers.
In the past three years, Swanson said there’s been a lot of consolidation in the rental business, with smaller entrepreneurial companies selling their businesses to bigger companies like Sunbelt Rentals.
“It’s the biggest change in the industry since it was founded 30 years ago,” he said.
Consolidation in the rental business means a shift in customer service, Swanson said. And Goldman agreed, adding that it brings both good and bad outcomes for customers.
“On the negative side, it may limit competitive bids,” she said. “On the positive side, customers will be dealing with companies with more resources to support their rental jobs.”
Despite a changing playing field, manufacturers remain committed to providing customers with the services they want as their needs evolve. When it comes to fixing an a/c issue, customers value timely and effective responses, as well as a competitive price. But prompt delivery and support capabilities are often more important than price, Goldman said — although re-rental discounts and discounts on used equipment sales can also influence a contractor or distributor decision.
“Unplanned, urgent, and emergency jobs are a big part of the business,” Moore said.
While most of the reactionary situations occur in the summer, planned maintenance is a driver for the portable a/c market during the winter months.
“There are a huge number of aging buildings — maintenance and replacement budgets have been tight, and lead times for replacement parts can be very long,” said Moore. “Spot coolers can help bridge that gap.”
Publication date: 7/2/2018