The coronavirus pandemic created a wide range of shortages, from coins to pepperoni. The HVAC industry hasn’t been spared, with manufacturers and contractors reporting a lack of equipment, UV lights, and other products. Now, HVAC filters are emerging as a crucial element in the efforts to reopen buildings such as malls and schools. The heightened and unexpected demand creates questions about supply.
In some cases, governments are mandating filter upgrades. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at one point said all malls in his state must install HEPA filters before allowing in the public. Cuomo revised the rule so that shopping malls of 800,000 square feet or more must have filters with MERV 13 ratings or better. If a property’s HVAC operation met other “enhanced” protective criteria, then MERV 11 filters could suffice. Even without mandates, guidelines for re-opening buildings often include filter upgrades. Many industries face supply issues right now, but some filter manufacturers say their industry is ready. Mike Rimrodt, vice president of marketing at Aprilaire, said his firm is prepared to meet this demand.
“We have no concerns meeting the current increase in demand,” Rimrodt said. “We’ve committed the capital investment necessary to address capacity issues and do not foresee major shortages given the current state. We have a strong supplier base, and we have no issues sourcing needed equipment to add capacity.”
Rimrodt did say the company’s supplier does have some limitations on MERV 16 availability, but he said Aprilaire executives still believe they can meet demand.
HVAC Contractors Waiting Weeks for Filters
Aprilaire may be meeting demand, but contractors say there is a shortage. One contractor posted online that he works with four suppliers for filters and they all have a lead time of at least 12 weeks for MERV 13 filters. Neil Smith, founder of HVACQuick, said it took three months for his supplier to deliver the HEPA filter boxes his company needed for a government contract. The supplier said they would have them in three weeks.
Rich Morgan, CEO of Magic Touch Mechanical Inc. in Mesa, Arizona, said he started to notice a shortage of MERV 11 and 16 filters starting in May. Morgan said his suppliers are doing a good job of keeping him informed about what is in stock in Arizona and what to expect. This keeps the firm from having long backorders, he said.
Morgan said more clients are choosing Magic Touch’s “Clean Air” add-on options when purchasing replacement equipment, increasing demand for higher-end filters. Magic Touch uses its customer management system to schedule reminders for clients due for filter changes. Morgan said the firm now sends those reminders sooner in attempt to head off an emergency call.
“We’re also informing our clients on the shortages the industry is seeing and encouraging them not to procrastinate until it becomes a problem,” Morgan said. “We’ve been using both our blog and social media to spread that message as well — not only on air filter shortages, but equipment and parts shortages as well.”
Everyone Wants Indoor Air Quality
Roger Mariusso, sales and service manager at All Makes Heating & Air Conditioning Corp. (AMHAC) in Eastchester, New York, said he sees a delay, especially for higher grade filters. Mariusso doesn’t call it a shortage, because it’s only delayed by a couple of weeks. Still, AMHAC increased its orders for all equipment to ensure availability.
“It’s not something that’s sensitive because we keep a good stock here to dodge that kind of thing,” Mariusso said.
As in most part of the country, demand for all types of HVAC services boomed in suburban New York once the weather grew warmer. Consumers are looking for ways to keep safe, he said. They want everything from filters to UV lights to dehumidifiers.
“Indoor air quality has become a must for every sale,” Mariusso said. “A year ago, I didn’t bother to offer it to many customers.”
Most higher-MERV filters use electrostatically charged meltblown synthetics, the same as N-95 masks. This means the filters being prescribed for buildings and the masks required for hospitals are competing with each other. Joe Gorman, product manager for comfort air products at Camfil, said the demand for filters will only continue as building operators install higher-grade filters. A MERV 13 filter loses its charge over time, becoming in fact a MERV 7 or 8 filter. This means cycling through more filters to meet the efficiency standards. Camfil promotes MERV 13A, which Gorman said will sustain a level of protection for a longer time, meaning fewer changeouts.
“If you’re staying in the same footprint and you’re going to a higher efficiency, your filters going to come to the end of its life a lot sooner,” Gorman said. “You’ve got to look at the efficiency of the filter over its life, not just on day one.”
There are other media used to make filters. A main alternative for meltblown synthetics is fiberglass. Kim Hager, Winsupply's HVAC hydronic product marketing manager, said these filters were becoming hard to find last year. Suppliers had been moving away from these filters, Hager said, because the profit on fiberglass was too small for many providers. Now they are reconsidering that decision.
Hager said suppliers are definitely seeing strong demand for filters of all types. She said one told her their gross sales were up more than 200 percent in June. Keeping up with that demand has been challenging, especially with the staffing difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite these challenges, Hager said the industry effort to keep up with demand is impressive.
“They’re working really hard to get caught back up, and they’re doing a really good job,” she said.