Every year, the Department of Homeland Security recognizes September as National Preparedness Month to promote disaster planning. This year, the need to prepare for such events takes on extra urgency. Storms batter the East Coast at the same time fires rage on the West Coast. And all this is happening during the worst pandemic in a century.
“This is the year of dual disasters,” said Kate Fulkert, business continuity and disaster recovery manager at Vertiv.
In the best of times, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warns it takes a week to 10 days for deployment. This year, it takes two to three weeks, Fulkert said. So what can HVAC contractors do to protect their businesses and serve their clients during a disaster? The solution starts before the disaster strikes.
Fulkert said her firm starts working through a severe weather checklist as soon as authorities spot a storm developing. HVAC contractors in high-risk areas need to do the same. Brandon Chase, senior product marketing manager of cooling for Lennox, said HVAC contractors also need to communicate with consumers what precautionary steps can be taken to safeguard their HVAC system before an event.
“By proactively offering advice to protect HVAC equipment, contractors can help homeowners minimize system damage and keep their families and neighborhoods safe, while also building trust and opening a line of communication to support the consumer after the storm,” Chase said.
Fulkert said HVAC contractors working with commercial clients need to work on ensuring a graceful shutdown for the system. This is where having a plan in place long before the disaster becomes crucial.
“It’s easier to bring something back up when you shut down in a sequential order,” Fulkert said.
The initial impact of a hurricane is bad, but the aftereffects are worse, she said. Flooding causes tremendous damage to buildings. Fires are even more damaging, Fulkert said. HVAC systems face extra threats from wind events, which can knock over rooftop units. Florida maintains a special standard for these units, but they can occur throughout the country, as this summer’s derecho in the Midwest proved.
Once the natural disaster has passed, contractors can offer to inspect the system and troubleshoot any equipment that needs to be repaired or replaced, said Valerie Mastalka, senior product marketing manager of heating for Lennox.
“HVAC systems are designed and engineered to operate within specific physical parameters, so when units are subjected to conditions outside of those parameters, they may not operate as designed,” Mastalka said.
This creates more than an issue with restoring comfort, she said. It could lead to electrical issues, gas leaks, refrigerant leaks, or obstructed mechanical components that would make the unit dangerous to use. Weakened supports could also make the equipment inside susceptible to falling or moving. This makes an inspection by a professional crucial to homeowner safety, Mastalka said.
Of course, the HVAC contractors themselves are subject to the challenges posed by a natural disaster. They need a plan on how to operate their businesses remotely if needed. Fulkert said technology makes this much easier than in the past. For example, files are stored in the cloud, and VOIP phones operate the same from any location. The pandemic, though, has made matters more difficult. An HVAC contractor’s workers may have been working at home, spread throughout an area and perhaps without power themselves.
Even those outside of a disaster area need to prepare for ways that disaster impacts operations. A hurricane can shut down ports, delaying equipment shipments. HVAC contractors already face shortages due to the pandemic. Fulkert said it’s best to expand inventory projections across a wider horizon.
The positive take from all this is being a well-prepared company is another way for HVAC contractors to stand out from the competition.
“In times of crisis, businesses have an opportunity to step up and help the community by being an educational resource and building trust and goodwill among their customer base,” Chase said. “Taking the consultative approach is best. Inform the customer of what is possible, what steps to take to try to prevent damage or harm, and offer the reminder that the dealer is available when needed. By communicating and working with consumers to take preventative measures before the natural disaster, contractors can better position themselves as the trusted expert after the storm and beyond.”
Each disaster is different. Here are some tips HVAC contractors can share with consumers, courtesy of Lennox:
When in the path of a hurricane or tornado, some precautions may include:
- Turning off the gas supply to gas furnaces.
- Turning off the breakers to your a/c or heat pump and indoor air handler or gas furnace.
- Protecting outdoor equipment from flying debris.
- Securing your outdoor unit to the slab or structure and ensuring bolts are secure and tight (if required by local code).
- Stacking sandbags around the perimeter of the property to help prevent flooding of the home and unit.
- Cutting branches or removing items that could potentially fall on the unit and cause damage.
When wildfires are in the area, some precautions may include:
- Ensuring your air purification system and filtration is properly maintained.
- Turning blower motor to “on” setting to continually circulate the air within the home.
- Monitoring indoor air quality for any pollutants.
When in the path of nearby wildfires, you should do the following:
- If evacuating, turning off power and gas before leaving the home.