“There was a lot of talk about how there was going to be a new normal for prices of steel and we’re not seeing it.”
-Robbie Thompson
Conklin Metal Industries

The HVACR industry was blessed, and cursed, by the steel market in 2022.

That apparent contradiction was explained by two steel market experts during the recent Heating, Air Conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) conference in Houston. Robbie Thompson, president of Conklin Metal Industries, a 149-year-old supplier based in Atlanta; and Michael Cowden, a senior editor at Steel Market Update, spoke during a HARDI presentation on sheet metal.

Steel prices last year, they said, for the most part continued a downward trend that began in late 2021. That trend ran counter to the price inflation that affected most sectors of the economy last year.

“It was definitely a buyer’s market,” said Thompson. “The mills were willing to negotiate price.”

At the same time, “Every week was like a punch to the gut,” Thompson said. That’s because, for every month except April, the price of an order of steel had dropped by about $10 per hundredweight (cwt) by the time that steel arrived, he said.

The price of galvanized, for example, was at about $110 per cwt in October 2021. Beginning in early 2022, it fell for 10 weeks straight then began rising again, after Russia invaded Ukraine, amid concerns about raw materials shortages. But it soon began falling again and by late November 2022 was at about $41 per cwt, less than half of its October 2021 peak.

“There was a lot of talk about how there was going to be a new normal for prices of steel and we’re not seeing it,” Thompson said.

“It has really been a crazy year, couple of years, for steel prices,” Cowden said.

The presentation by Cowden and Thompson included several other points. Among them:

  • Prices fell despite a year-to-date drop in raw steel production of 5.2% as of November 26, 2022, compared to the same nearly 11-month period in 2021.
  • Labor issues in the steel industry made for a hot topic, but did not end up affecting supply.
  • Transportation was a concern, as the price of diesel fuel has averaged $5.25 a gallon since Russia invaded Ukraine. That’s compared to an average diesel price, according to Statista, of $3.29 a gallon in 2021.
  • New production capacity for flat-rolled steel in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico will impact the market going forward; by some time in 2024, under current plans, steel companies will have added 24.7 million tons per year of capacity in those three countries since October of 2020.