DURHAM, NC — Lee Air Conditioners (Lee AC) got its start 50 years ago when Joe Lee sold his first window air conditioner out of his garage. It has been about that long since the Durham-based company has seen a summer with the relentless heat that the Triangle Area experienced in 2002. In past summers, heat waves of 94-plus degrees came and went every couple of weeks. This year, however, there was an unprecedented month-and-a-half long consistent wave of heat that Lee AC and its service department waged war on.

Even though new construction business is down as a result of residents and businesses alike being frugal with their money, the service department has increased its staff by 20% and continues to look for qualified technicians to meet the demand. The owner said the boost in staff resulted in faster customer response by technicians and increased customer satisfaction. Previously, it may have taken a week before Lee AC could answer a service call, but this year they responded normally within one or two days, according to officers of the company.

"In the past if there was a problem with a unit, whether it be industrial, residential, or commercial, people would say 'just replace it,'" said Chris Traver, service manager for Lee AC. "This year, it may cost $1,300 to have a compressor replaced and just $1,500 to have a completely new unit installed, and they are saying 'fix it.' The service workload is directly related to the weather and the lack of new construction is directly due to the economic climate. However, business is great."

Crews are now working 70- to 80-hour weeks, which is no different than years past, except that with additional technicians, there are now 400 more hours being placed toward preventative maintenance programs. Lee AC is averaging 300 calls per week from various clients and new business and has extended its normal hours from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., to 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, when Lee AC does not normally have regular hours.

"The air conditioning market was slow last year, because compared to most summers, last year was mild," said Robert Russell, residential manager for Lee AC. "However, normally after the holidays we see a consistent increase in business as people prepare for the summer months. But not this year (initially). It was dead (for the first part of the year). This year, because of the economy, people waited until May or June to make a move. June 1, we were wide open. There was no curve. It was straight through the roof as a direct function of the weather."

Lee AC offers customers flat-rate pricing. It is $89 to diagnose a problem and customers are quoted a fixed price to repair the malfunction.

Said David Brese Jr., executive vice president of Lee AC, "We have been able to grow because of our willingness to have a relationship with our clients."

Lee Air Conditioners is a family-owned, full-service mechanical engineering and contracting company with in-house design-and-build capabilities. With a staff of approximately 130 personnel, it does commercial, institutional, industrial, and residential mechanical services.

For more information, contact Mark Riggs at 919-832-6300 or visit www.leeairconditioners.com.

Publication date: 10/28/2002