By the second week in June, intense heat and humidity had settled into the major population centers of the East and Midwest — earlier than usual, and strong enough to lead on the network news.

This is significant, because when the big media centers in the East get hot, they nationalize the story. Kosovo or the federal budget comes after the weather story, as the TV cameras are trained on kids cooling off under a fire hydrant and doctors talking earnestly about heat exhaustion.

In Cleveland, firefighters had to shut off 130 hydrants illegally opened to keep residents cool.

Not even summer

The August-like weather was sudden and unexpected, with mid-90s in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City — 10°F above normal for June.

In Detroit and other cities, newspaper stories speculated about the ability of electric utilities to keep the juice flowing.

In Manhattan, appliance stores reported an unusually high volume of walk-in traffic seeking window air conditioners.

In usually cool Concord N.H., customers at a Sears store waited in the aisles for the next delivery of room units.

And in Washington, some children were given the day off school due to the heat (the flip side of kids getting snow days during the winter).

Now, of course, the nation has cooled down. But the early heat is always preferred in this industry.

Blame La Niña

The unseasonable heat was caused by La Niña, the cyclical phenomenon that also caused unusually cool temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Ironically, California has seen one of its coolest and wettest springs in decades.

The hot weather will impact the weather-sensitive air conditioning business. At the rate hvac equipment manufacturers are shipping products to the market, there is no sign that 1999 will be less robust than last year’s record-setting pace of 6.2 million unitary shipments.

Certainly the economic signs are there for another strong year. Inflation is low; housing construction, based on starts and permits through April, is ahead of last year’s pace; and unemployment remains low.

The nation’s combined stock of home heating and cooling units, well over 80 million units, represents the heart of the market. A single statistic, taken from Census Bureau data on housing starts, shows that as of April, the South is on a pace to attain 702,000 housing units this year — virtually all of them with central cooling.

Significantly, homebuilders are bullish about their sector of the economy. Two-thirds of them expect to start more homes in 1999 than they did last year.

Shipments heating up

Against this background, unitary shipments so far are on a pace to match or exceed last year’s record of 6.2 million shipments.

Four-month unitary shipments of 2,026,815 represented a gain of 7% over the January-April 1998 period, according to the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI).

Room air conditioner shipments, at 2,806,000 were 45% better than the first four months of 1998, said the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM).

Even shipments of heating equipment showed gains.

Four-month gas furnace shipments, at 872,115, represented a 6% increase, according to the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA).

Oil furnace shipments of 28,216 were also slightly better (5%) for the period. Gas boiler shipments, at 43,212, were up 17%. And oil boilers, at 27,364, were up 9% over last year.