The unitary market continued in 2004 where it left off in 2003 - and that's saying a lot. According to Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) statistics, 6,807,262 units were shipped in 2003, a

1-percent increase from 2002's total of 6,746,326 units. Heat pump shipments also hit a record in 2003 with 1,626,365 units shipped, a 10-percent jump from 2002's record of 1,483,599 units.

So what did 2004 bring? Final statistics for the year are not yet in, but early numbers seemed to indicate that another record year is a possibility.

Combined U.S. factory shipments of 407,380 central air conditioners and air-source heat pumps for January were up 6 percent compared to shipments from the same month in 2003.

January 2004 heat pump shipments of 125,165 were also up 11 percent compared to January 2003.

By the end of March, ARI reported that combined U.S. shipments of 730,851 central air conditioners and air-source heat pumps were up 8 percent compared to shipments of 2003. Heat pump shipments of 168,631 were up 13 percent compared to March 2003.

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The news only improved a month later when ARI announced that A/C and air-source heat pump shipments reached 763,362 for the month. That was a 19-percent improvement over shipments from the same month last year.

"When comparing April 2004 with the same month a year ago, it is helpful to remember that [in 2003] America had just embarked on the war in Iraq, consumer attention was focused on the war, and the unemployment picture was negative," said Ed Dooley, who retired this year as ARI's vice president of communications.

"A year later, there is a dramatic improvement in the economy with almost 1 million jobs created since February, the largest three-month increase since the boom period of early 2000."

By June, champagne corks were popping. Manufacturers set a single-month record of more than 1 million shipments - 1,081,147 to be exact.

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"The industry is in the enviable position of shipping most of its units as replacements for aging air conditioners," assessed Dooley, "and as upgrades for remodeling projects spurred by mortgage refinancing or existing home sales."

The news was also great in July, as shipments were up 8 percent over July 2003. In September, shipments were up 13 percent over the month a year ago. In fact, if the pace continues for the rest of this year, do not be surprised if 2004 tops 2003.

A number of major unitary manufacturers launched a large number of brand-new residential and light commercial air conditioning products in the first quarter of 2004.

"We are seeing an upsurge," agreed J.R. Jones, president of Rheem Air Conditioning Division, referring to the plethora of new products coming to market. "All of our outdoor units are going under development, too."

Publication date: 12/27/2004