LONG ISLAND CITY, N.Y. — Ptac’s are a big business in Mo Siegel’s world. Commonly known as packaged terminal air conditioners, these units are the defining products in Ice-Cap’s new and replacement product lines.

What’s so glamorous about a replacement wall unit that simply fits into an existing sleeve or custom fit to replace an old, obsolete ptac? It’s not so much a question of a glamour product but rather, the glamour location of that product.

Luxury high-rise apartments, office buildings, and hotels are locations where most of the ptac units are installed or replaced. This type of work can be very lucrative and rewarding if a contractor sets his/her sights on this market and has had some previous experience installing ptac’s.

“There is a lot of demand for cost-effective, through-the-wall units,” said Siegel, ceo for Ice-Cap, based in Long Island City. “If you can provide a unit that is more than a changeout, with additional features such as humidity control and positive pressure to outside air, you should be able to develop a good niche market for your product.”

The company’s list of clients contains some familiar names, such as Donald Trump. Big developers like Trump are demanding because they want building occupants and guests to be comfortable and “unaffected” by the heating and cooling units.

That means the units must condition the air while maintaining low sound levels during operation. Those two features have not always been associated with ptac units.

Evolving into a luxury product

Back in the 1950s, when air conditioning was becoming popular in commercial and residential buildings, an inexpensive way to cool and heat was by using a through-the-wall unit. Any business traveler or vacationer can probably tell stories about the unit that either kept the room too cool or made it too hot.

“It’s been a funny curve with the ptac business,” Siegel added. “The idea of putting a small unit in a small space fought an uphill battle for a while. It eventually became a popular commodity with the rise of the lodging industry, which led to a downgrading of the product.

“For example, I’m a business traveler and I stop by a roadside motel. It’s hot and I turn on the air conditioner. The widows rattle and I’m blown right out of my bed. It is designed to provide a certain function. And I’ll probably never stop at that motel again anyway.”

Siegel said that impressions like this have lasting effects on people. He cited the example of trying to sell ptac units to an engineer who has had previous bad experiences. “The guy will turn up his nose because he recalls trying to sleep in a room where he had to turn off the unit and sweat or turn it on and not sleep.”

“In the past, manufacturers have used low-cost components to get the unit down to the cost of a window air conditioner,” said Nelson Bender, vice president of marketing and sales for Systems, Controls & Instruments, LLC, a Pennsylvania company that provides much of the controls for Ice-Cap’s ptac units.

But the low-cost unit usually equated to poor comfort levels. Bender said, “The lodging industry took a survey and found that the number-one room complaint from their guests is comfort.”

In order to achieve comfort, ptac manufacturers had to also raise the energy efficiency levels of their units and reduce noise levels. Air quality standards have also changed the makeup of the ptac business. “Customers can now have a ptac unit that meets all of the ASHRAE standards,” said Bender.

With all of these factors, the days of simple swap-outs or retrofits are dwindling.

“Some of the big lodging chains, who view ptac’s as a disposable commodity, change out their units every five to seven years,” Siegel said. “I think this is unfortunate because the types of units we build have a long life expectancy.”

Fortunately for Ice-Cap, the number of “picky” customers is growing. The company has turned some standard ptac units into custom models and the results have been impressive.

Warwick & Lowell: Luxury applications

Owners of one of New York City’s original luxury hotels, The Warwick, gave Ice-Cap the opportunity to replace the wall units in the classic building.

“The Warwick has always been a high-end property,” said Siegel. “It was important to maintain a high level of comfort back in the late 1950s and early 60s because some of the biggest names in show business stayed at the Warwick.”

“Their clientele demanded comfort. People like Cary Grant used to live there all of the time,” said Michael Milazzo, Ice-Cap executive vice president. “When big acts like the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, they stayed at the Warwick.

“This hotel was one of the first ones in New York to have through-wall units. We found a lot of old American Standards, which were the original units.”

In the late 1980s, an investment group based in Europe bought the hotel. The company wanted to do a world-wide upgrade of its properties, which included the Warwick. Ice-Cap had to deal with tough European standards, but managed to do the job according to specifications.

“We did a full retrofit of all of the 400 to 500 through-wall units over a four- to five-year period,” Siegel added. “We had to work within a demanding time schedule, where whole floors were closed down and rooms stripped to bare walls and concrete. But we did it and the customer was satisfied.”

Another high-rise job involved a luxury hotel, but this one is known (or unknown) for its relative anonymity — and that’s just the way the building owner wants it. The Lowell, a luxury New York hotel is known for its discreet location (away from the main thoroughfares) and its famous clientele (Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, etc.). It is the hotel of choice for many Hollywood celebrities when they are in New York for short or extended stays.

“It is one of the least known major hotels in the United States,” said Milazzo. “It is like a European four-star hotel. The hotel owner, Fouad Chartouni, also has a hotel in Los Angeles and he shuttles these people back and forth to accommodate them.

“Each one of his rooms [130] has a specific motif. Chartouni is an old-style hotelier — real hands-on.”

The hotel has one of New York’s highest room rates. “Most of us are paying less for our monthly mortgage than one night at the Lowell,” quipped Siegel. (Actually, room rates in a package start at around $300 per night.)

He was familiar with the hotel because of previous work on existing wall units and the installation of Ice-Cap units in Chartouni’s penthouse apartment. Chartouni came to Ice-Cap after major renovations had been done to the hotel. He had what Milazzo described as a severe problem.

“The internal steam piping in the walls was shot,” he said. “The pipes had become calcified and restricted. Chartouni was faced with the prospect of not getting any heat to his guests.

“He had a certain list of prerequisites, including installing a heating system which wouldn’t cost a ton of money and one that had quiet air conditioning and heating. It even had to look good.”

The ptac manufacturer put a number of prototypes together that were installed in Chartouni’s bedroom. Two different units were tested by Chartouni over a two-month time period, with some tweaking.

“We had to go to a new level of demand,” said Milazzo. “We redesigned the Ice-Cap unit to reduce the sound level. We had to take a quiet machine and make it quieter.”

The company used a lot of acoustical damping material, some of which is found in military helicopters. The material had to be flameproof and waterproof. To further reduce the noise, the company added a specially designed thermostat which automatically fluctuates the fan speed, keeping it down on the low maintenance speed most of the time, resulting in a quieter operation.

Based on its work at the Lowell, the manufacturer developed a wall unit with two-stage electric heat, because of the demand for variable heat. Siegel said this was unique, since so many of today’s ptac’s offer only one heat setting, “like a toaster,” he said.

Ice-Cap is now using the product it sold to the Lowell in its marketing and sales campaigns to other high rises. The ability to use two-stage electric has been a strong selling point since the cost of electricity, especially in New York, is so high.

Niche customers

Siegel said one of the keys to selling ptac’s is to focus in on a niche market such as nursing homes, which require a lot of different system specifications other than the “average” high-rise building.

For example, some nursing home owners require heating and cooling controls that cannot be tampered with by residents and/or visitors. Consequently, temperature control is maintained by remote, infrared controls.

“The controls advances are moving ahead very quickly,” Siegel said. “Infrared is a big improvement in our industry.”

The beauty of infrared controls for ptac units is their simplicity. Milazzo said that these units have been installed in psychiatric wards, where patients can’t have access to anything that can be removed and used as a weapon.

He added that hotel residents, rather than phoning the front desk with questions on how to operate the thermostat, can hit a simple blue or red arrow on the thermostat to adjust the temperature.

“Housekeeping staffs can set the temperature to one setting and walk away, there is no maintenance — which reduces housekeeping costs for the hotel,” Milazzo explained.

One of the services Ice-Cap offers is to invite housekeeping staffs to their offices and give training sessions on how the ptac’s operate. The company also offers service contracts on their units after the installation-retrofit is complete.

One of the advantages of offering a ptac unit is its “independent nature.” If a tenant or guest is having trouble with heat or humidity in their room, the entire floor or building does not have to be shut down to service a chiller, for example.

Each unit is isolated from other ptac’s and can be serviced or replaced, depending on the severity of the problem.

In the case of the Lowell Hotel, owner Fouad Chartouni keeps an inventory of ptac units in the hotel basement. The goal is to minimize the inconvenience of the guests. If a unit goes down, Ice-Cap can send someone out to replace the unit and return the defective one for repair.

The sales pitch

“Nobody is really geared toward selling wall units,” said Siegel. “Contractors don’t have to be ptac experts to sell the product. We can provide the expertise for them.”

Siegel pointed out some of the things contractors should be aware of when selling ptac’s:

  • There are different levels of customer demand (simple heating and cooling versus precise humidity-comfort control).

  • There are additional selling features (such as infrared controls).

  • Ice-Cap offers full warranty support.

  • And the company will build custom cabinets for the units.

“Ask your customers questions,” Siegel said. “Find out what they need; maybe it’s air quality, maybe it’s on-demand heat. Let us know. We know how to up-sell the product.”

Siegel seems adamant about keeping his contractor customers happy. “Contractors represent 65% of our sales. They are very important to us.

“We do sell to the end-user, but never to a contractor’s customer. We approach our contractors with integrity. We work with them in order to help with labor costs. Field labor is where a contractor lives or die.

“Contractors are extremely comfortable with us. Customer security is important, especially now since the hvac trade is in tremendous flux.”

Regardless of contractor size, Siegel sees good opportunities for them to sell ptac units to building owners and managers.

“A ducted system is probably more advantageous to the contractor and not to the owner,” he added. “And it has been an uphill battle to convince owners that ptac’s are a good idea.”