Rev Up Sales by Turning Down the Heat

No repair shop should be a sweatshop. Today's workforce not only chooses to be warm or cool – they choose the degree of cool at their preferred cost; they choose the quality of air they're breathing.

And the HVAC market has never been so accommodating. Today, shop cooling system manufacturers have to keep their heads in the game. From keeping up with standards to conserving energy to delivering a quality product, it's truly a buyer's market.

As part of its ongoing conservation effort, the Department of Energy measures heating and cooling efficiency using the SEER rating (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio).

"In 2006 the federal government raised minimum efficiency standards by 30 percent, from 10 SEER to 13 SEER," said Colleen Hughes, public affairs manager at the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute. "The energy efficiency of HVAC products has increased 70 percent since 1992."

ARI represents manufacturers of more than 90 percent of air conditioning and refrigeration equipment installed in North America, and develops standards for and certifies the performance of these products.

Jason Hammond, director of sales at Cool-Space, sees keeping up with standards as just a small part of serving a growing consumer demand.

"The market continues to grow each year with temps rising each year, especially with things like global warming and gas emissions," Hammond said. "If a tech is going to choose between making $20 an hour in a hot garage or $20 an hour in a cool garage, he'd probably choose the cool garage.

"California is one state that has restrictions on energy use for companies." Hammond said. "More states are finding alternative ways of cooling businesses. Refrigerant is generally more expensive."

Evaporative coolers are one such alternative. These simple, low-tech units cool the air by pulling outside air through moist pads, where it is then cooled by evaporation and re-circulated with a blower.

John Koponen, sales manager at AdobeAir, said evaporative coolers "have been on rooftops since the late 1930s and were started in the Southwest." The process can reduce outside air temperatures by as much as 30 degrees, or "10 to 12 percent in very humid markets," according to Koponen.

"The big thing they (customers and techs) want to know is do the little evaporative units really work?" Koponen said, "Will they work in humid air?"

Though more significant results can be seen in hot, dry regions, like the Southwest, evaporative coolers are catching on elsewhere.

"Portable evaporators are selling nationwide," said Cool-Space's Hammond. He said the company's No. 1 sales region is Florida.

Koponen said the units are gaining popularity in the Gulf Coast region, where they "received a big response during Hurricane Katrina, because the units can be hooked up to generators and won't take all the juice."

Evaporative cooling systems are gaining exposure across the rest of the country as well. In addition to the more obvious warm climates, Koponen said he's been seeing increased interest in the Midwest and upstate New York.

The efficiency of these machines is what makes them stand out. "It's all water and air and a small amount of electricity. No refrigerant, no CFC," said Koponen.

So what do these machines cost?

"Think about $450 for a small intro unit with a 1.8 horsepower motor," said Koponen. "This is for placement 20 feet away from the work area." Prices can range anywhere from about $400 to $4,000 for this type of equipment, depending on the space.

"Small to medium range units are mostly used in auto tech shops," said Koponen. He said these units deliver 1-3 hp and 3,000 CFM.

In viewing the HVAC market in general, Hughes finds that "new HVAC-R machines are more expensive than previous 10 SEER machines. The federal government reviews [HVAC-R standards] every decade and it has to make sense economically."

ARI changes and updates their facilities continually to produce new equipment. Members of the association also do research to develop new technology and create more cost-efficient machines.

After a customer selects an air-cooling unit, proper maintenance has to be their next focus.

"Proper installation, proper sizing and proper maintenance are very important to achieving energy savings and cooling comfort," said Hughes. "With higher efficiency cooling systems, it's even more important that the indoor coil unit and outdoor condensing units work together. The public needs to realize that the whole system needs to be replaced to achieve efficiency level."

Maintenance with evaporative coolers is minimal, according to Koponen, even in places with high levels of fumes and debris.

"The evaporative cooler sucks in air and traps contaminants. To clean, you lift up on the sides, pull out the panels and hose it down. Water and dirt come out. The pads will last five to seven years and should be cleaned every month or two."

The amount of water used in the machine varies per unit, and the non-submersible pumps can be found at local stores. "A 36-inch machine uses 8 gallons of water per hour —depending on how much humidity exists," Koponen said.

The HVAC industry is a very seasonal business — but that doesn't mean you'll see "Closed" signs cropping up in winter. "We sell year-round with strong sales in April through August," Hammond said. "Sometimes it depends on the companies' budgets, as they get budget money in December and buy in January."

Whether you hail from El Paso or Portland, with the summer months approaching Hammond pointed out "garage systems are definitely worth the money."

With newer, cleaner and greener options for shop cooling, there's no reason why HVAC products shouldn't be a part of every distributor's vernacular.

After all, who doesn't want to be cool?