Everybody is talking about it — the state of the economy, the toughness of the market, the Obama stimulus plan, and its billions of Federal dollars that are being pumped into our economy. But there's a different angle. One that has visited around the edges of my psyche, but only took root after reading an article recently in the New York Times.
The article appeared in the July 23rd issue and was entitled, “The Unchilled Life,” by Terry Karush Rogers. The gist is this: a new trend among consumers all over the country is to begin choosing financial control of their lives over climate control of their environments.
The article addressed how people all over the U.S. — even in the South and Southwest — are turning off their air conditioning and finding new ways for dealing with the heat. Some are taking more cold showers. Others are painting their interior walls in cool pastels. Others are buying more fans. What they aren't doing is buying air conditioning systems or, now, choosing NOT to repair the ones they already have.
Equipment shipments have been dropping all year. The Airconditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) keeps track of these figures and the numbers are abysmal. Even room air conditioning unit sales have plummeted, by 39%, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
So for those of us who've grown up in a world where, as Rogers puts it, “climate control is a God-given right,” our customers are choosing to give it up in an effort to save some of their hard-earned, less-valuable greenbacks.
Rogers points out in her article that fans of this new lifestyle justify their decision to give up comfort as a way turn back the clock, to return to the way the world used to be. Air conditioning, after all, is very new in the history of mankind. She writes, “The Allies won World War II without it and the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built al fresco.”
There is another side to this: health and safety. Sure hundreds, even thousands of years ago mankind did great things without the benefit of air conditioning. But they didn't live very long doing it. Disease and starvation were the norm. Living past 40 years was a real accomplishment.
The advent of air conditioning, and its progenitor, refrigeration, changed all that. Today they're key to how we manufacturer medicines, store and transport food, and increase the life expectancy of human beings to what it is today — 77.6 years.
Fiction author Paulo Cuelho wrote, in his internationally acclaimed book, The Alchemist, “Every blessing ignored becomes a curse.” Think about this quote in these terms:
With the government dictating efficiency standards to whet a monster appetite by society for environmental stewardship, the cost of our comfort systems continues to rise. Sure, stimulus money, rebates, and the lot help defray some of those costs, but the fact is, shipments are down. Fewer systems are being installed. Consumers are wary of spending their money, and will be more so as they see the prices for the soon-to-be-extinct R-22 skyrocket.
OK, Weil, don't get carried away here, right? The economy will turn around. It will, but will prices come down as a result? They never have in the past.
By ignoring the pricing issue, will the blessing of comfort conditioning become a thing of the past? Will it bring a curse in the form of other economic maladies in the food and drug industries, health issues, and most importantly to you who are reading this, to the world of HVAC contracting?
Americans like their benefits and if we, as an industry, buckle down and help find ways to make their dollars go farther, to appeal to their “inner green,” by keeping their systems running efficiently and economically, maybe we can convince them they don't have to adopt an uncomfortable lifestyle.
For contractors, that means not only being technically adept, but conversant in energy issues, indoor air quality, maintenance, and positioning yourselves as comfort experts.
Manufacturers and distributors need to continue finding the means to help keep unit prices of equipment as low as possible so that the cost-to-consumer factor levels off.
Change is always tough. As an industry, we can work together to make sure Americans stay comfortable, safe, and healthy. It's our job.