As Alabama continues to break daily temperature records while a scorching June bakes much of the state, an unusually large number of Alabamians are having to sweat this one out without air conditioning.
Air conditioning repair and installation companies across the state say they’re experiencing a huge spike in calls, combined with delays getting critical parts due to supply chain issues that leave some customers waiting weeks or months to get their air conditioners repaired or replaced.
“We’ve had triple, quadruple even, the amount of calls we normally have this time of year,” said Josh Hembree, general manager of Hembree Heating and Air Conditioning in Mobile.
“From a business perspective, that’s great, right? It’s more business, it’s more business than we can even handle, honestly. But then from a practical perspective, it’s quite a responsibility, because people are hot and uncomfortable, and in some situations it’s unsafe.”
Hembree said his company has even begun loaning out portable AC units to customers who are facing long delays in getting their new systems installed. but said it’s hard to tell customers they won’t have air conditioning for weeks at a time in the midst of record temperatures and heat advisories.
“It’s a horrible conversation to have because we feel like the bad guy even though we’re doing the absolute best we can,” he said. “And ultimately, as an HVAC contractor, we’re the middleman between the homeowner or the business owner and the manufacturer.”
Multiple HVAC companies in Birmingham and Huntsville also told AL.com this week that they are dealing with record call volumes and troubles locating parts. An employee at Southern Comfort HVAC in Huntsville said that the company was too busy to do interviews about how busy they were.
“It usually gets this hot around late July or August, that kind of thing, but we got hit pretty early, and kind of got swamped,” said Tyler Lord, service manager at Anytime Heating and Cooling in Huntsville. “Everybody has been swamped, overrun.”
Trystan Fortner, sales manager for Norrell Service Experts in Birmingham, said that air conditioning parts that would normally be kept in stock at warehouses now have to be ordered and shipped in from elsewhere, adding a few days wait for people who may be without air conditioning.
“It’s one of two things,” Fortner said. “It’s either we can’t get the equipment, or there’s such an influx of people needing service and replacement on their air conditioning, that even if we can get it, we’re so backed up from an install perspective that people are having to wait a week.”
In Huntsville, Lord said the supply chain issues run across the board, but he’s had particular difficulty getting heat kits and ductwork.
“We have our main dealer that we use, and whenever they don’t have something, we have backup dealers, and pretty much everybody was out of certain types of duct work, certain certain parts.”
Fortner said that customers who need less common air conditioning systems, or want high-efficiency systems, may face especially long delays.
“We’ve had customers that have had to wait a month, two months, because they want a certain type of equipment or certain efficient rated equipment, and certain manufacturers can’t manufacture them and ship them out fast enough,” Fortner said.
He also said many customers may have put off routine maintenance during the COVID-19 pandemic and are now facing the consequences.
“We’re finding now that a lot of people, I think with COVID and being unsure about the economy, a lot of people have kind of put off being proactive about doing something with their air conditioner,” Fortner said.
“We’ve got a lot of people that are calling in, with this record heatwave, with no air conditioning,” he said. “And so we’re going out and talking to these people, and they’re in a situation where they do need to replace their equipment and we’re looking at a week, two-week lead times, in order to get the equipment .”
Lord, with Anytime Heating and Cooling in Huntsville, recommends that customers change their air filters every 30 days and get their preventive maintenance done at least once a year.
“I tell every customer every time your power bill comes in, change that filter out, because a dirty filter will wreak havoc on a system,” Lord said. “Tip number one, keep your filter changed. And then tip number two is get preventative maintenance done. Have a company come out to your house once or twice a year and do a full maintenance; clean those coils, check all the electrical and do a full inspection of the system once or twice a year.”
Fortner also believes that supply chain problems will persist for the rest of the summer. He said that new efficiency standards that go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, have some manufacturers struggling to maintain current systems and prepare for the new standards, as well as dealing with worker shortages and other issues.
“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Fortner said. “I think it’s going to be probably February or March of next year before things really even out and we get back to normal.”
In Mobile, Hembree said that his mid-sized company — which employs 25-30 people and installs about 1,200 systems a year — has been proactive in buying up inventory since the COVID-19 pandemic began and that because of that, the supply chain issues haven’t hit them as hard.
“We’ve been buying up inventory as we could over the past year, so we’re fortunate to have an inventory of equipment that a lot of my competitors don’t,” Hembree said. “But still, we’re not immune to the supply chain issues because there are still specialty parts and specialty systems that we don’t inventory that we’re seeing weeks delay on, sometimes a month delay on it.”
Hembree said one of his competitors recently referred a customer to him because he had a system in stock that could have taken three months to get installed if the customer had to wait for delivery from a distributor. He said his team has been “all hands on deck” since early June.
“We’re constantly making sure we’re running as efficiently as we humanly can to service as many people as we can,” Hembree said. “Being as hot as we are in Alabama, air conditioning is not just a luxury, it’s a necessity.”