YOUNGSTOWN – Heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractors throughout the Mahoning Valley have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic in stride, as business appears stronger than ever amid the worldwide health crisis.
Precisely why the market is so strong right now is hard to pinpoint; an unusually scorching summer, stimulus money paid to individuals during the spring and the desire to maintain cleaner air circulation in residential and commercial buildings could all be factors, specialists say.
“This has been one of my best years in growth and volume,” says Michael Vivo, president of M.P. Vivo Heating & Air Conditioning, Austintown.
Like many other service businesses, Vivo says his company shut its doors in March as the early stages of the pandemic marched across Ohio. “Customers were afraid to have us in their house,” he adds. But since reopening in April, demand has been nonstop. “We’ve just taken off.”
That doesn’t mean challenges don’t remain, Vivo says. During the first months of the pandemic, safety accessories such as masks and gloves were hard to obtain – one customer even demanded that Vivo’s technicians specifically wear N95 medical-grade masks, which were in short supply. “We’re following protocol. We take our temperatures every morning. We’ve had to change the way we do business,” he says with a shrug.
The industry has also been hit with general equipment shortages, Vivo adds. “It’s been such a great summer because of the hot weather and humidity. And I don’t think manufacturers planned as to how many units they were going to sell,” he posits.
HVAC manufacturers also trimmed their workforces to skeleton crews this spring as the economy slowed, most likely contributing to the reduced supply of air conditioners and furnaces on the market, he says.
Regardless, the opportunities in the HVAC sector appear strong over the next decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs across the industry is expected to grow by 13% between 2018 and 2028, outpacing other industries. By 2028, the Labor Department projects the sector could add another 46,300 jobs.
Vivo’s company specializes in residential work, most of it involving replacing and retrofitting HVAC systems in existing houses. Equipment prices – once relatively high because of tariffs enacted by the Trump administration more than two years ago – have since stabilized and helped sales, he says.
Consumers are also drawn to new, high-efficiency HVAC systems that in the long term could save money on energy bills, Vivo says. “Ratings on air conditioners are going up every year,” he says. “They use less energy, but have greater output.” Likewise, furnaces can command up to 98% efficiency today.
Generally, consumers should consider replacing or reconditioning their HVAC units after 15 years of use, Vivo says. “If your equipment is that old, it’s time to start thinking,” he says.
Newer units are governed almost completely by wireless technology, Vivo adds. “I’d say 80% of the installs we do are Wi-Fi thermostats,” he says. This allows a user to control energy use in the house remotely through methods as simple as a phone app. “Customers are also much more educated,” he says. “They know what they want when they walk through the door.”
Moreover, technological advances in air quality have caught the eye of consumers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Gene Clayton, president of Clayton Heating & Air Conditioning in Youngstown.
“A lot of people are looking for this,” Clayton says.
Clayton says his market is mostly confined to light commercial or residential projects in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. “We do business in a 50-mile radius,” he says, and notes that aside from a short-lived downturn in March, business has been very strong. “COVID hasn’t slowed us at all. We’re booked out for two to three weeks,” he says.
He suspects that some customers are using stimulus checks that the federal government began to issue in April and chose to make improvements to their HVAC systems. “That might have helped,” he says.
Since the pandemic hit, homeowners and small businesses have become more concerned over the transmission of airborne particles that have the potential to contaminate or infect. Clayton says this has led to increased demand for products such as UV air scrubbers – small, ultraviolet lamps installed at the intake vent of an HVAC system. As air moves through the intake, the UV bulb charges and disarms particulates such as bacteria, pollen and some viruses, allowing clean air to circulate throughout the business or home.
“People feel more confident when they have them in there,” he says.
There is no evidence to suggest UV light kills SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, a recent study published in the science journal Nature by researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that a safe dose of UV light was able to kill 99.9% of other seasonal coronaviruses.
Ultraviolet air purifiers usually cost about $1,200 to install in an average home, Clayton says. The real value is that these additions help to remove harmful particles that could compromise the health of those who suffer from allergies or asthma.
“We’ve been interacting with that type of technology for the last couple of years,” says John Schuler, marketing director at Sodexo Roth in Austintown. The company installs and distributes HVAC and building automation systems for commercial customers across the country.
Demand for UV air purification systems is on the rise among the company’s commercial and industrial clients since the pandemic hit, Schuler says. “Schools, universities, hospitals, health care facilities, senior living facilities: We’re seeing a ton of appetite for that kind of product,” he adds.
Schuler says studies have shown that removing harmful particulates in the air within a business or school has a direct effect on absenteeism and overall health. “There have been tons and tons of tests done, pre-COVID, on absenteeism,” he says. These studies have found that absenteeism was higher in those areas where buildings that lacked UV air filtration systems as opposed to those that did. “People are getting sicker and are more absent in environments where UV is not present,” he says.
Sodexo Roth integrates HVAC systems into software-driven smart-building technology that reacts autonomously to changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature or light, Schuler says. “Anything that can tie to Wi-Fi can tie into an automation system,” he says. In addition, the company operates a sheet metal fabrication shop where it is able to manufacture ductwork needed for a commercial project.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work with large grocery chains since they require a certain size and capacity that we’re able to do,” Schuler says.
The post-COVID market has led to additional business in this sector, as well as with fulfillment and distribution centers and warehouses, he says.
“We’ve seen a lot of new jobs related to that,” Schuler says. “Both in HVAC and building automation systems.”
Pictured: Since reopening in April, work for M.P. Vivo has been nonstop, says Michael Vivo.