COVID effect likely to impact heating season

By Adam Freill

As summer comes to a close, and sunshine gives way to the transitional weather of the fall, HVAC contractors should have Canadian home and building owners on their minds, or more specifically, how these potential clients plan to keep themselves comfortable this winter.

Nobody has a crystal ball, so being able to predict the exact needs, wants and wishes of consumers has always been a challenge, but with the additional strain of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are extra complications this year.


What consumers want

“I think as people spend more time at home, they will be considering upgrades to their systems, provided that their household income has not been impacted,” says Scott Semple, Canadian national sales manager with Navien.

So, what’s going to be on the wish list of consumers this fall/winter, and what’s going to motivate them go forward with a purchase?

“I see owners adding items that increase their system efficiency and longevity,” he says. “Items like Wi-Fi thermostats, home automation integration, magnetic filters and ECM pumps.”

“Homeowners and property owners have a renewed interest in looking at their mechanical systems as a whole,” says Christian Romeroll, managing director of HVAC with Napoleon. “Air filtration, UV lights and air exchange are areas that consumers are looking to add.”

“Efficiency and value still take top spots,” advises Paul Gharghoury, senior development manager at Rheem Canada. “Technology, comfort and safety are fast climbers, especially with the millennials.”

“Comfort and value are huge drivers right now,” shares Russell Pipke, Alberta sales manager for Goodman Manufacturing. “And IAQ has been very popular this year.”

“With the COVID-19 discussions, this is a great time for contractors to present indoor air quality and filtration updates or additions to homeowners,” advises Bryan Rocky, director of residential product management for ducted systems at Johnson Controls.

Although upgrades and new appliances do come with a price tag, price is only one of several considerations.

“Price will always play a major role in boiler sales. However, high efficiency and reliability of product are also key factors,” says Jerry Leyte, director of sales and marketing with Viessmann Manufacturing Company. “A product that is a fair price, easy to install and operate, as well as being reliable and low maintenance will be the winning product in the end.”

All that said, access to product may influence what is ultimately purchased. “Consumers are looking for an immediate response and do not want to wait for any delay in installation dates,” says John Vella, Canadian director of channel optimization for ducted systems at Johnson Controls.


Sometimes you have to go with what you’ve got

Everyone has wants and wishes, but comfort is the top priority, so getting heat into a home or commercial building will usually take priority over a wait for a backordered product.

“COVID-19 has impacted pretty much every HVAC manufacturer this year,” says Johnson Controls’ Rocky. “Every manufacturer has been monitoring and responding to critical component suppliers who have also been impacted. All of this has resulted in some product shortages and longer lead times this year, and some level of this may still occur this fall.”

“Risk of product shortages are always present and have occurred during this unusual 2020,” explains Napoleon’s Romeroll. “The best way to face this circumstance is always to plan ahead.”

Rheem’s Gharghoury suggests that proactive purchasing planning by contractors and distributors may help smooth things out.

While his company has not had any significant product shortages with its boilers and accessories due to COVID, Viessmann’s Leyte advises that, “Contractors and wholesalers who have the right selection of spare parts on hand have an advantage, and can help minimize issues with delays in getting projects up and running.”

In the residential segment, any remaining new old-stock furnaces may help with appliance demand as well.

“Furnaces less than 95% AFUE are scarce,” reports Justin Tan, Goodman’s provincial sales manager in B.C., but pockets of availability do exist.

“We still have a stock of 92% AFUE furnaces,” says Pipke, “due to the residential new construction market moving quicker to the 95-plus offering than anticipated.”


Residential retrofits

Although there has been considerable interest in heat pump technology, product availability could be a factor impacting sales this year, explains Rocky.

“The market is seeing more discussion on electrification and changes from gas furnaces towards heat pumps for replacements,” he says. “Given the industry inventory position, customers may make a change but it comes down to ‘What can I get quicker?’ conversations.”


Commercial projects still moving

The uncertain marketplace caused by the pandemic has had an impact on commercial projects, although many, but not all, are expected to carry forward.

“Engineers have had a healthy backlog of projects and many owners have found an opportunity to replace old and outdated systems with new hydronic equipment,” reports Nery Hernandez, senior product manager for hydronic solutions with Aerco. “For example, school orders were submitted earlier since the buildings were empty in the spring.”

“When the lockdown first started in March, it caused many people to ‘pump the brakes’ and re-evaluate,” says Leyte. “Many projects got put on hold for a short period and then ramped up again later in the summer.”

“Currently we are feeling a little softness in the commercial market. Owners are delaying both replacement and repair on rooftop products,” says Vella. “We feel that there will be a pent-up demand in the fall around the replacement rooftop business.”