The heat wave that smothered the Portland region last weekend broke numerous all-time temperature records, and it also highlighted how quickly the Pacific Northwest’s relationship with air conditioning is shifting away from its long-standing take-it-or-leave-it approach.
Air conditioner installation and repair contractors in Clark County were inundated with calls as temperatures soared and customers sought to tune up existing systems or order new installations.
The sheer volume of calls was record-breaking in its own right. Vancouver-based Blairco Heating & Air Conditioning received more than 300 calls in two days at the peak of the heat wave, whereas a normal call volume for a hot day might be about 25 or 30.
“It’s insane, is what it is,” said owner Joe Blair.
The short-term call frenzy seems like a natural consequence of the heat wave, but it wasn’t an entirely isolated spike.
The surge came as local contractors have already been dealing with an extended period of high demand in the face of rising summer temperatures, more frequent wildfire smoke and the switch to work-from-home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
More frequent installation
The Pacific Northwest traditionally stands apart as a place where air conditioning isn’t considered a standard feature in homes and apartments – but the gap is closing rapidly.
Roughly 65.6 percent of homes in the Hillsboro, Portland and Vancouver area had central air conditioning or at least one individual room unit in 2011, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, compared with about 84.5 percent nationally. The local figure rose to 69.9 percent in 2015 and 78.6 percent in 2019, the most recent year on record.
About 79 percent of new homes that began construction in the Pacific region (Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska) in 2019 included central air conditioning, according to the Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction, compared with 95 percent nationally.
Blairco has been busier than ever with air conditioner installations in the past few years, Blair said, even before the pandemic. Most customers buying a furnace tend to add an air conditioning system now, he said – or they opt for a heat pump system, which provides both heating and cooling.
Ductless heat pumps – where the air comes out of a wall-mounted unit rather than vents throughout the house – are a relatively new phenomenon, he said, but they’ve become very popular in recent years due in part to the relative ease with which they can be retrofitted into existing homes.
The 2018 update to the Washington State Energy Code, which took effect earlier this year, tightened the overall energy efficiency targets for new home construction. The point system for evaluating new houses rewards the use of electric heat pumps over less energy-efficient heating options.
There was a spike in calls for filtration system upgrades late last summer when the air around Portland became choked with wildfire smoke, Blair said, but those requests continued to come in at an increased rate even after the smoke cleared.
To date, 2021 has seen higher-than-usual activity for Vancouver-based Miller’s Heating & Air, and the past winter season was also the busiest on record, according to vice president Ashley Adams.
The surge also comes at a time when the industry is facing materials shortages and cost increases – the same problem facing a host of industries due to supply chain disruptions stemming from the pandemic. Air conditioning units, ducting materials and some other system components have all become harder to source since the pandemic began, Blair said – and the pressure has increased in the past few months.
Heat wave surge
Local HVAC contractors are already caught up in an ongoing surge of activity, but the heat wave took it to entirely new heights.
“I would say that on average, a busy day for us is about 200 to 250 calls,” said Cris Birch, service manager at Miller’s Heating & Air. “On Monday alone we received over 600. We’ve received well over 1,000 in about three days. We’ve never seen volume like this.”
The majority of the calls were for service or repair work on existing systems, Birch said, although there were also plenty of requests for new systems. The wait time for a new installation is usually between one and two weeks, he said, but it is currently longer than a month.
Miller’s isn’t scheduling any regular maintenance visits until September, he said – the immediate focus is on service calls where some part of the system has broken and needs to be repaired. The company prioritizes callers who are members of its maintenance plan, but even those customers are having to wait for repair appointments due to the call volume, he said.
The heat wave generated so many calls in part because many customers aren’t used to experiencing such hot weather and don’t know the upper limits of their air conditioning systems, according to both Blair and Birch. Most residential systems in the Portland area are designed for the typical local climate where triple-digit temperatures are a rare occurrence.
“Air conditioning in our area is not designed for 114 degrees,” Blair said. “It’s designed for 92 degrees, which is our average high.”
Birch outlined a similar range, saying that local air conditioning systems are designed assuming outdoor temperatures are between about 85 and 90 degrees.
Once outside temperatures climb above about 95 degrees, he said, the systems can’t keep up. A system that would normally cool a house to about 75 degrees might instead only have managed to maintain an indoor temperature in the 80-90 degree range during the heat wave, he said.
Blairco has been encouraging customers to turn up their thermostats to better match the level of performance that they can realistically expect from their air conditioning systems during the heat wave, Blair said.
“They freeze up or they shut off,” he said. “They’ll do one or the other if you try to work it too hard.”
Newer and well-maintained systems can usually bounce back from an overwork event, he said, but older or worn-out systems can suffer permanent damage.