Industry changes making everyone sweat

404
LAAMB Heating and Cooling technicians Anthony Lirette, Lane Possoit and Adam Bouchie prepare a non-functioning A/C heat exchanger for removal Thursday, June 16. Photo by Nathan Wilson

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Each year as the days grow longer, homeowners are reminded of the need to service their A/C systems with the realization that their house isn’t staying as cool as they would like. The seasonality of the industry means HVAC technicians see their workloads rise in line with daily high temperatures.
Lisa Bouchie of Laamb Heating and Air recommends pre-emptive inspections to prevent homeowners from suffering during downtime. “(With) our planned service agreements, you get two service checks a year and you get priority service and no service call (charge),” she says. She explains they perform inspections twice a year to ensure the integrity of both the heating and cooling systems.
Bouchie describes what they look for during service inspections of the A/C system. “We check the wiring to make sure all that is intact. We check the contactors, the capacitors (and) the parts that can go out,” she explains. “If they’re weak we’ll change them to prevent them going out when you have a house full of company.”
Matina Dorsey spends much of his summertime repairing HVAC systems. While he likes to see systems properly maintained, he explains that properly maintaining the furnace for the winter is a more serious issue than the A/C system. “There’s quite a few things you could check in the heating season (because) there’s a real danger, not like the air conditioner.” he says. He offers an example; “In case there’s a crack in your heat exchanger you would put out carbon monoxide, which is a poisonous gas.”

THIS ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE JUNE 18, 2022, PRINT EDITION. TO SUBSCRIBE CALL 318-352-3618

Dorsey says identifying coolant leaks are the most serious A/C maintenance issue homeowners face. “The refrigerant has changed and the price of that has risen dramatically,” he says. “If you don’t have a leak, it should never lose any (refrigerant). It should just constantly circulate over and over.” He suggests the homeowner can handle other forms of maintenance. “As far as preventative maintenance on an A/C system just make sure your filters are clean, and when you mow your lawn, cut (the grass) away from your unit,” he recommends.
Both Bouchie and Dorsey agree that supply chain issues have had an effect on the availability of parts, though neither seems worried. “We can get around (delayed orders), but sometimes our hands are tied,” Bouchie says. Her company has a contingency plan. “If somebody can’t wait, we have window units that we allow people to borrow, and we can put them in the bedroom or the living room to accommodate them until they can get the parts or equipment.”
“(Since) Covid, it’s slowed down the supply chain of everything for the air conditioning just like everything else,” says Dorsey. “We have three supply houses here in Natchitoches, so they’re not really slow about getting anything.”
Solar Supply is one of the HVAC suppliers in Natchitoches. The manager, Gary West, offers a list of parts that are slow to arrive. “Flex duct or filters (or) anything made with insulation is hard to get,” he says. He provides some specific examples. “Ones that are made with raw materials, insulation and stuff like that, it’s probably a six week order time.” he says. “Metal duct used to take four to five days. Now it’s taking two and a half weeks to get.”
Most of the parts West describes are associated with HVAC construction and renovation projects rather than repairs. He also mentions refrigerant, which is used extensively when a new system is installed. “It’s not a matter of getting it. Something has jacked the price up,” he says. “Regular 410A, the common Freon, last year was $124. This years it’s $481. It more than tripled, and there’s nobody that can give you a good reason why.”
Jim Talmadge oversees commercial and industrial projects at Sunstream Electrical & Mechanical. He describes some of his company’s projects. “We wired Alliance and we’re the air conditioner contractor over there at Pilgrim’s so we stay in those plants all the time.” he says. “The City of Natchitoches is putting high-efficiency air conditioning in all their public housing. They’re going from eight to nine SEER (Seasonal energy efficiency ratio) rating equipment to 16 SEER rating, which is very efficient,” he says. He brags on the efficiency of the style of compressors made locally at Alliance Compressors. “Scroll compressors are a wonderful thing and have helped the industry a great deal.”
When it comes to the difficulty of sourcing materials, Talmadge’s mood changes. “I say the supply chain in this country is broken badly,” he says. “I don’t think we have but one filter coordinator left in the South. Filters are just a fit.” He refers to a recent delivery his company received. “We bought some of the air conditioning equipment that we’re using a year ago. We just got some of it last month.”
LAAMB Heating and Cooling technician Lane Possoit cuts the line for an old A/C unit. A family-owned company, LAAMB stands for Lisa, Adam, A.J. and Megan Bouchie.

Talmadge is also suspicious of the cost of refrigerant. “The (expletive) petroleum industry has taught everyone how to make money is to create a shortage,” he says. “The consumer is where that cost goes and it’s unfortunate.” He explains that the HVAC manufacturers are facing regulatory pressure to redesign their products to use new refrigerants. “Now you have the possibility the 410A is going to be phased out, which will take some changes in the air conditioning equipment at the manufacturing end of it,” he says. He worries about the impact on local industry amid competition from smaller mini-split A/C units built overseas. “The air conditioning manufacturers of the United States, I’m sure they’re feeling a pinch.”
Another concern Talmadge expresses is that independent A/C service companies are competing with consolidators who sell service contracts without maintaining local operations. He explains how they operate. “The consolidator has the overall contract and he’s sitting up in New York and he wants to pay you to go service it,” he says. “They’ll call around town and find somebody to do it the cheapest.” He believes the quality of maintenance suffers as a result. “That hurts in the aspect not only of continual service, but in all service,” he says. “And in the real world there’s no savings.”
Talmadge offered a final assessment of the industry. “I’ve seen a perfect circle,” he says. “53 years ago, window units were a big thing. We put in a lot of window units. Then about 10 years later, we began shoving window units out and putting in central units because we finally determined how to zone control a house. Now air conditioning people, if they find hotspots, they’ll just put a mini-split in one room and keep the old unit.”
Talmadge turns his attention to what homeowners can do to improve the performance of their existing systems. “In the air conditioning business cleanliness is next to Godliness. I’m speaking of filters and I’m speaking of the outside units which is the main means of (heat) transfer and the indoor (evaporator) coil which is a means of transfer.“ He also warns about the limits of residential air conditioning systems. “If it’s a hundred degrees outside, and your unit’s running 78 to 80, it’s doing pretty good,” he says. “Utilities are not going to get any cheaper.”