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Changing seasons mean different demands for HVAC

Too often, we talk about careers in HVAC in the United States as if it’s all the same kind of work from coast to coast, across the windswept heartland and over the craggy mountain peaks, and down into the humid coastal lowlands.

Now, it is true that you’ll study the same basic principles of chemistry and physics, and that all the same equations for moving, heating, and cooling volumes of air will apply wherever you go. But the fact is that once you slam the door on your work rig and head out on the job, you’ll find a lot of regional variations that affect the gear you use and the systems you work on every day.

Across the U.S. technicians in different regions regularly deal with different:

  • Systems and brands of equipment based on popularity and local market penetration
  • Installation characteristics in common building types for the area
  • Heating fuel sources based on access and expense
Your education in HVAC principles is just a foundation to build on. Ultimately, it’s the things you know about the systems used in the homes and buildings you work in everyday that will make you successful in the field.

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Different Weather Leads to Different Demands for HVAC

When you rub a couple of brain cells together it seems obvious: the concerns an HVAC tech in Anchorage has are going to be pretty different from their counterpart heading out on a job in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

This goes beyond the obvious issues like you probably aren’t going to find a lot of gas heating systems in Louisiana and not so many swamp coolers in Alaska: the characteristics of construction styles and local custom create differences as well. Doing an installation in a Louisiana shotgun shack is a different proposition than putting a system in a log cabin, even if the gear were all the same.

This tends to be even truer in residential settings than commercial, but even the big boys have to learn to play by regional rules.

You’re Not in Missoula Anymore

In 1996, a brand new luxury hotel in Hawaii had to shut its doors and go through a $6 million refit when mold took over the guest rooms. More than 40,000 square feet of sopping gypsum wallboard was ripped out and replaced, along with 300 in-room HVAC units… all because the original system design was depressurizing the building slightly, sucking in warm, moist tropical air that made quick work of any hygroscopic material in sight. Making matters worse, the system wasn’t appropriately designed to dehumidify the air it was bringing in itself, adding to the problem.

The same system might have worked just fine in Missoula (if anyone was building 300-room luxury hotels in Missoula) and maybe that’s where the contractor was from. In any case, they sure didn’t know much about how to build a system for conditions in Hawaii.

It’s not just contractors, though. Customers don’t always have the best perspective either. The recent infatuation with air-source heat pumps is a case in point. Chances are, you’ll run into a residential customer no matter where you are who has heard that the magic reversing machinery conjures either heat or cold out of thin air, a two-for-the-price-of-one deal that they absolutely have to have.

But a good Minnesota HVAC tech knows—and can explain—that a heat pump was designed for a mild, coastal climate, and isn’t as efficient in a sub-zero Minneapolis freeze. With well-developed distribution systems and low transportation costs, natural gas is a more sensible choice, which explains why more than 70 percent of Midwest furnaces use it.

Making matters even more confusing, another regional factor that HVAC techs have to contend with are the Department of Energy SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) standards. SEER ratings are an industry-standard system for comparing system efficiency. But DOE only breaks the country down into three regions, North, South, and Southwest, each with different SEER requirements on new equipment installations.

How Systems Differ by Region

No matter what part of the country you end up working in, you’ll need to pick up that local knowledge. Here is a brief overview of regional characteristics for HVAC work across the U.S.

Characteristics of HVAC Work in the Northeast

Although natural gas is making inroads, the Northeast is among the last great bastions of oil heating—almost 30 percent of homes still rely on oil furnaces, versus less than 4 percent in any other region.

Technicians tell of running across old Timken Rotary Burner systems, still clicking over in good working order, 90 years after they were first introduced. In Maine, oil is so prevalent that, like Eskimos with snow, the state Fuel Board grades fuel oil in six separate categories.

Air conditioning is growing in popularity in the Northeast, as it is across the country, but a major difference is that nearly 60 percent of units are basic window or wall-mounted units rather than the central air systems common in other regions. Less complex installations take less expertise and less time to install, resulting in lower costs to the customer all around… but less money to the technicians.

Characteristics of HVAC Work in the Midwest

Frigid winters and hot, humid summers might make this region seem comparable to the Northeast, but generally newer construction and a solid transportation infrastructure have made natural gas the predominant heating fuel, with the highest adoption rate in the country.

Air conditioning isn’t mandatory as it is in the South or Southwest but more than 80 percent of homes in the Midwest have it. Heat pumps might seem like a natural choice for a unified system, but the fact is that it gets too cold for efficient operation of heat pumps and separate heating systems are required.

Propane is low-cost and high-efficiency, particularly compared with relatively high electrical costs in the region. That combination also works against heat pumps, which have to be augmented (usually with electrical elements) to work in the Midwestern deep freeze.

Characteristics of HVAC Work in the South

The air source heat pump might well have been invented for the coastal south, with warm, humid summers and mild winters. Efficiently combining air conditioning with light heating capabilities across a limited temperature range, these systems predominate in areas where folks can afford them.

The emphasis is on air conditioning, though. Cooling and de-humidifying systems are present in just about every home in the South, with 85 percent of them being central air units. Their use is so constant and prevalent that less than 40 percent even have a programmable thermostat. Although the lack of electronics reduces complexity, the near-constant operation increases wear and tear and makes for a high proportion of service calls for HVAC techs.

Characteristics of HVAC Work in the Southwest

Air conditioning is king in the desert southwest, a region that would be all but uninhabitable without it. Because of the extremely arid environment, evaporative coolers are still common and popular here, and HVAC techs learn to wear kneepads rather than getting scorched through their Dickies on hot trailer rooftops.

The construction boom that happened throughout the region leading up to the Great Recession also saw a lot of central air systems being installed around heat pumps.

Heating, surprisingly, is not completely neglected in the Southwest—the desert can be cold, too—and, as elsewhere, natural gas is becoming the predominant fuel source here. Furnaces that are rarely used are furnaces that are not well-maintained, however, and service calls spike during the first sub-70 degree day of the year.

Savvy HVAC techs suggest to their favorite customers that they schedule maintenance calls in the spring, when contractors are less busy.

Characteristics of HVAC Work in the West

Much of the West gets by without residential air conditioning courtesy of cool ocean breezes or high altitudes. Only recently has the number of homes in the West with air conditioning climbed above 60 percent, and that figure includes much of the Southwest.

Natural gas is the heating fuel of choice but electricity has seen an uptick as low electrical costs drive the adoption of heat pump systems in mild coastal areas. In the interior, gas and electricity compete, with oil heating less common than anywhere but the south.

An uptick in an old system, the humble wood-fired stove, has occurred in recent years, but modern systems are high-efficiency pellet burners rather than the old pot-bellied Franklin stove.

HVAC Microclimates Are Real

Even within a broader geographic area, there may be pockets of particular systems that are out of step with the region as a whole. In parts of rural Northern California, for example, high electricity and propane costs result in communities who rely on oil heating every bit as much as Yankees up in the Maine Highlands.

And though the Northeast as a whole doesn’t favor central air systems, almost 70 percent of New Jersey homes, newer and larger than their counterparts across the Hudson, use it.

For successful HVAC technicians and contractors, it comes down to not just knowing the technical principles of the business, but also the unique needs of the customers … a lot of which comes down to the climate they live in.