As the globe reels on its axis in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are left wondering what the virus’ lasting social and economic impact will be.
In the absence of a crystal ball, we’re left to speculate. As the days spent social distancing drag on, it becomes increasingly clear that major change is inevitable. Society will alter its behavior much like it did in response to the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the 2008 recession. These events—as dissimilar as they were—both prompted massive social and fiscal changes within society. There’s no reason to believe that a global, novel virus and resulting pandemic doesn’t have the same potential.
These changes will undoubtedly materialize organically and via new legislation. Aside from medical professionals, there’s not likely to be a sector of the U.S. population more heavily impacted by the fallout of COVID-19 than small business owners.
Where and how Americans spend time and money will change. The HVAC industry will change, too, as folks tighten purse strings. Jobs have been, and will be, lost. Financially, people will come out of this crisis behind the eight-ball. Even before this, the residential HVAC market was showing signs of softening.
As a result, there’s a distinct possibility that we’ll slip from the generous replacement market we’ve grown fond of into a service and repair market similar to that of the 2009 and 2010. Mechanical contractors will need to develop other revenue streams to offset their lagging replacement revenue.
Fortunately, change always creates opportunity. I believe there will be a lot of growth for dealers that take indoor air quality (IAQ) system sales seriously.
Residential demand soaring
I’ve recently spoken with a number of wholesalers about their IAQ sales in the month of March. All of them reported the same thing—their IAQ inventory is depleted and on backorder. Manufacturers of all variety of IAQ systems are now inundated with orders.
Top Product Innovations is no different. We produce the Phenomenal Aire product line, consisting of residential and commercial cold plasma-generating indoor air quality equipment. These low-wattage units ionize the air in ductwork and throughout the building to kill viruses, bacteria and mold spore, and destroy other allergens and odors while also breaking down volatile organic compounds (VOCs). There are also no harmful byproducts emitted and no replacement parts needed.
Starting in early Spring 2020, our inventory and the inventory of our distributors went to zero. This happened most rapidly in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and throughout Arizona and California. I’m not sure how other IAQ manufacturers are handling the staggering new demand, but we’re air-freighting what components we can secure from overseas until manufacturing and surface shipping can catch up.
Immediately, dealers began asking about whether or not our commercial product, the Phenomenal Aire C-Series cold plasma generator (10,000 CFM) could be used in a residential application in place of our RSeries generator (6,000 CFM). While this technically would work without issue, we’re strongly urging our distribution to hold their C-Series inventory for critical care-type applications. We want to give these facilities priority.
We have some level of influence in this regard because we don’t permit internet sales. Our product goes to market through wholesale only and we’re keeping tabs on the market via those distributors.
All variety of health care facilities, retirement homes, etc., are inquiring about having IAQ systems installed, and we want to do everything we can to ensure product is available to those facilities throughout this crisis.
Commercial in queue
Other than the previously mentioned facilities, the commercial sector hasn’t responded in any way similar to the residential sector—how could it? Non-essential businesses are shut down with minimal, if any, revenue. We fully expect that the commercial sector will now be taking IAQ much more seriously, whether it wants to or not.
High-occupancy facilities will be forced to address the IAQ issue, whether via legislation or by public response. Movie theatres, restaurants, gyms, malls, clubs, etc. would be well served to address the IAQ concern and publicize these efforts. Making prudent changes will be seen as public responsibility; both employees and patrons will want to know what measures are being taken.
The same applies to airports, train stations, schools, courthouses, daycares, etc. It’s all but inevitable that local and national standards will be modified to include very specific filtration and anti-microbial equipment language. These types of changes to ASHRAE Standard 62.1 have been discussed for a number of years. At this point, it is a matter of not if—but when—they’ll be made. COVID-19 has initiated a lot of new dialog for public safety. The public will demand a response.
Untested, as of yet
At this moment, installing any IAQ system comes with no guarantee that the investment is effective at combating COVID-19. Our product’s cold plasma generation technology is proven up to 99.71% effective at killing pathogens both airborne and on hard surfaces. However, SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is not yet available for testing. No manufacturer of IAQ systems can currently make any claim related to their product’s kill rate of the Novel Coronavirus specifically. It’s simply too soon.
With that said, what we know about the structure of this virus indicates that it is one of the easier pathogens to kill. Previous testing has shown that the Phenomenal Aire product is extremely effective against similar viruses.
A rapidly growing sector
This quarter’s sales are four times higher than the same quarter last year at our company, and there are no signs of this trend slowing down. The topic of IAQ has gained significant awareness in the U.S. in the past few years, but that pales in comparison to what is likely to come in the next few years. Concerns about the Coronavirus and similar pathogens will continue.
Recently I’ve spent entire days on the phone talking to people across a variety of professions. Everyone asks the same questions. Will COVID-19 return in the fall? Will it mutate? How can we be better prepared as individuals, as businesses and as a nation?
We expect the demand for IAQ products to dip from this current, unprecedented peak, but it won’t slow to pre-Coronavirus levels. Contractors who already offer IAQ products as an add-on may find themselves leading with it. Those who don’t offer IAQ yet should be looking at it very seriously.
As a company, we’re doing everything in our power to meet demand and deliver product to our partners. We will continue to protect them and do what we can to stabilize their bottom lines.
As an industry, offering effective, safe and high quality IAQ solutions is one method to help offset the negative economic impacts of this pandemic. Moreover, providing IAQ expertise is a way for the HVAC industry to add value and contribute to the health of the nation.
Where do Americans spend most of our time? Indoors. Who is best positioned to improve the indoor environment within public and private spaces? The HVAC professional.
Bob Miller has more than 30 years’ experience in the critical environments industry. He is a Partner and Director of Technology with Top Product Innovations, Inc.