Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Business

Tampa Bay companies that like to hibernate in winter are busy in this warm weather

Even on his week off, Chad Suder is fielding calls.

His Tampa landscaping company, Lawn Sculptures, is taking a winter break, but the waning weeks of 2015 brought a hot spell, making for unruly lawns and, for Suder, extra business.

Instead of December's usual doldrums, the calls for new quotes and extra visits have kept rolling in. His revenue from normal landscaping work has been up nearly 20 percent the last two months, he said.

"The grass is growing. Everything is growing," Suder said. "We're staying busy — that's for sure."

Suder is far from alone. 2015 is running toward an unseasonably warm finish — even for Florida. This December is on pace to be one of the state's hottest ever, and that's made this a strange season for many Tampa Bay businesses as the grass keeps growing, bugs keep reproducing and people keep swimming.

Florida has no lack of businesses that make their money in the summertime. Michele Cardinal, owner of Cardinal Pool Care in St. Petersburg, likens them to squirrels, working extra hard when it's warm to take a break when it's cold. This year, the respite of cooler weather hasn't come.

"It's a blessing," Suder said of the extra work, "but you can tell everyone's tired."

Take Tommy Castellano, who should be lounging at his timeshare condominium at St. Pete Beach. Instead of decompressing from the stress of work, the work has kept coming.

Castellano's trade: air-conditioning repair and installation.

Business is busier than ever for December, he said, up 50 percent by Castellano's estimate.

"My wife's at the condo alone this week," said Castellano, owner of Castellano A/C Services in Tampa, noting his better half is more than a bit irritated with him. "I mean, 85 degrees in December? Come on. I'm born and raised in Tampa, and I can't recall it ever being this hot in December. It's kind of a fluke."

The winter months are usually the time to schedule maintenance for air-conditioning units. But Castellano said he is having to delay that work by a month to take care of new installations and critical repairs for customers desperate to cool off.

Tampa Bay's clamor for cold air has created a spike in demand for the area's utilities. The extra power usage hasn't caused problems for Tampa Electric or Duke Energy Florida — demand is still well below the summer months — but customers are headed toward higher-than-usual bills. Those air-conditioners, after all, are energy hogs.

TECO said electricity demand was up 17.6 percent in November compared to a year ago, while Duke customers consumed 21 percent more power, utility figures show.

"Typically this is the time of year when you're fine with just keeping the windows open," said Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for TECO. "This year is the exception."

That much was clear Tuesday, as the temperature hung in the mid-80s across Tampa Bay and the sticky, humid air made it feel even hotter. Heat indexes across the region crept toward 90, hitting 89 in St. Petersburg and 88 in Tampa, said Robert Garcia, a National Weather Service forecaster in Ruskin.

This winter has been short on cold fronts to keep the heat in check, Garcia said, but this weekend could help: A front is expected to bring temperatures closer to normal.

Gary Wishnatzki will be watching the forecast closer than most. His Plant City-based company, Wish Farms, is one of the region's biggest strawberry producers, and he thinks the heat is going to take a toll on his sales soon.

Warm weather makes strawberry plants grow more shoots and leaves and fewer blooms. Berries ripen faster, meaning they wind up smaller than normal. And because the plant uses starch to grow bigger instead of funneling it into fruit, the strawberries don't get as sweet, Wishnatzki said.

Strawberry picking started early, which helped farmers capitalize on high prices early in the season, but Wishnatzki said production is starting to taper off, and if the crop doesn't start to taste better, he expects sales to take a hit.

"We're in a bit of uncharted water," Wishnatzki said. "While we got off to a fast start, it was a little too fast."

Statewide, fruit and vegetable production has increased this year, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. Strawberry production is up 26 percent, and other plants like cabbage and corn got boosts, too.

Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.

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