Air conditioner shortage could mean a long wait to cool down

Just like cars and other manufactured items, air conditioning equipment is in short supply because of the pandemic.
Greg Cason in his bedroom and new wall-mounted air conditioning unit, on Friday, July 30, 2021.
Greg Cason in his bedroom and new wall-mounted air conditioning unit, on Friday, July 30, 2021.
Published Aug. 2, 2021

When Greg Cason’s auxiliary air conditioner for his master bedroom went out, he was happy it was November. Since the weather was getting cool, he didn’t mind being told he’d have to wait for a new one.

“I assumed we were talking weeks, not months,” Cason said.

Cason’s new unit didn’t arrive until March. This was the longest Cason, 57, recalls ever having waited to replace an A/C unit for the Orlando home he’s lived in for 25 years. He’s grateful that it at least came in “before it got hot,” the military-training programmer said.

Just like cars and other manufactured items, air conditioning equipment is in short supply because of the pandemic. Closed factories, a lack of delivery drivers and more people working from home are putting the squeeze on getting new units in Florida and around the country, leaving some customers sweltering.

David Hill, owner of Central Florida-based Certified Climate Control, says depending upon what people are looking for, wait times now can range from three weeks to six months. For some parts, he says he’s been told by manufacturers, “They don’t like giving people dates. They’ve told some customers six months, and they aren’t sure they’re going to make those dates.”

Hill says people in the industry saw this coming last year. “As soon as they started closing factories and telling people they had to stay home, we knew that was going to lead to a shortage,” he said.

Last summer, many repair shops still had inventory from the previous year, so most customers probably didn’t notice the drop.

“There were some limited shortages last year,” said Brian Hastings, owner of 4 Seasons Air Conditioning and Heating in Orlando. “But they were very short-lived. It was not long-term like we’re seeing.”

Factory closings started the first wave of slowdowns in production, but the problems cascaded. Next came a lack of drivers returning to work. Manufacturers have told Hastings, “We’ve got trucks full of product but we can’t get drivers to pick up these trailers,” he said.

Trane, a major A/C manufacturer, had a plant partially collapse under heavy snow during the winter storm in Texas this February. And, as with many other products, air conditioner thermostats need microchips, which are also in short supply this year.

Then came the heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, which diverted a lot of supply to a region that usually doesn’t have much demand.

Offices closing and sending people to work from home might also be responsible for a spike. Hill says some people will tolerate a broken air conditioner if it’s cool enough at night when they are home.

“Suddenly, they’re home all day and they say, ‘I’ve got to get this fixed now,’” he said.

Hill also specifies that demand spikes are nothing new. It’s the supply side that’s causing the real problem, he says, and he doesn’t know how long these issues will last.

The shortage has caused manufacturers to raise their prices three times already this year. Hastings sits on the board for the local chapter of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America and is a representative with the Florida Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors.

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In his 30-plus years in the industry, he says he’s never seen that before. “A lot of times, we would see two [price increases], but never three,” he said.

Hastings estimates prices to be up 15% on new units, translating to roughly $500 to $600 for the average customer.

“It’s significant, but it’s not thousands,” he said.

Cason said he paid $1,800 for the small auxiliary unit he bought.

“It was almost double what we were expecting,” he said.

Hastings recommends people take extra care of their air conditioners this year, starting with changing their filters.

“A dirty filter can take out other components,” he said. He recommends buying high-quality filters and changing them every two to three months. “Using a good filter actually helps.”

He also said people should trim bushes away from their outdoor units. And if anything within your A/C is acting up, he recommends scheduling a regular maintenance visit, possibly to “prevent a total breakdown.”