We’ve all been reeling from the effects of COVID-19. Since March of 2020, our personal and professional lives have been altered in ways both big and small. It’s no different within certain sectors of the economy. Nowhere is this more true than the energy efficiency industry. And within the energy efficiency industry, HVAC contractors may be bearing perhaps the greatest brunt of burdens from COVID-19; they’ve been struggling to get through the pandemic since original restrictions were imposed.

Dealing with both the realities and perceptions around COVID transmission, contractors have – from the beginning – encountered resistance from building occupants about access and in-person communications. This resulted in significant job loss. According to the Energy Efficiency Jobs in America Report prepared by E4TheFuture, 321,875 EE jobs nationwide were lost due to COVID-19 as of October 2020, many of these being technical or administrative HVAC roles.

What began as a complete pause on contractor business operations, through measures such as the New York State on PAUSE Executive Order closing all non-essential businesses, has more recently transitioned into a long line of burdensome yet important safety precautions contractors must take to continue their operations. These necessary adaptations have tested contractors’ ability to function and survive, yet some may prove valuable for the industry going forward. With recovery still in early phases, bouncing back and growing this hard-hit sector will require flexibility and resilience.

Unprecedented Challenges

Contractors play a pivotal role in the scheme of HVAC market transformation, and their survival is inherently tied to the success of a changing market, especially with respect to heat pumps. NEEP’s Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Air Source Heat Pump Market Strategies Report highlights installer/builder awareness of, and confidence in, air source heat pumps through expanded training and education as one of seven key market transformation strategies. The more contractors close their doors due to the impacts of COVID-19, the less workforce there is to develop, and the less potential projects connect the dots to perform efficiency upgrades. States like Massachusetts, Maine, and New York have also set lofty ASHP installation targets for their jurisdictions, and acknowledge that a strong contractor base capable of quality installations is an integral piece of hitting these targets.

The challenge at hand for contractors is unprecedented. One of the largest impacts this industry faces due to COVID-19 is perception. Homeowners are hesitant to allow contractors into their homes because of the perceived safety risks, even if all safety protocols and PPE requirements are met. Contractors have ways of gauging comfort for their clients and “upping” or “downing” safety measures depending on that comfort, but the concern of exposure persists for many people. Since contractors need to have an on-site presence to perform their work, this is a difficult situation to maneuver.

Adaptability and Resilience

As a result, contractors have been forced to rethink the way they do business. One adaptation that has helped is standardizing safety practices for any HVAC maintenance or installation job. For example, online modules like Mass Saves’ COVID-19 Health & Safety Guidance and Supporting Materials for Energy Efficiency Vendors are quickly becoming the norm for instruction on safe installation practices. Through these trainings, safety practices that professional contractor organizations agree are critical for operating in occupied buildings are being implemented. These include:

  • Daily sanitizing of equipment
  • Providing technicians with the right cleaning supplies, such as hand sanitizers, disinfectant sprays, and wipes
  • Providing proper PPE such as masks, gloves, and booties
  • Creating efficient ways that minimize contact for technicians to receive the supplies and tools they will need for the day
  • Holding meetings virtually or in a location that allows for proper social distancing
  • Setting a policy that employees are required to notify their supervisors if they are displaying COVID-19 symptoms

Another prime example of necessary adaptation for HVAC contractors is to take their traditionally non-digital business to a digital format wherever possible. This has been true across all sectors of the economy. These uncertain times have caused many companies to focus internally and hunker down, but as the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) says, this is the time to “go on the offense and embrace creativity and innovation.” Though a little more rapid than expected, contractor adaptation to the digital age in light of the pandemic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Contactless and mobile-based systems to facilitate communication and billing with clients will be the standard of the future. As the HVACR news source Contracting Business notes: “By respecting the concerns of a nervous public, businesses that adapt to the pandemic’s reality cannot only help keep their customers and employees safe, but build trust with the communities they operate in long after the danger of COVID-19 passes.”

Going digital is simultaneously promoting virtual training for displaced HVAC contractors to bring them back online (no pun intended) and preparing them to work once things return to a more normal state. One of the largest opportunities reported in NEEP’s ASHP Market Transformation Progress Report published in August 2020, based on feedback collected from heat pump market stakeholders, was online training for those laid off or furloughed during COVID-19. At some point, in-person residential and commercial work will pick back up, and it’s important to have the workforce ready to make up for lost time once it does.

Some groups like the Minnesota Air Source Heat Pump Collaborative, a collaborative between the MN Center for Energy and Environment and Minnesota utilities, have produced a slate of online trainings geared towards offering best practices and in-field research results to turn more HVAC installation technicians towards heat pump technology. Mass Save has spearheaded the online training effort as well. It has procured and promoted ‘no cost to student’ on-line learning modules for residential and C&I contractor staff, and partnered with external organizations to provide financial incentives for residential training module participation. Additionally, Mass Save now hosts its measureQuick Contractor Trainingwhich equips contractors with a connected system of tools, services, and technology to grow their business – through a mobile application.

Ensuring Contractor Survival

As safety protocols are standardized and online trainings and other contractor resources pop up, the rebound HVAC contractors need becomes more promising. In general, we’re seeing some tremendous responses from state organizations that work directly with contractor networks, such as Mass Save and NYSERDA, who created resource pages early in the activity slowdown to connect contractors with available state and federal resources (i.e. small business loans, payroll protection, etc.). NEEP also hosts a COVID-19 resource page as do many other groups in the energy efficiency space.

With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and a potentially digitally-savvy and trained HVAC workforce, the best days may still be ahead for the contractors of the United States, and specifically the Northeast. This bodes well as many contractors in the region have ambitious heat pump installation targets. For contractors that can adapt to the situation, it’s safe to speculate they will be prepared to act when the industry, specifically, and economy, at large, recovers. Furthermore, the Biden Administration, which aims to electrify four million buildings and weatherize two million homes over four years, needs a capable workforce that can adapt in these difficult times.

This digital revolution and test of resilience was, by no means, anticipated but it does speak volumes for contractors’ ability to respond and adapt, and forecasts that those who weather the storm will be positioned to thrive on the other end.

Tags COVID-19

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