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Our industry is considered an essential service and many of our companies remain operating, but of course, many procedures have been modified to implement distancing and disinfection and keep everyone safe.

A quick survey of our members reveals that Canadians are taking the distancing rules very seriously and expect HVAC professionals to do the same. Not surprisingly, customer calls have dropped precipitously for the members with whom we spoke.

“We’re down to about 15 or 20 incoming customer inquiries each day compared with 60 or 70 normally,” says Dick Thomas, Vice-President of Business Development for Atlas Care in Oakville, Ontario. “And we’ve developed a list of questions to ask to see if we can diagnose the problem without a physical service call. Sometimes there’s something the customer can try themselves to correct the problem. For example, we might coach them through resetting the thermostat or the process of turning off the furnace switch and restarting it. Then we wait on the phone through the operation sequence to see if it corrects itself.”

Andrew Vasilak, Operations Manager at Hamco Heating & Cooling in Hamilton says his company makes a similar effort. “If we can troubleshoot it remotely we will. We have them check breakers and vents, we ask probing questions about what took place before apparent equipment failure, and so on. Some homeowners are really good. Some will take pictures and send them to us.”

As we all know other customers can eat up a lot of time and it might be difficult to monetize remote technical consultations. Scott Papp, HRAI
Manager of Membership & Divisional Programs says: “This week I participated in a US-based industry webinar and the topic of virtual service calls or remote consultations came up in the chat discussion. Companies are using FaceTime from Apple or similar apps for Android.  Some companies are charging $39.00 for a session, with the charge applied back to the cost of any related work that follows.”

“However, I think most HVAC professionals are likely to exercise discretion, making judgment calls on a case-by-case basis before simply applying a consultation charge. Especially during a difficult time when customers are already on edge.”

“If we have to go to the house then our techs are in full personal protective gear including gloves and masks, and we’re not making any direct contact,” says Andrew. “Customers will open the garage or a basement door in advance. We recently did a diagnostic and our tech took pictures in the basement and texted them to the customer who stayed upstairs. Then he had a three-way call with both the husband and the wife on their phones to review options. They decided to get a new furnace so the tech did pre-measurements for the sheet metal and provided a quote that was approved electronically. There was some additional discussion during the job with the family communicating with our crew from an open upstairs window. The cheque was left in the mailbox by the customer.” For most companies paperwork is now either electronic or left behind on-site. The need for actual physical signatures has generally been suspended.

“If we determine that a physical sales call is necessary, then we follow all the rules of our COVID-19 protocol,” says Dick Thomas. “And customers appreciate it when we show up wearing the protective gear. After we get through this crisis, that vision of our tech taking the proper precautions will be a lasting impression in their memories.”

Atlas is lucky because it has all the gear it needs. Some companies are less fortunate. “PPE supplies are in short order...later today I will get more hand sanitizer and we are well supplied with full face shields and rubber gloves, but we have limited supplies of masks and Lysol wipes,” says Jimmie Thom, Principal at Atel Air in Williamsburg, Ontario.

“That’s why our dispatch group will ask questions regarding health in the home. Is anyone else visiting or in the home that has recently traveled or been with anyone sick? Are you presently in quarantine? Once the tech has arrived and outside the house, he calls from his truck to ask the same questions again.”

We can’t be too careful, because people are not at the top of their game. Dick describes one call where the crew arrived at the door to replace a water heater and learned that the customer had just returned from the Bahamas. He had not thought about revealing this earlier, so the crew stopped in its tracks and reported it to the office.

“We recalled them and sent a replacement crew that was wearing full tyvek suits, masks, and gloves. We required the family to stay upstairs and asked more questions. The customer admitted he had been touching the water heater, so we fully disinfected it before removing it. After the call, all the suits and gloves were secured in a trash bag, which we took with us.”

Being near an international city like Toronto, Atlas Care follows very stringent procedures. “Each morning before we get in our vehicles

we disinfect the seats, door handles, and all knobs & controls. We wash our hands before and after and use hand sanitizer and gloves. Each tech carries a COVID-19 bag for customer calls containing everything needed to ensure safety. All our computers and mobile devices have to be wiped and/or sanitized before and after each use. At customer sites, we wipe hand railings doorknobs, anything that may have been touched by people. No more handshakes. We maintain social distances.”

The situation is the same in the office. Technicians are not even permitted inside, with parts and tools being brought out to their vehicles and loaded in for them (this is not the same in Hamilton and Williamsburg, but lots of distancing). Inside a skeleton staff, all keeps about 30 feet from each other and sanitizes counters, doorknobs, and all plumbing twice a day. It’s done by the first person to arrive in the morning and by the last person to leave in the evening.

HRAI checked in with Wolseley, who said their mode of operation is significantly different as well. The doors of wholesale distribution centers are locked, and supplies are brought outside to the technicians who remain in their vans. Wolseley staffers open the van door and load everything. There are no signatures and products are preordered electronically or by phone. Pickups are scheduled to avoid a lot of overlapping traffic at any one time.

Atlas has reduced its in-office team from 35-40 people to just 5 people. The rest are now working remotely or job-sharing. Thomas thinks there is a chance that the industry can bounce back from the downturn if the lockdowns don’t go on too long.

“There might be some pent up demand and we might come out strong afterward. Everyone in the company was asked to go on Employment Insurance at the beginning when we reduced their hours. That way the work they get is subtracted, and we minimize the financial hardship. I think the government has done an okay job of introducing support programs for everyone.”

“I have laid off most of my staff and put the rest on job sharing,” says Jimmie Thom. “As the owner, I must ensure the health of my business...we are in RESET mode and will be roaring out of the gate once this passes. Our year-end is today, and we had an excellent year.”