Neil Hammond figured it would be a cold day in Southern California when it happened.
But cold it was and happen it did: Heating/cooling businesses accustomed to the hectic summertime and its myriad air-conditioner complaints say they are positively floored by the unaccustomed flood of calls through this unusually chilly winter.
If Hammond was located in the East or Midwest, he would have counted on it. But he happens to own Bay Cities Furnace & Air Conditioning Co., which is in Santa Monica. "We have been in business since 1944," he said. "This has been one of the worst spells for heating calls that I have ever had."
The E. L. Payne Co., based in Van Nuys, has 50 vehicles on the road and has serviced air conditioners and furnaces since 1914.
"We have been getting calls by the thousands from people we have never before done business with," said Gordon Payne Jr., the president. "Ever since the beginning of November, we have been so busy that we have been making the difficult choice of having to turn people away, to be able to give priority to our contract customers. If you weren't one of those, you faced anywhere from a week to two weeks."
Said Chuck Dailey, owner of Dailey Heating & Air Conditioning in West Los Angeles: "Ever since November, the number of calls we have been getting every day has about quadrupled over last year."
But for those needing the repairing, it isn't a case of the early bird getting the warm.
"No matter when you call, you're probably looking at a wait," Dailey said, a comment typical of those contacted in the business.
"Right now I'm running about a week and a half behind--and usually I would be scheduling work a day in advance," Dailey said.
"The week before Christmas, I was telling people there was no way I could get to them before the first of the year. Even on Christmas morning, there were calls on my answering machine. And it hasn't stopped. Just this morning , when I walked in, there were 18 people who had called about their furnaces."
Hammond said that during November and December, his company was booked steadily a full two weeks in advance. "Our three lines were going continuously from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.," he said. "We took lists of names, but we wouldn't book more than two weeks ahead. Then, when the time came, we would call back and see if the people still wanted the heating service. Usually they did.
"I run two full-time servicemen, and I could use 10. My guys have been working overtime and doing about 10 calls apiece every day, whereas normal would be six."
Even Southern California Gas Co., which averages 5,000 free service calls daily in the Southland, has a current wait of two or three days, compared to normal next-day service.
"Our biggest surge was during the first cold snap," said spokesman Rich Puz. "It was unexpected, and everybody was calling at once."
Puz said the company doesn't usually deal in such things as parts replacements for a heating problem, but will clean and relight pilots and adjust gas-air mixtures.
"One of the things that sometimes causes heating difficulties is that a thermostat will get a slight buildup of dust in the internal contacts," Puz explained. "Just a little dust will block the signal, so that it doesn't turn on.
Beware the Wind
"Often, all that is required is to take off the thermostat cover and brush off the metal contacts."
Another thing that can disrupt a heating system--obvious as this may seem--is if the pilot light goes out. "A strong gust of wind can sometimes cause this," Puz said.
Hammond said that in lieu of being able to send someone, he sometimes is able to solve a heating problem over the phone: "If the person has a floor furnace, sometimes it can be made to operate on a temporary basis by using a flashlight battery to force electrical energy into the system."
Dailey, who has two service employees and also makes calls himself, said many of this winter's problems have resulted from simple lack of furnace maintenance:
"The filters should have been changed, the motors should have been lubricated, the heating elements and the venting should have been inspected."
Indeed, Payne said his firm has about 8,000 home customers with prepaid service contracts, entitling them to maintenance two or three times a year. "These are preferred customers, some have been with us 30 and 40 years," he said.
When this harsh winter hit, he continued, residents without heat were calling in after finding his company in the phone book Yellow Pages--and were also being referred by competitors who weren't able to handle the calls they were getting.
"People have been trying anything," he said. "They'll swear they have a contract with us, when it turns out they don't. One guy who called said he had to have heat because he was dying of leukemia. He eventually admitted he was lying.
"It's a shame that there are people who have been taken advantage of. One woman called and described a repair that someone else had done--they replaced a gas valve on her furnace--and had charged her $900. We would have charged $325.
John Spautz, chief heating and refrigeration inspector with the City of Los Angeles, emphasized that this is one reason why someone seeking heating-repair work should seek out a state-licensed contractor.
"Last winter," Spautz recalled, "two people were asphyxiated after a worker who didn't have the background tried to fix a bad condition in a furnace, but worsened it."
Rickey Gamore, executive director of the Institute of Heating and Air Conditioning Industries Inc., a trade association, also pointed out that a heating system, like a car, should undergo steady maintenance.
"If so, they can last a long time," she said. "Some gravity systems here have been around for 50 years, and are still going strong."
One of the bigger reasons for the Winter Wait has simply been a case of too many residents seeking the services of too few available repairmen.
"The problem," Dailey said, "is finding young people who want to go into this business. "They can make $30,000 or $40,000 a year, but everybody wants to become a lawyer."
Which, in some cases, isn't the type of hot air currently wanted.