Despite lingering economic blight, a gridlocked political climate, and mild winter temperatures, Paul Stalknecht, president and CEO of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), is beaming with optimism.

“2012 is going to be an interesting year, because there is a lot at stake politically. News reports say people are feeling more confident in 2012, so this could be a good sign that the economy may start to make a steadier upward climb,” said Stalknecht. “However, I don’t have a crystal ball, so we will all have to see what the economy does this year. We are optimistic we will see some rebounding that will continue far beyond this year.”

Stalknecht is embracing a future that includes a number of untapped opportunities.

“As we look at what has happened over the past few years and then look at what could happen, all we see are opportunities,” said Stalknecht.

“Like we have said many times before, the good contractors who are focusing on their businesses, doing things correctly through quality installations, and building their customer relationships will have no problem taking advantage of these opportunities.”

ACCA’s Contractor Comfort Index (CCI), which was launched in February 2010, gauges short-term growth prospects including new customer acquisitions, existing business, and employment numbers. An index of 50 or above indicates anticipated growth, and in 2011, the CCI consistently painted a picture of a cautiously optimistic contracting industry.

“2011 was a fairly good year. We have heard some contractors say that it was their best year ever,” said Stalknecht. “Since we began the CCI it has never fallen below 50, which means our contractor members are feeling optimistic in terms of short-term growth. However, in 2011, CCI did show that our contractor members were a little more cautious in their outlook.”

ACCA Accomplishments

ACCA celebrated several accomplishments last year, including gaining ANSI recognition for two of its standards.

Manual Zr is the first ANSI-recognized standard for residential zoning. It was put together by OEMs, zoning equipment producers, HVAC contractors, and allied industry experts — providing a broad perspective on the industry-recognized best zoning practices. It includes topics such as zoning advantages, appropriate use of the zoning concept, types of systems, equipment, air damper zoning components, zoning metrics and methods, doable owner expectations, and more.

ANSI/ACCA 12 QH-2011, the Existing Homes Evaluation and Performance Improvement Standard, is an industry-developed standard that establishes how to audit, evaluate, develop a scope of work, perform the work approved by a homeowner, and test completed work. ACCA 12 QH-2011 was developed by ACCA in cooperation with the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) and will be used by RESNET for the foundation of its EnergySmart® teams.

ACCA also established the Radiant and Hydronics Council (RHC) and launched the IE3 Magazine.

“We felt this segment of the industry was really underrepresented and it was time for there to be a contractor-led organization that could meet the needs that those contractors in the market segment have,” Stalknecht said. “We have already begun providing some of those things through the RHC sections of the ACCA website and five webinars that are free to RHC members.

“IE3media Inc. is focused on creating new value for ACCA’s members and customers through expanded online, mobile, and print services,” he said. “The first offerings were IE3 Magazine and its website, and more offerings will be available soon.”

Government Outreach

Last year, ACCA representatives were very busy on Capitol Hill, testifying on behalf of contractor members. “After thousands of contractors’ messages were sent to Capitol Hill, ACCA was able to declare victory over two pending tax laws that would have buried small businesses in paperwork and recordkeeping,” said Stalknecht. “In April, Congress repealed the 1099 filing requirement on small businesses that was snuck into the health care reform bill in 2010. In October, Congress repealed the requirement that all businesses that do work for a local, state, or federal government agency or board withhold 3 percent of the contract value.

“On the regulatory side, the manufacture of dry-charged R-22 condensing units continues to have an impact on the transition to systems with more environmentally friendly refrigerants.”

Stalknecht said contractors remain frustrated and concerned by Congress’s inaction with spending and the economy.

“Congress failed to set a budget early in the year, delayed action on raising the debt ceiling, and couldn’t come to an agreement on spending cuts. By the end of the year, Congress did not extend the residential energy tax credits and a host of other tax incentives that help small business owners invest in their businesses,” he said. “Some of the issues that really concern contractors are coming from the regulatory agencies at the direction of the Obama administration.”

ACCA is keeping tabs on several issues that could influence members this year.

“In 2012 ACCA will be focusing on getting the residential energy tax credits modified and extended, along with monitoring the actions of the federal agencies,” said Stalknecht.

“One of the most critical topics is the imposition of new energy conservation standards for residential HVAC equipment along with regional standards for furnaces and central air conditioners. Over the next 12 months the Department of Energy will be formulating an enforcement plan for regional standards for furnaces in the north that takes effect on May 1, 2013. Regional standards are likely to impose new regulatory obligations and responsibilities on contractors. It’s critical that contractors have a seat at the table during this rule-making.”

Looking Ahead

Stalknecht said a number of ACCA members will continue to succeed in 2012 by dedicating themselves to resisting substandard practices and pushing themselves to become even better.

“Contractors have shifted their focus from surviving the economic downturn to thriving in it, so when we see the full recovery, they will see even more success,” he said. “The industry and the public both win when our members take this approach.”

Contractors who have focused on their businesses, made smart business decisions, and are continually looking for ways to improve operations and relationships are the ones who have fared the best — and will continue to succeed — through economic ups and downs, said Stalknecht.

“Contractors keep telling us that they are looking for ways to stand out from the pack. Many of them have begun to diversify their service offerings and are taking a whole-house approach,” he said.

“The truth is our members are more than just heating and cooling contractors. They are focusing on energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and how to make their customers’ homes or businesses better as a whole.”

ACCA continues to maintain a budget surplus and has embraced a thriving membership. The association’s offerings, including conferences, products, applications, and other training programs have seen significant growth, which has allowed ACCA to flourish during this recession.

“ACCA’s financial situation remains good, though like everybody the last few years we’ve had our challenges,” said Stalknecht. “We continue to operate in the black, as we have for the past eight years, which is our mission as good financial stewards of our members’ resources. At the same time, we keep expenses low and margins very tight to ensure that ACCA members get the best possible value.”

Last year ACCA changed its mission statement, which now reads: “To lead America’s professional indoor environment and energy contractors to business success.”

“That is what ACCA is here to do. We help our contractors stay ahead of the competition by providing them with quality products, services, support, advocacy in Washington, D.C., and business development resources. On top of that we have a dedicated staff that is ready and willing to help our members when they need help,” said Stalknecht.

“Contractors are looking toward the future and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. We are certain our members will continue to be successful, and we will be here to help them each step of the way.”