Cold Weather; Cold Cash

Raymond Sheaffer of the Chambersburg, Pa., natural gas utility braves cold temperatures and snow to work on a replacement line project. Businesses across the Tri-State are seeking ways to, at least, keep going during the cold, if not capitalizing on it.

Keeping business warm, despite chilly temps


For some businesses, falling temperatures translate into slower business cycles.

While many companies manage through the cold, some take special measures to keep the bottom line solid while ice is forming outside. And some businesses mirror agriculture, with most activities shutting down until warmer weather returns.

For Frank Traver, president of Eagle Construction Co. in Greencastle, Pa., the winter means juggling employee schedules and job timelines.

“You don’t make a lot of money in the wintertime,” Traver said. “Hopefully you don’t lose a lot of money in the wintertime, either.”

‘Slow down a bit’

Traver said winter’s impact on his business varies with the severity of the weather.

“It depends on how cold it is and how long it lasts. … We’ve not had to really quit work in the winter time. We just slow down a lot,” he said.

The company has about 15 workers in the field, he said, and relies on subcontractors for many tasks.

Sometimes it’s simply too cold to pour concrete, excavate for structures or do other types of work.

For example, during a holiday cold snap, temperatures did not rise above the freezing mark for more than a week. As a result, some of the concrete work was delayed on one of Eagle’s building sites.

“A project that should have taken five or six days is going to take three to four weeks,” Traver said.

The company also does interior work. During the coldest days, he said, Eagle shifts more employees to those indoor jobs.

For the past several years, he said, the company has avoided weather-related layoffs.

“In this (job) market, you can’t afford to lay people off. … We’re fortunate. We have some really good people,” Traver said.

He said Eagle has adopted a conservative approach in its business model.

“This company’s been here for 50 years, and I’ve been here for 27 of them, so it’s worked so far,” he said.

‘Extreme weather’

Extreme cold, like extreme heat, tends to stress heating and cooling systems. Todd Washam, director of industry and external relations for Air Conditioning Contractors of America, said that means busy times for HVAC repair and installation businesses.

It also means busy times for related ventures, Washam said.

“A lot of HVAC contractors don’t carry that much inventory. The supply houses — they’re the ones who carry the inventory,” he said.

Repair businesses often ramp up expenses in staffing and equipment to handle the uptick in business, he said, but those costs are covered by consumer’s payments.

“I don’t think there’s an easy way to budget for the extreme weather,” he said.

Keep on trucking

There was a time when truckers used electric heaters to make sure semi-tractors’ diesel engines would start in cold weather. But those days are in the past, according to Jim Ward, president and chief executive officer of D.M. Bowman Inc. trucking company in Williamsport, Md.

“It’s just incredible the differences we see,” he said during that string of freezing days in January. “We’ve had minimal problems.”

Thanks to advances in diesel engines and semi-tractors, the few headaches he’s seen usually involve sluggish batteries.

“The real concern we have (in bitter cold) is for our driver associates,” Ward said.

Some of those drivers spend nights on the road in sleeper cabs.

Bowman’s sleeper-cab trucks are equipped with Webasto heaters, he said. Those units can run when the engine is off, drawing “a minimal amount of fuel out of the tanks.”

“They really work quite well. … It’s amazing how warm, how comfortable, it really is,” he said.

The investment in heaters has paid off in driver safety, according to Ward.

“We want to make sure they’re comfortable and getting quality rest,” he said.

Brick making shuts down

But some businesses can’t function when it gets too cold.

Among them is Continental Brick Co. in Martinsburg, W.Va. The business has built up its inventory to fill orders, and it has a skeleton staff working through the winter.

“We idle the plant in late November, early December,” said Don Sult, vice president of operations.

The plant shuts down until about March for several reasons, he said.

First, demand for brick usually falls in the winter as construction slows.

Second, natural gas costs — one of the plant’s largest expenses — usually rise during the winter.

“That’s not necessarily so now, but historically that’s been the case,” Sult said.

Third, he said, freezing temperatures pose big problems for people who make bricks.

Bricks, he said, are basically made with mud. Dealing with that in cold weather is uncomfortable and expensive, and it can be costly.

“If we leave the equipment idle (overnight) and get a big freeze, we can do tens of thousands of dollars of damage to our equipment,” he said.

Bricks are fired in a kiln that reaches temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees.

“It takes several days to heat the kiln back up” after it has been shut down, he said.