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City Heatwave Causes Air Conditioner Shortage at Retail Stores

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Few windows can be found without air conditioning units in the city when temperatures reach triple-digits. Few windows can be found without air conditioning units in the city when temperatures reach triple-digits. (Arnaldo Abba Legnazzi/flickr)

On Friday, thermometers in New York reached a record-breaking 104 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a soupy 100 degrees on Saturday. New Yorkers have developed various techniques for beating the heat, but an air conditioning unit has lately been the hottest -- or coolest -- commodity around town. To the dismay of many overheated residents looking to buy or replace a broken AC unit, they've all but sold out in area retail stores.

WNYC contacted more than 20 big box store locations in the five boroughs, Connecticut and New Jersey. Just one Home Depot in midtown Manhattan and two Sears stores in Brooklyn had air conditioning units in stock on Monday.

"We are the only store that always has units," said one Sears worker on Sunday, as sweaty New Yorkers lugged shrink-wrapped units off the shelves. Sears district manager Savitri Cohen likened the weekend's sales to "Christmas in July."

"We beat last year's numbers," she said, "and it was hot then, too." 

Although most city dwellers expect the weather to get hot in the summer, 1936 was the last time thermometers soared so high in the city. Such fluctuations in weather make it difficult for retail companies to discern how many units to stock each year.

"Air conditioning is such a haphazard business," said Jay Hildebrand, who works at S & L Appliance, a family-owned company in Flushing, Queens.

He said big box stores, as well as mom-and-pop establishments like his, relied primarily on past sales to predict how many air conditioning units to keep on the shelves. Retailers purchase a big order of air conditioners before the season begins, he said, and each time they restock, it is more expensive.

Air conditioning units fly off the shelves the hotter it is, he said, adding that high temperatures could also cause some units to break down. During extreme heat, ConEdison reduces voltage to certain neighborhoods to protect equipment. These voltage changes can cause air conditioning units and other appliances to break down. 

This weekend, temperatures are expected to get back up to the low 90s. But some New Yorkers are not giving into the city's heat.

Brooklyn resident Kate Hanselman and her roommate live on the third floor and have decided not to use their two window units this summer.

"It wasn’t always ideal, but it’s more cost-effective and you have a couple fans and a pint of ice cream and it's not so bad," said Hanselman. "You just have to move a little bit slower."

If the shelves are empty at Home Depot in Manhattan or at Sears in Brooklyn, there's always the internet. Most area retails stores offer the option to get air conditioning units sent to your home (delivery charges and shipping time applies) and Craigslist has a variety of new and used AC units available.

Do you sweat it out or have AC? Let us know by posting a comment below. Also, if you know of a place with air conditioning units for purchase, please let us know.

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