It's official - winter weather has arrived.
And no one knows that more than the people who make sure homes in the region are toasty even as temperatures dip outside.
Now in the thick of their peak season, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) specialists are faced with call after call from people panicked when faced with the possibility of having to go without heat during the year's coldest months.
"This time of year keeps the team quite busy," said Allen Kent, owner of Kent Heating & Air Conditioning. "On a busy day, especially when the temperatures dip into the single digits or below zero for the first time in the season, they run calls from morning until late into the night."
In fact, Kent says he has seen technicians run well over 15 calls between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m.
"It is exhausting and you can never have enough technicians when these conditions hit," he said.
Dave Meter, president of South Suburban Heating & Air Conditioning, said while "early birds" begin calling for service checkups as early as September, most maintenance requests come during the months of September, October and November.
"Techs can handle anywhere from six to eight calls per day in busy times - not including emergency calls - no-heats," he said.
These emergency calls can present challenges for an already taxed staff during this busy season.
"Throw in a deep snowfall and we may have to tow a stuck service van out, or we may have to run to the far west side of Chicago in a blizzard to pick up a furnace in an emergency no-heat situation," Kent said.
As the second generation owner of the company, Kent knows how the heating and AC industry works. Growing up, he worked summers and Christmas breaks for his father's company. Kent joined the business in 1990 - his long time goal, he said.
"My father would not let me join the business until then because, he said, 'You need to get business experience in the outside world, learn how business operates, and then come back to the family business where you will be much more valuable to the company,'" Kent said.
Through his career, he's learned a surprising fact about the industry - the HVAC industry has the second highest failure rate among business after three years of operation - trailing only restaurants, he said.
"It's a very difficult business to operate and do business planning in since you have all the challenges of every other business, in addition to the uncertainty of the weather," he said.
For the last two years, for instance, mild winters have had a devastating financial impact on some HVAC businesses, he said.
"Add into the mix that you are working with mechanical equipment with moving parts that fail, and you are dispatching service warehouses - vehicles - every direction everyday in all kinds of weather to homes and businesses that have emergency situations," Kent said. "These conditions make this, I believe, one of the most, if not the most, difficult businesses to operate."
There are also the challenges that technicians face of diagnosing the problem clients are experiencing with their furnaces - systems that range in age and style, all with different problems that need solved.
Meter, who splits the large workload with his two brothers in the family-owned company, said most problems stem from a lack of upkeep.
"Lack of maintenance leads to furnaces not operating when they really need to," he said.
Often it's simple things that can make an entire system fail, Kent said.
"Dirt is the No. 1 reason for system failure, and it's sad to see equipment prematurely fail due to lack of maintenance," he said.
Using a vacuum cleaner on a furnace doesn't constitute a cleaning, either, he said.
"Dirt is in the burners, controls, blowers, motors, tubing, hoses and other parts," Kent said. "People should look to see when the last time the furnace was cleaned, and if they can't remember, it's time."
Getting a furnace check up isn't only a matter of maintenance upkeep, either. It can be a safety issue as well, and one of the roles of a HVAC specialist is to teach the public about carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty furnace and what can be done to prevent it.
"We should be very aware of carbon monoxide poisoning this time of year," Kent said.
He recommends not only have a furnace tune-up, but also having carbon monoxide and smoke detectors placed throughout the home according to manufacturer's instructions.