Sam Hawcroft talks to Richard Dawson, who’s at the helm of one of Hull’s longest-established air-conditioning companies.
Only the most hardened climate change deniers, or Donald Trump, would deny the world isn't becoming a warmer place, so being in the air-conditioning industry would seem to be a fairly safe bet for a future-proof business.
With last year being the joint-hottest summer on record, UK air-conditioning firms must surely have done a roaring trade. This summer hasn't quite matched up, admittedly, but there's no doubt that air-conditioning units will become increasingly commonplace in homes and businesses in the coming years. By 2050, about two-thirds of the world’s households are expected to have them, according to a report in late 2018 by the International Energy Agency.
However, the need to keep cool as the world heats up will put even more pressure on our energy resources; the use of air-con and electric fans already accounts for about a fifth of the total electricity in buildings around the world – or 10% of all global electricity consumption – and this is expected to more than triple in the next 30 years. A lot of the cooling devices currently in use are not as energy-efficient as they could be (I'm reminded of my last villa holiday in Spain and the ancient, noisy unit in the bedroom that was little better than a desk fan), and the IEA is calling for governments to implement new efficiency standards for cooling devices, which would reduce the need to build new electricity infrastructure to meet rising demand.
On a smaller scale, companies such as Hull's Airkool have a part to play in this, too. By keeping on top of the latest developments in the industry they can ensure homes and workplaces are fitted with the most energy-efficient devices currently available. And while the firm’s name may suggest a focus on air-conditioning, there’s far more to its services than that. Britain, after all, may be getting warmer in summer, and even though our winters seem to be getting milder, too, it’s still pretty cold for much of the year – so energy-efficient heating is another key arm of the business, which was established in 1982 when the words “climate change” were hardly on everyone’s lips. Indeed, the name “Airkool” derives from the company’s origins as a refrigeration firm, and, with hindsight, it now seems quite visionary.
Richard Dawson started work at the company as an apprentice in 1990, when it was still owned and headed up by his father, he worked his way up to being responsible for installing, servicing and maintaining refrigeration systems. During the 1990s, demand for air-conditioning installations began to grow, and Airkool began to move further into that area. “I think we were probably one of the first companies in the Hull area to really push the air-conditioning market.
As the millennium approached, Richard gravitated towards a semi-office-based position, becoming a project engineer and splitting his time 50-50 between management duties and engineering jobs, and eventually moving solely to the office and becoming a Director. And, while going straight from school into the family business was something Richard had always expected he would do, it was another five years before his younger brother Wayne came into the fold to look after the financial side. But they both have their father, who is now retired, to thank for how the company has evolved, Richard says. “He built me up into where I am today, really – it wasn’t just a case of handing me the keys and saying, right, there you go, I’d built up all that experience, all that knowledge over the years of clients, design, and how systems operated.”
Airkool has recently taken on four more apprentices, and training is a big part of the business, says Richard. Finding good-quality staff will always be a challenge, he adds, but they have a sound approach to recruitment. “We employ apprentices, and put them through college, but we also have an in-house training manager who gives the apprentices extra opportunities, with more of an on-site, hands-on approach. One of Airkool’s young employees is Richard’s son, who has followed his father, and his father before him, into the firm, having completed his apprenticeship and again elevating within the company. “He’s hands-on, like I am, and wanted to learn the trade,” Richard says.
A few years ago, air-conditioning would have been seen as more of a seasonal business, and indeed Richard says there used to be peaks and troughs as hot summers came and went, but the drive towards reducing carbon emissions has in recent times seen an increase in demand for more sustainable heating systems. Earlier this year, the then-chancellor Philip Hammond announced that all new homes built after 2025 could no longer be fitted with gas boilers, with alternative low-carbon systems such as heat pumps needing to be installed as standard. “Years ago, in the colder months – December to February – it would have been more of a quieter period for us so we’d concentrate more on maintenance work; nowadays we’re as busy in winter as we are in summer,” says Richard.
With a boom in any industry comes increased competition, of course – there are quite a number of air-conditioning firms in Hull and the surrounding area now. How has Airkool stayed ahead of the game? “We’ve diversified,” says Richard. “We took a decision a few years ago to look at other parts of the business, and promote more the electrical, ventilation and plumbing side of things, and pull them together to offer a full turnkey package. So we can offer a mechanical, electrical, refrigeration service to any client, and you’ll find a lot of people nowadays just want to pick up the phone and deal with one contact rather than trying to organise three or four different companies themselves.
One of the biggest challenges for the business in the future is keeping abreast of the speed at which technology is changing, coupled with the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. “A priority for us at the moment,” says Richard, “is that we educate our clients on the type of refrigerants in their air-conditioning and refrigeration systems. The industry is always looking to new refrigerants that have less impact on the environment. There really is a big drive to become as neutral as we can, so the CO emissions aren’t polluting the atmosphere.”
The economic climate is the elephant in the room for practically every business at the moment, too, and Richard is certainly noticing an increased air of caution among some of his national and regional suppliers and clients. Businesses are looking at things differently, and holding on to see what’s going to happen. But Richard remains optimistic, not only because Airkool is at the forefront of advances in low-carbon heating technology, but because it offers services that are, and always will be, essential to everyone’s daily life.
“Offices and businesses still need power,” he adds, “and people are still going to need running water, heating and air conditioning. There’s still going to be a market out there. Is it going to be more competitive? Yes, I would say so. But it’s about making sure Airkool is at the top of everyone’s list when they need any of the services we provide.”