Recent balmy temperatures might be an early Christmas gift for golfers and joggers, but they've been nothing but a lump of coal for Beaufort County's heating contractors.
With the mercury climbing to the upper 70s Thursday -- far above the 60-degree average high for that day, according to The Weather Channel -- local heating agencies' frustrations are reaching a boiling point.
"Oh, it's been bad," said Carla Flanders of Gray's Heating and Air Conditioning on Hilton Head Island, drawing out the last word for emphasis. "We've dropped at least 50 percent of our business from this time last year."
Last year, winter roared in like a lion -- as much as it can in the Lowcountry, anyway -- with temperatures scarcely breaking the 40s on Christmas Eve and reaching a low of 30.
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This year, it's arriving with all the menace of a baby sea turtle.
"Our phones were ringing off the hook last year," Flanders said. "We went straight from summer to winter. This year's nothing close to that."
John Dennis of D&S Heating and Cooling in Beaufort said business was just as slow in northern Beaufort County.
"It's dropped in half from last year," Dennis said. "We used to go on 12 to 15 calls per day; now, it's down to maybe six to eight."
Dennis expects business to pick up sharply as soon as this winter's first freezing temperatures arrive.
"One freeze, that's all you need," he said. "A lot of folks here have broken heaters; they just don't know it yet."
Although companies such as Dennis's can reliably count on steady demand in the summer months, they're at the mercy of the unpredictable local climate this time of year.
"We're reactive, not proactive, right now," said David Miller, owner of Superior Heating and Air in Bluffton.
Miller said his employees check the coming week's forecast at each weekly meeting, trying to fit scheduled maintenance visits around days that look like they might demand more service calls.
"The best thing we can do this time of year is just try to plan ahead and play catch-up," Miller said.
Theresa Henry of Gochnauer Heating & Air on Hilton Head also reported a significant dip in service calls, estimating business was down about 15 percent from last December.
She did, however, laugh as she shared an unexpected silver lining to the past week's otherwise dismal rate of business.
"Some people are calling to say their air conditioning isn't working," she said.
Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.
Is it beginning to look a lot like Christmas? Not here, Dec. 24, 2006