The Mystery 3%

The Mystery 3%

Posted March 31, 2020

It’s a mystery.

We’re still asking ourselves, where did that mysterious 3% increase come from? In our January press release, we wrote about the number of mercury-containing thermostats that TRC recycled last year. The essence of the press release was this: “There were 160,735 converted mercury thermostats collected and recycled in 2019 compared with 155,808  in 2018.” (For those who love statistics, our efforts peaked in 2014 with 203,346 units, demonstrating a downward trend.)

We have reported in recent years that recycling numbers were declining (we’ve done a commendable job, I hope) and that the unit cost of recycling was going up. But how is that possible with TRC’s reported uptick in our collection numbers? Is there some underground cache hidden somewhere, containing thermostat units suddenly unleashed into the recycling stream? It might work for a short fiction piece, but not in the real world.

A few possible and plausible reasons exist, and I would suggest that taken together, they might account for the increase.

Housing Starts. “An estimated 1.290 million housing units were started in 2019, up 3.2% compared to 2018,” according to a CNBC report. Odd how these numbers match our increase almost perfectly. In fairness, this probably only matters if the new homes replaced a demolished one, because there are no thermostats to recycle from an empty lot. Yet, there just might be a small trickle-down effect that contributed to our modest boost.  

Retirement. Now to be “perfectly clear,” as a former president once said, this is one of those explanations that I can’t substantiate in a court of law. However, we continue to read or hear about the number of techs leaving our industry as they approach retirement age. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some contractors will keep their own personal pail of mercury-containing thermostats, letting the items build up before they take the pile to their supply house for that last visit.  Think of it as temporary hoarding in a way that suddenly represents one last effort at recycling before they close the door for the last time. It’s similar to loose coins you placed in a jar before an event — like an impending vacation — prompting a visit to a coin machine to convert the change to paper bills.

Thermostat Counting. I believe the retirement and loose ampules explanation go hand-in-hand.  Contractors possibly collected the ampules, trying to do the right thing, but never found where to recycle it until now… when they are closing up shop. I actually receive calls from family members cleaning out their dad’s (or relative’s) garage who find these mercury thermostats from a forgotten HVAC contracting business.

It could also be that we have the same number (or even fewer thermostats) recycled, but it’s the ampule count that increased slightly. Let me explain.

 We accept loose ampules and bulbs, which are the vials of mercury from a thermostat.  We are able to come up with a total “converted thermostat” count by using an equation to convert the loose ampules to a number of whole thermostats.  Mercury thermostats can contain between one and six ampules, so we use the state average of ampules per thermostat to convert the number.

It could be a case of more ampules but not necessarily more thermostats. Yet we count the ampules.

Many contractors thought they were doing the right thing by cutting the ampules from the thermostat and then throwing the rest of the thermostat away.  This results in us receiving a large number of just mercury ampules recycled without the thermostat housing.

Outlier. The final reason, even if we can’t point to a specific cause, is that 2019 was an outlier year for a combination of the reasons mentioned or some that we have yet to divine.

If we’ve learned anything during our current experience with the coronavirus, it is how unpredictable events can interrupt our plans and forecasts.

As I view our thermostat landscape, we might see a small increase due to utility switch-out programs. However, a reasonable assumption would suggest that there will always be fewer thermostats because we continue to remove them from the environment, and no one manufactures them any longer.

However, there is one prediction that I’m comfortable making. TRC will continue its diligent efforts to assist our partners in removing mercury-containing thermostats from the environment.

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