The old adage about not discussing politics in polite company may have never been designed to apply to contractors and HVAC companies.

In the last year or two, I’ve seen political talks come up more as convention seminar topics at events I attend around the country. This includes last year’s annual meeting of the Heating, Airconditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America’s 2010 convention, from which I just returned.

At both events - as well as the recent International Roofing Expo - the policies of President Barack Obama’s administration were a hot topic. On some issues, such as extending generous tax incentives for the purchase of high-efficiency or energy-saving equipment, the construction industry is generally supportive.

But on others, especially attempts to enact health care reform or cap greenhouse gas emissions, the associations have become vocal in their opposition.

Active lobbying is not an arena that many HVAC groups are used to. But as a HARDI official told me a few years ago, (See “Energy law shows need for contractors, industry to be politically involved,” February 2008, Editor’s Page) they have no choice. HVAC is no longer an industry that federal and state politicians are likely to ignore.

That was the lesson many groups learned in 2007, when a bill eliminating federal preemption of air conditioner and furnace efficiency standards was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush. The bill divided the industry, with manufacturer groups such as the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute supporting the bill. Others such as HARDI, ACCA and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling-Contractors fought until the end to remove the anti-preemption provision.

Stepping up

After that defeat, HARDI and the ACCA appear to have stepped up their pressure on Congress. In addition to paid lobbyists such as the ACCA’s Charlie McCrudden, the groups have staged more “fly-in” events in Washington, D.C., to give members more time to personally explain their concerns to House and Senate staffers.

This is a wise strategy. As I’ve said before, whether it’s your city’s zoning board or a national issue that impacts you or your business personally, it’s imperative to be aware of issues and how to contact your state, local or federal representatives. Too many people believe that their votes don’t matter or what happens in Washington doesn’t affect them. They’re wrong, and issues such as the health care debate or efficiency standards, regardless of whether you support them, prove my point.

To influence debate on an issue, you don’t have to take a trip to Washington, although it wouldn’t hurt. It can be as easy as e-mailing a letter to your lawmaker. And while many groups make sending pre-written letters supporting or opposing an issue quick and easy, experts say that one personally written letter on an issue can have far more impact.

Keeping up on issues isn’t hard, either. Most associations regularly send out e-mails and newsletters about where they stand on issues, and the Internet has a wealth of information on almost every issue. Even Snips does its best to report on state and national topics that affect sheet metal and HVAC contractors.

Regardless of where you get your information, stay current on it. It’s always much easier to stop, slow down or change a proposal than after it is signed into law.