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Buyers Beware

May 5, 2010 2:46 PM, By Rob 'Doc' Falke

An increasing number of building performance contractors are entering the HVAC industry at an alarming rate. This new breed of contractor has the potential to deliver effective all inclusive energy packages, but some newcomers are installing the worst quality HVAC systems we’ve seen in decades.

The ability to deliver real HVAC system efficiency requires much more than hiring an employee with a state issued license and buying a 95 AFUE furnace and an 18 SEER condenser at the parts house. Unfortunately, few consumers have the ability to discern the difference between a good or bad energy contractor. They also can’t tell which part of the energy package might be effectively completed separately by an HVAC contractor.
Unless those of us that can deliver quality and performance can learn to educate our customers to see the difference between us and them, our future may not be so bright.

Let me report on two “energy contractor” cases that came in just this morning.

Case Number One

One HVAC contractor had a customer that was in trouble. The consumer had spent over $30,000 to add solar panels and a hot water coil to his heating system. The solar contractor had stuck a 20-in. x 30-in. coil on top of a 16-in. x 25-in. cooling coil without a sheet metal transition. One third of the coil was outside of the airstream. The solar contractor had been in business over 30 years.

The solar contractor had added a super restrictive air filter to “improve indoor air quality” and has sealed the duct system without adding additional duct capacity.

The system total external static pressure was nearly 1.5-in. w.c and the existing blower was rated at only .50-in. w.c. The system had less than 200 CFM per ton of airflow and the temperature rise over the solar heating coils was only 5 degrees.

When the consumer called the solar contractor about our contractor’s findings he was told that the 5 degree rise over the solar heating coil was normal and was a good deal for “free” heat. With a price tag of $30,000 the payback on this system would be about 230 years.

The question is, when our customers call and inquire about bogus building performance contractors, how do we defend against these multi faceted box sellers?

Although there are many high quality building performance contractors out there with decades of HVAC experience and who are fully equipped and able to deliver the goods, many, like this solar contractor, are not. Unless we obtain an operating knowledge of building performance, we may be shut out from theses opportunities.

Things are changing, my friends. Unless we’re prepared for inquiries that will come from our customers, we may not even be invited to the dance as consumers seek whole house solutions to their energy needs.

Case Number Two

A top notch HVAC contractor was called out to a 6 year old home to fix a whole house energy upgrade disaster. The discouraged and frustrated homeowners were not realizing the fifty percent energy savings that had been promised when they bought the $199 energy audit from Green Something Solutions in a storefront at a posh local mall. The $20,000 plus they had subsequently spent was lost money. Meanwhile the storefront has a new for rent sign. 

Apparently after an 8-hour energy seminar they had purchased a used blower door and infrared camera on E-bay. The young “green” energy guys weren’t as qualified as they had claimed they were.

The attic was filled with foam board and empty cans of spray foam.

The heating and cooling system performance was measured in the 40% range. The supply air temperature was 168F but lost 60 degrees of its heat before it entered the supply registers on the main floor. The flue was damaged during the whole-house energy upgrade and carbon monoxide was pouring into the attic. A high efficiency filter had been added to the furnace and was installed so the new filter couldn’t be removed from the filter housing when it was time for a filter change.

When our contactor presented his findings, the customer summarized the situation. “It looks like the Green Something Boys left my home with the energy grade of an “F.” Can you get me up to an energy grade of a “B” so I can put all this behind me?”

As an industry we’re left with two questions to consider:

First, how do we alter our approach to meet and defeat this new competitor? Some will be a flash in the pan and be gone before we know it and will be stealing jobs and damaging consumers every day until they’re gone. Some will be as good or better quality than we are, and are able to deliver the whole energy package. Whatever the answer is, it better include the ability to respond and satisfy the needs of our customers, or we’ll lose them.

Second, do we need to consider the building performance approach in our offering? This doesn’t mean we need to go out and buy a foam insulation truck for $100,000.00 and add additional crews. Can we include basic testing and evaluation services and form alliances with qualified partners and provide what our customers are asking for?

Look ahead for yourself. Learn what’s rolling out in your area. Keep an eye on the incentive money and new tax credits driving new business your way and arriving soon in a competitor near you.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute a training company with technical and business level membership organizations. If you're an HVAC contractor or technician interested in a free system renovation procedure, contact Doc at robf@ncihvac.com or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles and downloads.

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