Residential Rooftop Unit Replacements

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Jeff Gaines, owner of Comfort Systems, works on the small end of the rooftop unit market. His company specializes in residential packaged systems. In fact, Gaines says the company is 100 percent residential. System sizes range from 2-5 tons, said service manager Sean Hayes.


“Our market here is primarily rooftop equipment, as far as replacements right now,” said Gaines. Some were evaporative coolers, but most of the homes in the area were built with rooftop equipment in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

“Over the last 10 years some of the market has gone back to splits,” he said, “but the replacement business is primarily rooftop equipment right now.

“There are a lot of markets that are primarily packaged units throughout California,” Gaines said.

Servicing these residential rooftops isn’t all that bad, said Hayes. “You just need a ladder for access.” In fact, service or replacement work is “a little bit easier than the splits,” he said.

“On splits, the air handlers are in the attic.”

Service on a packaged unit is also a little easier than a split “because it’s all in one spot.” Today’s diagnostic advances - the blinking lights and LED readouts on some systems, such as the company’s primary Maytag (Nordyne) brand - also facilitate system service. “It goes back to the thermostat and tells you what’s wrong with the system,” Hayes said, describing the Comfort Alert™ system from Emerson Climate Technologies.

Roofs in the Bakersfield, Calif., area tend to be flat, said Jeff Gaines, owner of Comfort Systems. “Any steep-pitched roof has a security platform, so tools, equipment, or bodies won’t go off the roof,” said service manager Sean Hayes. (Photo courtesy of Nordyne.)


One of the nice things about replacing an old residential rooftop unit with a newer model, Hayes said, is that today’s systems tend to weigh less than the models they are replacing. Conditions of the roof itself need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. “It depends on whether it’s an older building or house,” he said.

“In general, new units are about 100-150 pounds lighter,” though some brands are known to be heavier than others.

Roofs in the area tend to be flat. Commercial contractors would probably appreciate the fact that the highest roof this residential contractor has to deal with is approximately 16 feet off the ground, Hayes said. “Any steep-pitched roof has a security platform, so tools, equipment, or bodies won’t go off the roof.”

Summertime temperatures deserve respect when techs are doing service or replacement work on the roof. The company’s employees all wear hats and carry three-gallon containers of water in their trucks, Hayes said. “We want them to stay hydrated and keep cool.” The average temperature in summertime is 95° to 102°F, he said. Temps are higher on the roof, but probably not as high as they could be in an enclosed attic space.


According to Hayes and Gaines, efficiency is the major reason for consumers to replace their old packaged systems. “The majority of people are calling to upgrade their equipment to save money on their utility bills, and add more comfort to their homes,” Gaines said.

Some rebates are available through Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for duct sealing. In this area it’s mainly flex duct - and there are a lot of existing problems to fix.

“Most of the jobs were never strapped and secured,” Hayes said. Problems include separated ducts, collapsed liners, and the wrong size ductwork in general.

“Most of the time customers don’t even know about their ductwork problems,” Hayes said. For the repair of an existing ductwork system, PG&E offers up to a $350 rebate on duct sealing when it’s added to the installation of a 13 SEER unit, and up to $600 when combined with the installation of a 14 SEER system, based on the price of the duct repair itself.

“It just gives you better airflow and you’re not wasting money,” Hayes said.

“Our biggest impact is on return air duct conditions. They plug up with debris and they wind up rusting out drain pans because of all the sludge it’s creating.”


The company has an interesting marketing plan for its ser-vice contracts.

“We actually give one year of planned service to everybody who buys a new unit,” Gaines said. It includes two maintenance calls (one in fall and one in spring) to perform planned service on the equipment.

That one free year gives customers a taste of what scheduled service is like. After that, Gaines said, “they can sign up for three years at a time.”

After the free year, he said, approximately 80 percent sign up for a paid service contract. “We have a good repeat rate on the planned services.”

Service agreement customers get a discount on repairs, filters, etc. “We make about 2,000 to 2,500 planned service calls a year,” Gaines said.

The company has three service techs and six installers. All are NATE (North American Technician Excellence) certified, and are EPA certified for refrigerant handling.

The most important thing about performing quality rooftop work, Gaines said, is charging enough for it - and he doesn’t necessarily mean the refrigerant charge, although that is critical to the quality of the job.

As long as a contractor sizes everything right, Hayes said, the system will perform to the customers’ expectations.

“You won’t get the SEER out of your unit if the ductwork is undersized or oversized.”

Publication Date: 06/18/2007

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