On Global Warming and Mechanical Contractors

June 21, 2010
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A past issue of The NEWS contained a blog by Angela Harris on global warming. Her frustration after a solid week of snowfall, shoveling, and bitter cold had led her to ponder the validity of global warming. She also discussed the likelihood of the opposite being true - that we are actually going through a global cooling cycle - and finished by welcoming responses from readers.

I have written a number of articles on global warming over the years and spent countless hours researching the subject. For a time, when I read an article or listened to a commentator questioning its validity, I became enormously frustrated. I saw them writing off global warming as an abstract concept with little or no explanation other than they didn’t believe in its existence. Many treated it like a conspiracy designed by deranged environmentalists for the purpose of denying them their inalienable right to consume as much energy as they could afford, whenever they so desired, and that bothered me.

Eventually, though, I grew tired of complaining about other people’s complaints and stepped back a few paces to consider the terrain. The world, I decided, is not broken down into two groups, those who believe in global warming and those who do not. Rather, there is a third, much larger group comprised of people who have heard about global warming and are not really concerned about it. They have far more pressing issues to deal with, not the least of which is struggling for survival during this recession.

Furthermore, despite their differing opinions on global warming, the three groups have one thing in common: All of the people, even the most wealthy, are concerned with reducing the amount of money they spend on energy. Therefore, it stands to reason that if they were shown a cost-effective way to conserve energy, many of them would partake in the opportunity. In doing so, as a side benefit, they would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without added cost or effort.

So I stopped arguing and simply went about my business, which is promoting energy conservation. As a consultant who frequently audits existing facilities to unearth energy conservation opportunities, I marvel at how many standard-efficiency (translated: inefficient) HVACR systems are still being installed.

Where I live in New England, energy costs are high and utility company rebate incentives are generous. It is difficult to comprehend why a well-informed customer would opt for an inefficient system, especially considering that the added cost for a premium system is largely covered by utility company rebates.

Yet this continues to occur because many customers are not well informed about cooling-related energy conservation opportunities or the rebates offered by utility companies to cover these costs. They may know of the existence of high-efficiency HVAC systems, setback thermostats, energy management systems, and other such technologies. They may even know that rebates are available, but they have no idea how to obtain these rebates, or how much of the added cost the rebates will cover.

These people also may not know how much they spend each month to run their cooling systems, nor are they aware of the annual savings to be had by implementing energy conservation measures. Therefore, they have no way of calculating the payback of a high-efficiency system and judging whether it is a worthwhile investment.

Even when projects call for high-efficiency systems to be installed, owners often end up with standard-efficiency systems. This can happen because the owner is more concerned with first cost than efficiency, or because the contractor is able to convince him to accept the lesser system. Either way, the owner may not be making an informed decision.

When properly approached, most customers are at least interested in energy conservation. More accurately, they are interested in reducing their energy costs and understand they can accomplish this through energy conservation. Their question typically is, at what cost?

Most of these customers know very little about cooling-related energy conservation and need help to understand it. Mechanical contractors would be perfect for this educational task. An arrangement where the contractor informs and educates the customer about options for energy conservation would benefit both parties’ businesses. The contractor would benefit from increased revenues. The customer would benefit by having the same firm handle its maintenance and its system upgrade.

In the course of my energy conservation work, I have come in contact with a great many mechanical contractors, but very few have offered energy conservation services other than through traditional maintenance. There are a number of perfectly rational reasons why most contractors stay away from energy conservation.

For one, there is a perceived lack of demand on the part of their customers for cooling-related energy conservation services. While many customers do practice energy conservation, their efforts are largely directed at lighting, motors, and manufacturing processes. Cooling systems are mostly an afterthought.

Second, predicting the energy use of an existing system, and the savings to be had from upgrading it, can be a difficult task unless you are experienced at it. Acquiring this skill is often perceived as not being worth the cost.

Last, interfacing with utility companies for the purpose of obtaining rebates can also be a trying task. Frequently, some level of engineering expertise is required to provide the utility with the necessary engineering calculations and formulas. If the contractor is not equipped to meet the utility’s requirements, the rebate application may be refused.

Despite these barriers, providing cooling-related energy conservation services can be quite profitable. In addition to elevating your customers’ opinion of your capabilities, it can place you in a far less competitive field where your expertise is greatly valued.

Furthermore, you will be helping your customers to obtain a far better system, which will reduce their energy consumption, and most importantly to them, lower their energy expenditures. As a side benefit, you will be reducing green house gas emissions, and may just be helping to head off global warming, even if you consider that a silly exercise.

Publication date: 06/21/2010

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