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Three key quality-boosting activities have been gaining ground in the HVACR industry that not only improve overall quality and comfort, but can help control energy costs and achieve something contractors have been striving for, literally, for decades: improved consumer perceptions of their reliability.
We are talking about the quality initiative (QI) instituted by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA); the North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification program; and the emergence of energy audits within the contracting industry.
QUALITY INSTALLATIONACCA’s QI Specification, developed four years ago, is an ANSI-recognized standard that describes, in detail, the steps a contractor must observe to undertake a quality HVAC installation. The ANSI/ACCA 5 QI 2007 Standard (HVAC Quality Installation Specification) was written for use by contractors, equipment manufacturers, HVAC trainers, utilities, and building owners/operators.
Wes Davis, ACCA manager of technical services, gave the following update on how the specification is being used:
At the national level, the QI Standard has been adopted in the EnergyStar™ Quality Installation program (existing homes), 2008; in the EnergyStar Qualified New Homes program (2011 requirement for QI); in the USGBC LEED for Homes rating system (draft version pending public comment); and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE, a utility organization) is adopting it as a recommended requirement for its members with energy programs.
At the state level, the California Public Utility Commission has required its investor-owned utilities to undertake the QI Standard; the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is using the standard in a new commercial-focused HVAC initiative it is rolling out in November 2010.
Even more locally, some utilities and municipalities have incorporated the standard into their incentive programs.
“We have heard from contractors who are embracing it and using it to demonstrate one aspect of their unique selling proposition,” said Davis. “Contractors have found that the consumer checklists help them to sell the QI benefits and, if the customer seeks multiple bids, contractors are competing on a level playing field.”
Manufacturers have also begun to spread the word, he said. Some have required that portions of their dealer base perform HVAC system installations per ACCA 5 QI. Other companies, such as HVAC Learning Solutions, have initiated training programs based on the standard.
The association recently said it is launching a “Quality Assured” (QA) Contractor Recognition Program in 2011. The program for HVAC contractors is aimed at recognizing participants that follow requirements in the ANSI/ACCA 5 QI Standard.
Potential participants must satisfy four requirements:
1. Attend a 4-hour orientation course that overviews the EPA Energy Star® New Homes Program, as well as the QA Program.
2. Maintain licenses, insurance, and/or bonding as required by the federal, state, and municipal governments in which the business operates.
3. Maintain written policies, procedures, and practices stating how the contracting firm implements the QI standard, and how it ensures that it is followed in the field.
4. Install HVAC systems in Energy Star-intended new homes that pass third-party RESNET HERS Rater verifications.
“ACCA’s ANSI-recognized standards in HVAC system design and installation are the foundation for any reputable contracting company to provide indoor environmental systems that are efficient and comfortable,” said John Sedine, 2010-11 chairman. “The QA Program will offer quality contractors an opportunity to differentiate themselves as businesses that do the right thing by both their customers and our nation’s energy infrastructure.”
Contractors do not have to be association members to participate in the program. An orientation course will be held as a 4-hour preconference workshop on Feb. 15, in conjunction with the group’s 43rd Annual Conference and Indoor Air Expo in San Antonio, Texas. An online version will be available in early 2011.
NATE AND QINorth American Technician Excellence Inc. (NATE) is an independent, third-party, nonprofit certification body for HVACR technicians. It tests technicians and certifies the results. “I believe NATE enhances QI,” said NATE chairman Ray Isaac, president of Isaac Heating and A/C, Rochester, N.Y. The two programs are “keeping a high bar for contractors.”
QI is critical, he said, because “the biggest variable is the installation. The equipment is pretty good when it comes out of the factory. If you have NATE-certified technicians who understand the ‘why’ [they should do it], not just the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ it greatly enhances the delivery.”
Contractors use both programs to create brand differentiation and competitive advantage between themselves and less-qualified competitors; “not good competitors,” Isaac said. “Our good competition, they’re professionals.” Having NATE-certified technicians, “that’s grabbing the higher bar.”
QI and NATE support and enhance each other, Isaac said. “It’s the same science, same thinking.” The contractor has added energy audits as the third leg of its complete quality/sustainability offering.
ENERGY AUDITSDomenic DeLeo, Isaac Home Energy Performance manager, said the company has done about 600 audits since Sept. 2009, and has done another 250 jobs off of those audits (insulation, windows, mechanical).
“We’re looking at the house as a system,” not just the HVAC system, he said. “We find the improvements with the best paybacks and prioritize them. It’s a much quicker process, and the homeowners are involved with you during the audit.
“We actually welcome customer involvement,” he said. In fact, each audit begins with a Q&A session.
“A lot of times we’re re-educating them and changing their perceptions,” DeLeo said. The most common misperceptions have to do with air sealing. “A lot of people believe that if the house is well insulated, the heat is trapped. The blower door shows where it’s leaking.” The company also uses thermal imagers.
After taking the survey, the contractor performs a combustion analysis of the appliance zone. Then there is a visual inspection of the whole house, a blower door test, and the company gets a complete picture of the house. It leaves recommendations, puts data into a modeling program, and gives the customer a report. All jobs have to be certified through a third party.
In addition to the combustion analyzer, the company uses smoke pencils and performs a duct blaster test. “We charge for them, but we have offered them free to keep people working,” DeLeo said. “New York is actually paying some people to do free audits. If we can educate and give people options, it’s worth it.”
Using all three components, “callbacks have gone down,” he said. For Energy Star Home Performance, “part of the last step is having the auditor go back and re-audit. For the most part the issues are gone.” When there are callbacks, “a lot of times the callback isn’t equipment related; it’s customer related. We can go back and answer questions about the thermostat and the temperature rise on new furnaces.”
The point of it all, said Isaac, is “to deliver quality, consistently. Energy audits and the installation are a big part of that.” To get to an even higher level, he said, contractors need to have technicians NATE certified. “The ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ brought together by the ‘why.’
“So many contractors want to do the right thing,” he observed. “It’s their livelihood and they want to succeed.” Nonetheless, “You get a lot of lip service at first. Quality means you do the right thing, even though nobody will see.”
Publication date: 11/29/2010