Adjusting To 13-SEER Equipment

September 23, 2004
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Contractors are starting to look at the reality of selling and installing 13-SEER equipment in advance of the 2006 regulatory deadline. They may want to advise some customers to make retrofits now using lower-SEER units because of their reduced space demands compared to 13-SEER and higher equipment, said Glenn Hourahan, vice president of research and technology, Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

"Certain factors of the new equipment mean that many homeowners should make decisions about replacements and upgrades now," warned ACCA recently.

If space for the indoor coil and outdoor condensing unit is tight, contractors might want to consider less-than-13-SEER gear, Hourahan advised in a recent edition of ACCA Insider.

The 13-SEER requirement will not only create a 30-percent increase in equipment efficiency, but "also dramatically increase the size" of those components, Hourahan said. The inlet opening for the new coil box will probably be larger than an existing furnace or air handler opening.

Smooth duct transitions also need to be considered. These types of issues will add to job costs, Hourahan said, and space may still be inadequate.

"As a partial solution, contractors should encourage customers who have old equipment in space-constrained applications to replace that equipment before 2006," he stated. At least, "let the customer know as soon as possible of the implications for his residence and equipment" as the 13 SEER deadline approaches.

More Practical Concerns

New coil configurations and control strategies, such as fan delays and higher evaporator temperatures, "are likely to be employed to tweak out a bit more SEER," Hourahan continued. However, moisture removal may suffer.

More fins in tighter rows may make it more difficult for condensate to fall into the pan, he explained, and with constant fan operation, water condensed on the evaporator coil may be re-evaporated into the airstream.

"In reaching higher SEERs, contractors must be sure that the selected equipment has adequate latent and sensible capabilities for full-load and part-load operation," Hourahan advised.

The fact that there is the absence of an intermediate step in current equipment choices also concerns contractors. Jeff Laski, S&M Heating Sales Co., Southfield, Mich., is one such contractor. He has gone heavily toward R-410A in his product lines, mostly upgrading customers to 12 SEER.

"Now I feel guilty; here they're paying money for this upgrade - unless they want to go to 15 SEER, which is the next step up with that refrigerant - but both manufacturers swear that by 2006 those [12-SEER] units will be a 13, whatever they have to do to it. But here I am, upselling this expensive 410-A equipment at 12 SEER and it's not even going to meet the standards in two years.

"Right now I don't have a true 13-SEER, R-410A unit to sell them. And usually that includes a two-speed compressor, and you're getting into a whole new ballgame," he added, noting that the only 13-SEER unit he can buy from his manufacturers doesn't have R-410A.

Laski's firm does primarily new construction, especially large custom homes.

"I hate to install less-than-13-SEER equipment in these $3 million and $4 million homes, but it's hard to convince them now to do it," he said. "I think they want to wait until then and figure the price will come down."

There is no money to be made now in 10-SEER equipment, Laski pointed out. "In 13 SEER, there's some money to be made, but it's hard to convince buyers now. And then when it's 2006, you won't be able to make money in that market either because it's going to be the new standard."

Some Solutions

Richard Bragg, owner of Bragg Heating Co., Aiken, S.C., featured Amana 14-SEER air conditioners and heat pumps in a recent newspaper ad, and acknowledges he's competing with other contractors selling 12s at the present time.

However, "I have no problem selling the better efficiencies if I can talk to the homeowner," Bragg said. Added incentives mentioned in his ad for the higher efficiency were a lifetime compressor warranty and 10-year parts warranty.

In the Charlotte, N.C. market, Stuart Milner, president of Milner Airco Inc., said the 2006 deadline may narrow the selling spectrum between "basic" and "better" equipment, but the 13-SEER minimum "will make it easier to sell up." His company does only service and replacement work.

The 13-and-higher-SEER units are currently faring well, he said. Milner has found that a Trane 12-SEER unit achieves 13 SEER when applied with a variable-speed option, particularly in heat pumps, "so that's a very good value."

He predicted that manufacturers will make "builder 13" models to serve the price-driven segment of the market.

A similar improvement in SEER ratings is mentioned for equipment shown on the Maytag Web site. For instance, the Model PSA1BD 13- or 14-SEER air conditioner achieves the 14-SEER rating by employing a Maytag variable-speed indoor unit, says the manufacturer.

The company also recommends replacing the indoor coil with a matched coil. The company says its "Dependability Promise" applies only when both the outdoor air conditioner and indoor coils are installed.

Donald Cassel, owner of Cassel Air Conditioning in Sacramento, Calif., has also found that one can boost a 12-SEER unit to higher effective efficiency by employing a higher-efficiency coil. However, "generally when I'm going into high efficiency, I'm choosing a 14-SEER unit," he said.

Training Helps

Cassel also credited manufacturer-sponsored courses for helping him sell 13-SEER equipment well in advance of the 2006 deadline. He has gone to several courses presented by American Standard's distributor. In fact, when The News contacted him, Cassel had just returned from a one-day presentation on a new, 13-SEER Coleman offering.

Many contractors interviewed for this series of articles have undergone training and some degree of equipment upgrade or additions because of the increasingly prevalent use of R-410A.

"All of our installers have gone to school to handle the new refrigerant, carry it on their trucks, and charge it properly," said Jerry Johnson, sales manager for retrofit residential at Wycoff Industries, Des Moines. "We've had to buy special gauges, recovery machines, and recovery tanks. There's already been a significant cost there."

Next installment: Distributors and wholesalers prepare for the 13 SEER deadline with stocking plans and more training for their contractor customers.

Norland is a freelance writer from Langley, S.C. He can be reached at JimNorland@aol.com.

Sidebar: Don't Focus On The Numbers

The advent of higher SEER ratings suggests focusing on more than numbers, said Tom Huntington, president of York International Corp.'s Unitary Products Group, Norman, Okla.

In a position paper on the 13-SEER standard, Huntington said, in part: "As an industry, we have spent far too much time and effort debating and worrying about mandated efficiency standards and ‘selling on SEER.' Meanwhile, consumers are telling us they are not only concerned about efficiency but also the environment, about indoor air quality, and about the comfort and peace of mind our industry's products and services can provide. These trends are most telling in the growth of the residential replacement market and the success of many of today's progressive dealers.

"It's a real opportunity for growth and profitability. The key is to not allow a minimum-efficiency standard to translate as the maximum value we offer the end consumer. That approach will relegate central heating and cooling systems to the status of commodity products. The winning approach for contractors is to raise the entire value proposition for premium home HVAC appliances and services, recognizing that energy efficiency is simply one necessary element of the complete retail package.

"No question, the 13 SEER standard poses challenges for contractors who are following the traditional sales approach, where the good-better-best story is 10, 12, and 14 SEER. Contractors have focused on ROI [return on investment] at the various SEER levels, encouraged by manufacturers who provided hip-pocket tools for payback calculations.

"Now, as the minimum SEER is raised, we arrive at a technical and marketing crossroads. Unit cost will increase exponentially for equipment above 13 SEER (for example, two-stage compressor capability is needed above 14 SEER). This deflates the traditional ROI/payback sales pitch, as fewer homeowners will secure significant payback on energy efficiency.

"So, in this new era, we either commoditize the product (as advocated by some of the early 13-SEER proponents) or we learn to sell prescriptive solutions to IAQ and comfort. Many contractors are not prepared for this because they have been so tightly focused on efficiency."

- Jim Norland

Publication date: 09/27/2004

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