Consultants Discuss Variable-Speed Motors

April 9, 2007
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Newest Consultant Brian Leech

Furnaces with variable-speed blower motors are becoming more popular - no question about it.

The benefits include electrical efficiency because a variable-speed motor consumes less energy than a standard motor, meaning a more energy-efficient operation. A variable-speed motor can also improve IAQ by controlling constant air circulation and humidity levels.

Does that mean that consumers are beating down HVAC contractors’ doors with all kinds of questions about variable speed? And are HVAC contractors equipped to supply the necessary information if asked?

The NEWS wanted to know too. So we asked our consultants how much their customers and employees know about variable speed. Newest consultant Brian Leech, A. Leechman Heating & Cooling, noted that most of his customers probably don’t know about variable speed. “I would say that very few clients know what a variable-speed motor is,” he said. “Yet, 70 percent of the systems we install are variable speed. The client is educated on this during our sales presentation, and they are choosing the option. But I feel that if we asked them questions about variable speed a year after we installed it, they will have forgotten 90 percent of what we told them.”

The other newest consultant, Sonny Knobloch of Help! Air Conditioning & Heating, knows right off the bat if his customers have any knowledge of variable speed. “We ask the question in the sales process,” he said. “And most people have no idea what variable speed is.”

If you ask Russ Donnici, Mechanical Air Service Inc., he will say the HVAC trade is partly to blame for the lack of understanding of variable-speed technology.

“Most customers have no idea what variable speed is and how it can improve their comfort. I think it’s because our industry hasn’t done a good job educating them through print media, etc. The clients that do research on the Web have some knowledge about 50 percent of the time.”

Maybe consumers don’t know too much about variable speeds because the product is not something they can feel and touch. Simply put, it isn’t sexy enough.

“People seek out information on items of interest and excitement (e.g., cars, HDTV),” said Dave Dombrowski of Metro Services/ARS. “Furnaces are not exciting - they are a necessary commodity and people depend upon us to offer the correct comfort options for their home. We need to be proactive as an industry so that people recognize that you do not need to only replace a furnace or air conditioner when it breaks but to also upgrade these items to improve comfort and improve efficiency.”

Aaron York, Aaron York’s Quality A/C, said that it is definitely the responsibility of HVAC contractors to further educate an already educated consumer. “I believe most customers have an idea what variable speed means, but have no idea how it works or how it will benefit them,” he said. “The added costs of variable-speed equipment and the exorbitant price to repair them in the past has many contractors turned off on them, thus consumers have little opportunity to learn. These substantially higher prices scare contractors who then have a difficult time explaining to the consumer why the added price is a good value for them. But it is getting better.”

Another consultant agreed that HVAC contractors tend to shy away from explaining the benefits of variable speed because they think the installed cost may scare away customers. “I think most customers trust the contractor to know the products’ technology and capabilities and make the correct choice of unit for them,” said Larry Taylor of Air-Rite Air Conditioning Co. “But I think the problem comes from the contractors not knowing their products and being afraid of the cost to the customer and thus they dummy down the products and sell the lower-end products so they can continue to service them rather than getting the training and investing in the tools necessary to service them properly.”

EDUCATING CONSUMERS

How should contractors overcome any price objections and point out the benefits of variable-speed controls? It all comes down to the presentation.

“The first thing that is talked about is the electricity savings on the motor,” said Leech. “Next we talk about the ability to run the fan at a low cost to help circulate the air in the home, making it more comfortable.

“Indoor air quality is also a very large part of our business. The variable-speed motor is a great match when we install an IAQ treatment center on the HVAC system. We encourage variable speed for IAQ so that the cost to run the IAQ treatment system is lower with a variable-speed furnace or air handler.”

Knobloch points out quiet operation and energy efficiency, using the following script.

“Mr. Customer, I know how a motor that is starting and stopping all the time can bother people. These variable-speed motors are truly wonderful. They start slowly and quietly ramp up to full speed. A lot of our customers say they hardly hear them any more. During the summer, with a new thermostat, these motors can slow the airflow so the room air is better dehumidified.

“Mrs. Customer, another great benefit with this variable-speed motor is it consumes 75 percent less electricity than a standard motor. Also remember this motor runs with the air conditioning as well as with the furnace.”

Dombrowski said the primary benefit of variable-speed control is comfort - and he points that out to his customers. Here is part of his sales pitch:

“Remember that the best comfort system for the home is one that homeowners don’t even realize: operation. It’s difficult to ignore blasts of high-speed heat coming out of the registers. However, the salesman must review the quality of the duct system. A variable-speed furnace will actually increase infiltration through duct leakage since it will increase speed to compensate for duct problems. Without a properly sealed duct system (a selling opportunity) your operating cost will increase in variable speed over a standard blower.

“My recommendation is a two-stage furnace with a variable-speed blower either in the 80 or 90 percent series. There is excitement among brands in the control systems, which take advantage of these furnaces for improved humidity control and increased comfort and efficiency.”

York said it is important to point out all of the benefits of variable speed beyond the obvious. Many involve healthy IAQ. “Mold is less a problem when we have cleaner air, better humidity control, better air distribution, and constant air movement,” he said. “Carpeting will last longer and be in better condition because the fibers of the carpeting do not break off causing dust on furniture when the humidity is correct.”

TYING IT ALL TOGETHER

Dombrowski pointed out that the effectiveness of variable speed does not stand alone, it depends on factors such as the quality of a home’s ductwork. He noted, “There are two important issues to review in the sale and application of variable-speed furnaces. First, never sell a variable-speed furnace as a solution to poor ductwork. In many cases, you are aggravating the problem and will actually increase cost of operation.

“Second is the issue of humidity. Cold air moving more slowly over cold surfaces in high humidity areas (bathrooms, coastline, etc.) may condense and create mold/mildew on surfaces.”

Just because a homeowner is sold on the idea of a variable-speed furnace does not mean that all of their problems are resolved.

“I feel that the variable-speed motor is not an end-all solution to home comfort,” said Leech. “It is very important to have the proper duct system in the home. In many cases, if a variable speed is simply installed without looking at the complete system, you can make homeowner problems worse. So, all-in-all, it is not the plug-and-play answer.

“The entire system must be analyzed and set up properly. Understanding of the duct system and airflow is key to a successful variable-speed installation. As with all good technology, it can be ruined by poor installation. Training is critical.”

Training is key, according to Taylor. He thinks it is time the HVAC community turn its focus to keeping up with the best technology to serve its customers.

“The products of today and tomorrow will continue to evolve at a very rapid pace,” he said. “It will be the challenge of the contractor world to stay up. The manufacturers of these products will provide the training necessary for us to do so. Yet I am amazed at how many classes we sign up for that are cancelled due to lack of attendance by the contractors and their techs.

“If the manufacturers cannot get us to the training rooms then we need to shut up about the manufacturers getting into the HVAC service business and trying to sell extended warranties, etc. We are our own worst enemy and a lot of contractors will not face that enemy even when it looks them in the face every morning.”

Publication date: 04/09/2007

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