Contractors Adjust to Heat, Energy, Efficiencies

September 25, 2006
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Installation speed is something many contractors may not have had this year. Thorough training can help minimize time spent at the jobsite. (Courtesy of Rheem.)
To say that this was an interesting cooling season would be a big understatement for some contractors. It was a trifecta of prolonged heat across the country, rising energy costs, and a new minimum efficiency for cooling systems that made some installations more complicated.

Now that we can take a bit of a breather, let's take a look at the numbers. In July alone, cooling degree days (relative measurements of outdoor air temperature used as an index for heating and cooling energy requirements) were up 21 percent over the average across the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the Department of Energy. That includes a 59 percent increase in the Pacific Northwest and a 46 percent increase in New England.

August only got worse. Those numbers haven't been released yet, but several areas of the country experienced sustained triple-digit heat. In addition, "The average retail price of electricity was up 11.3 percent year to date," reported EIA, mainly due to rising fuel prices.

It was a heck of a year to introduce a higher SEER product to the market. You might call it a motivating year. But it also had its frustrations.

Installation space limitations due to larger indoor coils have occurred on a regional basis. The type of housing stock determined whether or not contractors had to make special accommodations in order to ensure adequate airflow. Homes with basements have an advantage over those with air handlers installed in attics or closets. Closet installations offered the greatest challenges.

However, the combined heat and rising energy costs seem to have made these installation pills a little easier for customers to swallow.

IT'S AN ENERGY THING

"Due to the increased energy savings, most customers see the benefit in replacement with a good warranty," said David A. Van Westerhuyzen, Dave's Heating and Cooling, Long Beach, Calif. "We replace both indoor and outdoor coils to gain maximum efficiency."

It's not just California energy awareness. "We currently are finding a trend to replace instead of repair due in part to the rise in energy costs," said Jamie Gerdsen, Apollo Heating and Cooling, Cincinnati.

Customer awareness in general plays a big role in many of these replacements. "We explain to the customer that a new unit is more money, but the unit is 25 years old and may not last," said Richard Bergen, Aircond Installations, Brandon, Manitoba. "Why spend $500 now and $3,000 next year? Spend the $3,000 now!

"Most of the time we replace both indoor coil and condenser," he continued. "This makes a matched system. I explain that if we spend $900 to replace an indoor coil, and then the compressor quits, we have to replace the indoor coil again. It just doesn't make sense."

Energy savings that result from newer heating-cooling equipment has turned potentially negative sales situations into more welcome news. Increasing energy costs have helped many contractors ease new equipment sticker shock. (Courtesy of Nordyne.)

SPACE INVADERS

Space limitations due to attic or closet installations are one of the most regional aspects of the adjustment to higher-efficiency equipment. Many contractors have found creative solutions.

"We have had to move a wall on one occasion," said Raymond Wilson, Wilson's Refrigeration, Wyandotte, Okla. No homes in the area have basements.

"We try to locate equipment to minimize the modifications to the supply-side ductwork," said James Kester, Colonial Plumbing and Heating Co., Colonial Heights, Va. "Usually there is room for the coil to be placed in its original location. Airflow is critical for the new high-efficiency systems," he said. "We are spending more time evaluating the duct system before quoting equipment replacement."

"We have moved many closet units to the attic," said Wayne W. Mulholland of Tri County Mechanical, Azle and Fort Worth, Texas, "sometimes with a very tight space. Inspectors hate us for this. We also have a remodeling contractor to assist us." His company's ability to provide financing has helped many customers face these more-expensive installations.

"We have used extended duct systems and installed ductless splits to help with space limitations," said Bergen.

"We generally see height limitations," said Robin Hanson, Hanson's Plumbing and Heating, Perham, Minn. "We use N coils or modify the duct for an H coil."

"Often larger attic access must be installed," said David A. Van Westerhuyzen, Dave's Heating and Cooling, Long Beach, Calif.

"On outdoor units, often landscaping is changed to accommodate the larger outdoor equipment. By showing the owner the cost savings and the warranty on replacing old equipment, they generally agree that it is a value to change out older equipment."

"We are sending extra people to handle the large outdoor units," said Brian Harvey, H&C Inc., Laurel, Md. "We are disassembling air-handling units to get them into attics."

According to Eric Kjelshus, Eric Kjelshus Energy, Greenwood, Mo., "We split the coil from the air handler. An all-round pipe steel box holds both the coil and blower, UV light, humidifier, and air cleaner."

"I will walk away from the job" with extreme space limitations, said Alex Walter, Alex Walter Furnaces, A/C and More, Aurora, Colo. "The International Code Council should not permit the installation of mechanical equipment in trussed attics, crawl spaces, or any other confined space."

THAT BIG NEW COIL

The question of whether there would be ample room for new indoor coils leads into the question of whether or not contractors are replacing both the indoor and outdoor coils when they replace the outdoor unit. Reputable contractors say that they tell their customers about the importance of changing both coils.

"We have been changing both coils 99.5 percent of the time for the past 20 years," said Bob Forty, Energy Services Air Conditioning and Heating Co., Naperville, Ill. "It is not in the customer's best interest to do otherwise. We go into depth to prove this to them. We use some marketing pieces we created and one [the manufacturer] created at my request."

"Most of the people I speak with understand the advantage of replacing an old system," said Steve Russell, Shoemaker Air Conditioning, Tulsa, Okla. "I either replace the indoor coil, or if possible, install an expansion valve on an otherwise compatible coil."

"We are recommending to upgrade the whole system if the unit is eight years old or older," said Roger Fouche, Schaal Heating and Cooling Inc, Des Moines, Iowa. "Unless we can find an ARI match, [both coils] must be replaced."

"When I replace a furnace I always replace the evap coil with a new TXV if the system has a/c," said Alex Walter, of Alex Walter Furnaces, A/C and More, Aurora, Colo. "I try to convince the customer to replace the condenser if it is more than five years old."

Simply stated, "We do not put new wine in old bottles," said Aaron York Sr., Aaron York's Quality AC, Indianapolis.

Convincing the customer to change the indoor coil isn't always possible. "We have explained to the customer that they would not receive a true 13 SEER," said Butch Welsch, Welsch Heating and Cooling, St. Louis.

"But they did not want to spend the extra money for the indoor coil. We have them sign a waiver stating that they are aware that the new unit will not produce a true 13 SEER."

Still other contractors are finding more indoor coil space by also installing a newer, and smaller, furnace.

Finally, "Make sure the existing line set, if it can't be replaced, is very clean," emphasized Bergen.

"We have dealt with space concerns on a job-by-job basis," said Raymond Nalty, Environment Masters, Jackson, Miss. "We need to learn how to speed up the process."

Publication date: 09/25/2006

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