Duct Cleaning Helps Firm Weather the Storm

May 22, 2006
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HVAC contractor Jack Spinale had to safeguard his company, Coastal Air, Heat & Refrigeration, when one of its major contractors hit a rough patch. One of his steps was to take on a new yet related business: duct cleaning.
QUINCY, Mass. - The ups and downs of commercial HVAC subcontracting are affected by many things, but perhaps none so much as the stability of the contractor that a subcontractor is working with. Jack Spinale, owner of Coastal Air, Heat & Refrigeration, had this lesson reinforced about a year and a half ago. That's when one of his company's major contractors hit some rough waters, and the ripple affect hit Coastal Air.

When the business boat is rocked, owners, like sea captains, need to take steps to make sure they don't capsize. One of Spinale's steps was to take on a new yet related business: duct cleaning.

Coastal Air isn't a huge business, and its work is divided about 50-50 between light commercial (20 tons and less) and residential work, a mix of service and installation. It has been in business for about 17 years, and brings in about $2 million annually.

RIDING THE STORM OUT

"About a year and a half ago, one of our major contractors lost their [national] accounts, and we lost a lot of service and installation through them," Spinale recalled. "We used to cover four states at the time for those commercial accounts," providing air conditioning and heating, installation, service work, and maintenance contracts.

The contractor would sell national account contracts; but when they lost a major account, it created a ripple effect. "That put myself, as well as many contractors around the country, into a slump," Spinale said.

During the course of that following year, "we got enough cash flow and work still going that we kept about 90 percent of our personnel working," he continued. Soon after, however, he realized the pace was slowing down. The company had to cut back on staff. It now has four techs and four installers, down from 10, and a sheet metal department of four, down from 12. And it increased the workload.

"I got back into more of the residential market. The demand was always there, but I never went after it." The company now works with 15 to 20 quality, paying builders on the installation side.

It wasn't a stretch for the staff. "Of the two markets, residential and commercial, everybody starts at the residential level," he said. "When we lost the commercial, we could drop back down into residential." The company installs complete systems, including sheet metal ductwork.

MORE BALLAST

While he was looking at ways to stabilize the company's workload with residential and commercial service, he saw an ad for duct-cleaning products. "I read up on it, did some research on it, and felt that there was an untapped market in our area for professional duct cleaning," Spinale said. "The companies we knew of that were doing it were using vacuum cleaners that you get out of a store. They were doing the grilles, maybe the front part of the duct supply that people could see."

The company he primarily researched, Rotobrush, had a package that included video cameras, which impressed Spinale. "It allows salespeople to go into a home or commercial business and send a video camera on wheels inside the ductwork. Then they show the customers the video.

"There's no selling to worry about when people see what's in their ductwork," he said. "You find heavy clumps of dirt, bugs, bird seeds, animal droppings, mold, and more."

The company purchased its duct-cleaning equipment last November. "I sent myself and personnel for training in Texas," Spinale said. "We have already started doing the work; we put a big commercial listing out there. We knock out one or two duct cleanings per week."

The cleaning product uses a brush and heavy-duty vacuum mounted on a roller cart, with large-diameter rear wheels and lockable front casters. After performing a cleaning, the company sprays a fogger into the ductwork that helps kill bacteria. "It gives it a good scent as well," Spinale said.

PICKING UP SPEED

Customers respond to the video images, he said. "We had one customer whose child was born six weeks prematurely. They wanted to see if there was stuff inside the duct that could affect the child," whose immune system was still developing. They opted for the duct cleaning. "My own wife made me do the job on our own house."

In addition to improved IAQ, Spinale said there are noticeable efficiency improvements in the system. "I saw that it would open up the market I'm already in," he said. "While I'm in there, I can find that their equipment isn't working properly. I can sell them a maintenance contract with duct cleaning and preventive maintenance.

"It's not just duct cleaning, but one feeds the other," he said. "We can wind up changing some of the supply runs, they're so dirty." Repairs to the duct system and system airflow are a natural progression. "You have to go in there with a set of honesty values and really take care of the customers. Because we are so pleased with the manufacturer's equipment and support, we are starting a new division and expect to expand it with trucks and personnel this year."

Spinale continued: "Our major contractor is going to be coming back this summer. It was a good company and it still is. Because of their maintenance contracts, it kept our people busy in the off season."

"It does look good for 2006. If anything, we need to find more good personnel for all three divisions: Service, Installations, and Indoor Air Quality Duct Cleaning."

Visit www.coastalahr.com. For additional information on duct cleaning equipment, visit www.rotobrush.com.

Publication date: 05/22/2006

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