Everything You Wanted to Know About Quality Installations

November 30, 2009
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Stan Johnson

Do you or your customers have questions about the Quality Installation (QI) standard? Stan Johnson, president of Stan’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Austin, Texas, has answered some common questions. He is currently serving as the chair for the board of directors of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

Johnson was able to provide some historical background on the standard’s development, problems the standard seeks to resolve, and how the standard is being adopted across America.


Why was the ACCA QI Standard developed?

“In the late 1990s, ACCA came to the realization that merely having design manuals and guides was not enough,” said Johnson. “An effort was made to raise the bar for day-to-day HVAC installations. The resulting QI Standard defines minimum performance tolerances for professional practitioners to observe. We saw this as a significant market opportunity for improving the quality of HVAC equipment installations.

“This also involves raising the awareness of consumers (residential homeowners, and commercial building owners and operators) about the benefits provided by using professional contractors that follow industry-recognized quality installation practices (e.g., correct system design, proper equipment installation, duct testing, and documentation/education).”

What sort of problem does the QI Standard expose?

“Actually, there are a few problems that the QI Standard exposes: peak season demands, consumer expectations, and the typical market response.

“Today,” he said, “approximately 75-85 percent of the unitary shipments for the residential and light commercial HVAC markets are replacements of older systems, most of which failed suddenly.” Many failures occur during peak periods (winter for furnaces and summer for air conditioners).

“Consumers demand a level of urgency that cannot be fully met by normal contractor staffing levels,” Johnson said. “This issue is compounded by a shortage of qualified technicians, especially experienced during seasonal crunch times.

“The QI standard establishes the minimum requirements, so professional contractors can educate their customers on the amount of work required for a quality installation.”

Exacerbating the seasonal peak replacement demand, he said, is the fact that few consumers are prepared for such emergencies. “This results in a financial crisis in which the first cost of equipment is considered more important than full life- cycle costs. The consumer’s failure to link comfort and operating cost with substandard design and installation can be tied to the industry’s general lack of performance in raising awareness.

“The QI Standard provides an objective set of performance criteria from a nationally recognized document to demonstrate to the consumer the level of detail involved in a system installation.”

Due to poor understanding by building owners/operators of the value that professional contractors and quality installations offer, he continued, “there is a consumer market for an unlicensed, or poorly trained, or other- wise unqualified individual or business to install HVAC systems. Unlicensed, unskilled, or noncaring contractors are inclined to cut corners and offer prices with performance promises that are difficult for professional, qualified contractors to match.

“Uninformed consumers are left to experience the inevitable inconveniences and expenses of a poorly designed and poorly functioning HVAC system,” Johnson said. “Manufacturers experience higher warranty costs, and utilities face escalating demand for power. Additionally, many of these under-qualified, nonprofessional contractors often provide valueless warranties, have little or no insurance, and create poor perceptions of the industry in the consumers’ eyes.” The QI Standard, he said, exposes these sub-par practices and provides alternatives from HVAC industry stakeholders.

How did the industry devolve to such a low position?

“Over the past several decades, contractors interpreted a customer’s questioning of ‘Is this your best price?’ as a call to cut corners and cheapen the system or its installation. Initially, contractors saw their response to the pricing concerns as a way to help their customers.

“Today, this mentality has become business as usual and we have lost sight of the HVAC system’s importance to address customer needs. In reality, most customers don’t want a cheap system at a cheap price. Rather, they want assurance that they are getting a quality system for a fair price - they want value for money invested. Contractors who sell on the value proposition are providing the heating and cooling systems that customers want.”

How does the QI Standard address this problem?

“The QI Standard establishes the requirements for what the consumer needs,” said Johnson. “The consumer always expected proper HVAC system design, installation, testing, and documentation. When consumers are educated, they will better understand the value of engineering and hard work required by their HVAC contractor. This understanding will also help position consumers to consider the complete value-to-cost equation, not merely the first price, when making HVAC equipment purchasing decisions.

“Customers who select contractors that promote high-performance HVAC equipment - and their proper installation - enjoy enhanced comfort, reduced energy usage, improved productivity, and greater safety.”

How much does a QI HVAC system cost over a typical installation?

“Informal polling among varied HVAC contractors have indicated that implementing QI to their practice either added no additional costs or cost increases of almost 40 percent. Those that saw no price increase were already charging enough to install everything right. Some contractors had to raise prices for parts of the QI that were missing: load calculations, air balancing, duct sealing, etc.

“However, the increased value to the consumer - resulting from improved energy efficiency, even heating and cooling, reduced exposure to allergens, improved equipment reliability, longer equipment life, etc. - was expected to far exceed the added upfront price. In addition to the tangible elements in this specification, there were also intangible societal benefits in the form of reduced power grid energy demand that aids in reducing pollution and dependence on foreign oil.”

How is the QI Standard being adopted?

Currently it is being broadly adopted to promote industry professionalism, Johnson said.

“Energy Star® created a QI program because studies show that more than half of all air conditioners in homes were not operating at their rated efficiency because of improper installation practices. The Energy Star QI Program participants are using the ACCA 5 QI Standard in areas as diverse as New England, Texas, and California, to ensure that HVAC systems are properly installed.” He pointed out the following:

• The U.S. Department of Energy has adopted the ACCA 5 QI Standard in its Builders Challenge program. Their recommendation that builders comply with the ACCA 5 QI speaks to the need for proper equipment installations.

• The National Association of Home Builders - Research Center cited the ACCA 5 QI Standard in their document Four Scopes of Work for High Performance Homes.

• The QI Standard is being considered for adoption in the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code. Some code enforcement officials in different jurisdictions have already adopted its tenets or recommend their inclusion in the scope of work, Johnson said.

“These are examples of what is happening at the national level,” he said. “The real news is the transformation that is happening in the marketplace. Professional HVAC contractors are delivering HVAC systems that will save their customers money, improve comfort, and promote proper equipment lifecycle.”

How does a contractor use the ACCA 5 QI?

Contractors can download a free PDF version of the standard at www.acca.org/quality. “Then they can begin requiring their employees to meet the requirements,” said Johnson. “Salespeople will need to ensure that the proper equipment was selected based on the home’s heating and cooling requirements. Installers or start-up technicians need to ensure they install, measure, and document the results on the installed system.”

Professional contractors can also use the new QI Verification Protocols (QIvp). According to Johnson, “This new standard details the requirements, roles, and obligations for the participants in an organized effort which ensures that HVAC installations comply with the ACCA 5 QI Standard.” A Quality Contractor using the QIvp Standard has a lot of his work already done for him:

• What he or she should check.

• How often he or she should check.

• How to adjust the number of jobs that are sampled or verified.

• What to do if an installation fails.

“Let me wrap this up by saying that our industry had wandered too far astray from accepted industry practices,” said Johnson. “Some contractors have cut so many corners that all homes get the same ‘round’ treatment. The QI Standard provides objective and achievable requirements for an HVAC system.

“As an industry, we should seek to raise the level of professionalism. The QI Standard is a free standard that provides a simple and effective way to do just that.”

Publication date: 11/30/2009

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