East / Regional Reports

Hvac With a New England Flair on 'This Old House'

January 9, 2001
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WAKEFIELD, MA — Imagine that you’re walking through the grocery store with your spouse and you suddenly see a customer whose system you’ve installed, but you know there are potential problems. Which aisle do you hide in?

John Ambrosino, owner and president of Total Temperature Control here, says he has done everything in his power to keep such nightmarish situations from happening to him or his techs.

“Ten years ago, when I started the business, I wanted to see customers without having to hide or duck out,” he says. “You run into people at various places. At my daughter’s concert, I came across several customers.” The event turned into a terrific word-of-mouth opportunity instead of the uncomfortable situation it could have been.

Ambrosino himself is cognizant of the sense of pride good technicians want to feel in their work. After all, when he started out in hvac in 1980, he was a technician. Later he became a service manager, a post he held for 10 years; and for the last 10 years he’s been running his own business, paying great attention to technical details and customer education.

“What’s interesting is that with a service background, I can help the guys,” he says. “We do a lot of design-build with engineering and practical adaptations. Some plan-and-spec I turn down, because it won’t work,” he says, adding that “some engineers will change their designs” once he’s pointed out practical problems.

“We do all our own design-build. Then I feel I can stand behind it.”

The quality is paying off. Ambrosino expected his 60% commercial, 40% residential company to break $2 million in 2000. The lines it carries include A.O. Smith, Trane, Carrier, York, and Amana.

And in a public relations coup, Total Temperature Control was chosen to install the hvac for Public Television’s This Old House televised Charlestown project in the Boston area. Details of the hvac installation were also featured in the November 2000 issue of This Old House (TOH) magazine.



Cooling a 135-Year-Old Home

This is one of the first TOH projects where the homeowner, Dan Beliveau, knows something about hvac. In fact, his familiarity with gas forced-air systems is one of the main reasons they are going with this type of system instead of a hydronic system, which was originally in the two-story home. Moreover, like many commercial and residential building owners in New England, he is switching from an oil-fired to a gas-fired system for reasons of economy.

Ambrosino was told to install the type of system he would put into his own home. The contractor’s creativity took it from there.

The system uses two furnaces and two air conditioners. A 55,000-Btu furnace and 2-ton air conditioner serve a downstairs rental unit, and a variable-speed, two-stage, 96,000-Btu furnace and 4-ton air conditioner are for the owners’ 2,000-sq-ft apartment on the second floor. The a/c units are rated at 16 SEER, and the furnaces at 90%-plus AFUE.

According to Ambrosino, he worked with Aprilaire and York to design a relay to zone the massive upstairs system. “You need three zones to call [for heating or cooling] for the system to go into second stage,” Ambrosino explains. “Both manufacturers said it would work. It creates a control bypass.”

This project has “so many stages of zoning,” he says. “It’s very efficient, very comfortable.”

In the first stage of cooling, a 2-ton fan and 2-ton condenser come on. In this stage, the unit runs at half speed. In second stage, the 4-ton fan and 4-ton condenser are used. The first stage offers “decent dehumidification,” Ambrosino says. In all, the system offers superior comfort and cost savings.

Of course, since the home originally had a hydronic system (an old oil-fired boiler had to be dismantled and removed from the basement), ductwork was a bit tricky.

But these are problems Ambrosino is familiar with. Total Temperature Control does a lot of work in historic Boston. “It’s important to keep the charm of old homes and buildings while introducing air conditioning.”



Ductwork and Aesthetics

In old homes with no previous duct runs, “We know where ductwork can be run through different soffits and dead areas. Homes are architecturally beautiful, but you’re allowed to use soffits and closet spaces.

“We specialize in that kind of ductwork,” he adds. “You try for a conventional installation first. We plot it out and look at everything around us. Then you try to shoot for it so you don’t need to hide or decorate it [grilles and outlets].” The company sometimes uses “Revival” grilles, which look like those you would have seen in the 1920s or 30s. “Sometimes we cut linears in molding, or take wood panels out. In this area, there’s millions of dollars spent on these homes.”

For the downstairs duct installation, “Most everything for the first floor goes into the basement ceiling joists, and we’re running the lines for the basement bedrooms in the new stud walls” says homeowner Beliveau. “It’s very similar to new construction.”

It was in the upstairs, however, that duct had to be carefully fitted in. Ambrosino and his crew made sure it was carefully insulated to keep leaks to a minimum. Flex duct was also snaked down from the attic crawl space.

The Back Bay Commission, established to maintain the look of the community, is one board that contractors in historic Boston need to be familiar with. “The interior treatment is not as strict as the exterior, where outdoor units and condensing units must be concealed,” Ambrosino says.

The TOH Charlestown project, however, includes one condensing unit set on the center of the roof, out of sight. This is a bit out of the ordinary for an historic project here; usually rooftop installations are a major no-no. The other condensing unit is in the backyard, underneath a stairway.



Good Treatment for Customers and Techs

Ambrosino says he takes time to educate customers so they know what their options are and can make a well-informed choice. He can’t understand why “A lot of contractors think that by providing less-expensive comfort, they’re providing a service.

“A lot of people aren’t educated, so they think that the lowest price is best for them. It’s up to us to explain to our customers what is available. Just by educating customers, I have not sold a 10-SEER unit or non-variable-speed unit in over two years.”

Callbacks are a part of any contractor’s life, but Ambrosino asserts that they can work to your advantage if you “handle these on a fast basis. That’s a customer for life. There’s no company in the world that doesn’t have a return visit,” Ambrosino says. “It’s how you handle it that counts with the customer.”

Interestingly, Total Temperature Control does not offer service contracts. “We have a will-call service,” Ambrosino says. “We’ll make notes to call customers with service and maintenance reminders, at the customer’s request.”

Overall, Boston-area hvac is in decent shape at the beginning of the millennium. “There are a lot of contractors, a good economy, and heavy workloads,” he says. Getting qualified help is the biggest challenge.

Ambrosino contends that techs aren’t necessarily looking for the highest pay, but a good quality of life with proper time off. However, “We keep everybody paid at a level they deserve. They’re well rewarded.” Still, he is sensitive to offering a good work environment for them.

“One tech lost his furnace; a section of our company went out and installed one for the guy. He couldn’t pay for it all at once, so we take a little out of the check every week.”

And quality-minded, prideful techs will appreciate it when Ambrosino says, “I have never conceded to doing a job in any way but the best way. The first question isn’t ‘How long did it take you’; it’s ‘How did it come out?’ At the end of the day, the guys call each other to see if anyone needs help. No one’s left in trouble.”

At some places, techs with more experience “try to hide what they know” — the tricks of the trade, “old Indian tricks,” Ambrosino calls them. So when hiring, “You pick individuals who have pride in their work,” and who also will share their knowledge with others. In hiring, as in designing and buying, “Value isn’t the lowest price.”

This report provides information for contractors living in the New England region of the United States. This includes Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. If you have information from this region, please contact Barb Checket-Hanks at 313-368-5856; 313-368-5857 (fax); or checket-hanksb@bnp.com (e-mail).

Publication date: 01/15/2001

Web date: 06/18/2001

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