ACHRNEWS

Believers Say Zoning Is Catching On

May 21, 2007
Kent Lursen of Sedgwick Heating and Air Conditioning Co. selects a branch run to zone and applies an adhesive template. “Without changing all your ductwork around, now it’s possible to zone a house that really wasn’t ‘zoneable’ in the past,” he said.

It all depends upon whom you talk to, but many industry insiders believe zoning is catching on with contractors across the country. At the same time, dealers who are building their businesses with zoning are enjoying the higher profit margins that can come along with it.

Having said all that, some new homes are still being built and sold with major comfort problems.

A recent study from American Home Comfort showed that just 36 percent of new homeowners were offered zoning as an add-on option. But when homeowners were offered zoning, almost 50 percent purchased a zoning system.

Zoning, of course, is hardly new. The concept of zoning with multiple HVAC systems has been around for more than 40 years, while forced-air zoning comfort control systems using motorized dampers in the home’s ductwork came on the market more than 20 years ago.

“Working together with the new construction industry, contractors can effectively address the comfort issues out there with zoning,” suggested Brad Paine, Honeywell’s senior zoning product manager. “A common complaint from new homeowners after one year of living in a new home is uneven temperature in the house. There is a huge opportunity for contractors to help builders and homeowners fix their comfort problems.”

According to Honeywell, market acceptance of zoning systems has continued to grow in the past 10 years, more than doubling in the last four years.

HOW IT WORKS

A forced-air zone comfort control system has a zone control panel and zone dampers inserted into the ductwork that enable two or more thermostats to be placed throughout the home. Compared to systems that employ multiple heating and air conditioning units to establish temperature zones, Paine believes a zoning system allows for more control and comfort. In his estimation, new technology-based features today - and this includes three-wire thermostats, wireless thermo- stats, advanced setup displays, simplified damper installations, and the ability to work with all types of equipment - have made zoning more economical for homeowners.

“Some of our most successful contractors and builders regularly ask homeowners if their car has zoning, why their home couldn’t also benefit from zoning?” said Dan Joyce, Honeywell’s director of trade channel marketing. “Homeowners want to be comfortable. And contractors can - and do - make a lot of money selling zoning to solve those comfort problems.”

Mike Nelson, owner of Heartland Heating and Cooling in Iowa, has grown his business with zoning and regularly installs zoning solutions in the Des Moines area.

“Homeowners may not specifically ask me for zoning, but when they say they have hot and cold spots, they are really asking for zoning,” said Nelson. “In the Midwest, we see a lot of walk-out basements, and homeowners complain that the temperature down there is about 10 degrees different. I always suggest zoning, since it’s really the only way to solve the problem.”

In Paine’s estimation, a contractor offering zoning to customers - even when they don’t ask - differentiates that contractor from the competition by providing the solution to their comfort problem.

“It’s just good business - if they take it, you make money,” said Paine. “If they don’t take it, you can always remind them it was offered in the future if they happen to call back.”

According to Honeywell, the added time and cost associated with installing multiple heating and/or cooling systems can take away from a contractor’s profits. According to Honeywell’s research, by installing a zoning system, a contractor can help save approximately $1,800 per home. Jobs with zoning install faster, too, with as much as one-third fewer installation hours, said Honeywell.

ENERGY SAVINGS

According to those experienced in zoning, it is particularly useful to customers who want to make better use of a bonus room above a garage or basement, those who do a lot of entertaining or spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and those who have a home office.

It also can benefit those who prefer to sleep at a cooler temperature while other family members remain active or who occasionally make use of a hobby or play room in a remote part of the house. Several Southern states, for instance, have also enforced codes requiring no more than a 4°F temperature difference throughout the house - an obvious application for zoning, said Paine.

“A common trend in new construction is using zoning instead of two separate HVAC systems,” said Paine.

“With the slowdown in new construction, one way to reduce cost without sacrificing quality or comfort is zoning. There are many benefits including lower installed cost, less maintenance over time, the ability to install IAQ upgrades on one system instead of two, and zoning requires less usage of that valuable floor plan space and outdoor space.”

With zoning, Paine said homeowners have more control over temperatures throughout their home and access to conveniently located thermostats. The systems generally pay for themselves through energy savings, he said.

When used with programmable thermostats, Paine said zoned control systems could reduce energy costs 25-30 percent when compared to central, nonsetback systems.

In his service area, Nelson said customers are more concerned than ever about energy costs.

“What better way to save energy than to use zoning?” he asked.

“Comfort and energy savings are my key selling points for zoning systems, especially in the summer. People don’t get too nervous when they’re cold, but they get real shook up when they’re hot. That’s when they usually call and are open to zoning. And it reduces my callbacks since home-owners are finally comfortable in their homes.”

Pat Exum of G & P Electric wires the dampers to a zoning panel.

BUT, IS IT TOO EXPENSIVE?

If you believe that builders and homeowners won’t consider zoning because it is too expensive, think again, said Joyce. Innovations in design and installation now make it affordable, he said, and research shows customers are willing to pay thousands of dollars to make their homes comfortable.

“Builders are cost conscious, but they are also interested in increasing profits and improving customer satisfaction,” said Joyce.

“When zoning is offered as an option, 61 percent of homeowners will purchase it. At $2,500 per system, that’s an additional $500 per home to the builder. Most importantly, their homeowner satisfaction probably just went up.”

While the cost of a zoning system can vary greatly by region due to differences in duct type, design, type of dampers, and labor, Nelson said zoning costs in new construction also varies by the size of the house.

“Generally it costs $1,500 for a small ranch, $1,800 for midsize, and $2,500 for a large home with 3-4 zones,” said Nelson.

“Everybody thinks the uneven temperature problem can be fixed by just installing bigger equipment. Once you oversize it, you have excess capacity and it may short cycle. If you zone, you drop the air conditioner to the proper capacity for the home and may be able to go from 4-ton to 3-ton. You just saved money right there.”

New technologies have also significantly cut down on zoning installation time. “When we did one of the ‘Extreme Makeover’ houses in Lincoln, Iowa, we zoned two levels - upstairs and downstairs. This house was 3,000 square feet and we were able to finish the job in about 7.5 hours,” said Nelson.

Lursen cuts a hole into ductwork in order to install the round damper.

RIGHT FOR RETROFIT

Contractors also have a huge opportunity to zone existing homes now that the new construction market is down. Retrofit zoning has opened up the door to zone homes that couldn’t be zoned before, according to Paine.

“There is a large, untapped market for retrofit zoning,” he said. “There are millions of existing homes, and there are new technologies that make it far less complicated and expensive to install with retrofit dampers, wireless thermostats, and networked zoning.”

Retrofit zoning is a new option that wasn’t available before, but Kent Lursen of Sedgwick Heating and Air Conditioning is pushing it. The Minneapolis-based contractor is finding it profitable.

“Without changing all your ductwork around, now it’s possible to zone a house that really wasn’t ‘zoneable’ in the past - without spending thousands of dollars to do it,” said Lursen. “Before I saw Honeywell’s Retrofit Round Damper, I thought we’d have to take all the pipes apart and it was going to be kind of a nightmare to put them in, but just cutting that slot in the branch run is no big deal.”

From his experience, Lursen found out each damper probably took 10 minutes to install. “We found that moving the ladder around takes about as long as putting the damper in,” he said. Corey Sutton of Precision Air LLC, based in Faribault, Minn., had the same experience.

“When we first decided to try the retrofit round dampers, we put in 10 of them and it took us about 15 minutes to install each and about 20 minutes to wire them all up,” he said. “It’s real easy to wire, it’s real easy to install, so your labor cost there is going to be a lot lower. The product cost is not as expensive either.”

Added Sutton, “I think this is really going to hit big in the residential side of the business. It’s going to give homeowners the option to zone off either a master bedroom or bathroom. I’m going to try and use these retrofit dampers for pushing heat into an area where I don’t have many heat runs anyway.”

Another recent trend in zoning for both new construction and retrofit is networked or communicating systems. Networked systems offer additional features not available in traditional-style zoning systems. Because the system is on a network, the zones work together to maximize usage of the equipment, communicate time and outdoor temperature to each other, and provide easier setup of thermostats and panels, said Paine.

Additionally, network systems provide a link to the outside world through telephone modules, local computers, the Internet, or home automation systems. Finally, Paine said networked systems can greatly reduce the number of wires required for installation - reducing overall labor. “It just makes sense to having zoning - period,” concluded Paine.

Sidebar: Is Zoning Right?

Need help in persuading a homeowner that zoning could solve a home’s heating or cooling needs? According to Honeywell, zoning is highly recommended if a home has:

• Multiple levels;

• Room(s) with large windows;

• Large open areas such as vaulted ceilings or foyers;

• Room(s) in a finished basement or attic;

• Room(s) with exposed concrete floor;

• An indoor swimming pool or hot tub.

At the same time, Honeywell said zoning is highly recommended if a homeowner:

• Frequently uses large appliances such as the oven or dryer;

• Spends most of the day at home;

• Has rooms that are used occasionally, such as a game room or spare bedroom;

• Has rooms in the attic or basement that are occupied.

Sidebar: Ease Zone Installation

When evaluating zoning systems to offer customers, Honeywell recommends that contractors consider the following features to help ensure easy installation and customer satisfaction:

1-2-3 wire configuration. “Three-wire configurations make installation simple,” said Brad Paine, Honeywell’s senior zoning product manager. “Many of the systems will automatically self-configure once installed.”

Thermostats that operate independently. “In some climates, homeowners will want to run heating and air conditioning at the same time in different zones,” said Paine. “Standard ‘master-slave’ thermostats won’t allow this convenience.”

Power close/spring-open dampers. “Dampers that rest in the open position allow the barometric bypass damper to do its job - and reduce the system’s overall energy consumption,” said Paine.

Visible open/shut indicator bars. “Damper indicator bars enable you to monitor damper status without removing it from the duct.”

Flat terminals. “Compared to stacked terminals, flat terminals are the easiest to wire,” said Paine.

LED panel lights. “LED lights on the panel enable the installer to troubleshoot the system without removing the cover.”

Wireless control. In homes where it is difficult to run a wire from the thermostat to the duct, wireless systems provide a solution, said Paine. “Thermostats automatically communicate with the zone control panel,” he said.

Sidebar: Industry Support

In 2005, zoning manufacturers joined forces with the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) to further the development of the zoning industry. The intent of the ARI’s Forced Air Zone Control section is to provide industry standards on applications, conduct independent studies related to application, work with government bodies, and coordinate with North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification.

The current chairman is Dennis Laughlin of Arzel Technologies, while Brad Paine of Honeywell serves as vice chairman.

Zoning manufacturers also offer support to contractors on zoning installations. In the case of Honeywell, it said it has trained zoning specialists working to answer contractor questions via its zoning support tech hotline, 800-828-8367.

Publication date: 05/21/2007