ACHRNEWS

IAQ Monitoring Reaches The Home Front

December 18, 2003
The increasing concern for clean and healthy indoor air has birthed many new indoor air quality (IAQ) products in recent years, as well as contractor groups dedicated to developing and selling such products to homeowners and business owners. One new product has been around for less than a year and has already turned quite a few heads.

The product is the AirAdvice IAQ monitor, produced by AirAdvice Inc., Portland, Ore. Its origins are rooted in one man's quest to find a healthy indoor environment for his family.

"The founder of a group who did research for respiratory-impaired children had his own children who were suffering from asthma - and they literally had to move around the country until they found an environment where the kids could live comfortably," said Jim Crowder, president and CEO of AirAdvice. "They settled in the Northwest, and the man built a model that could give consumers quantitative data on their indoor air on a daily basis.

"He was attempting to see if there was a way to regulate the medication regimen for kids who have asthma, rather than best-effort guesses regarding filtration equipment."

Crowder said the first business model didn't work because the intention was to permanently install the monitors in the home, with the consumers paying a subscription. What came out of the start-up business model was a successful product rather than a successful monitoring program.

"The business model was converted from a continuous-monitoring consumer-purchase product, to one that became a diagnostic tool for the HVACR industry - a tool for the technicians," he said.

The product was launched in early 2003. "We did a rollout of this newly designed product with Lennox," Crowder said. "The second-generation product, the Model 1200, incorporates everything we think the contractor needs in a diagnostic tool."

Program Plus Product

Although the original program idea was scrapped, the concept of having a monitoring program has been retained. "It has to be a program," said Crowder. "This is an industry issue - IAQ - and we have to work with manufacturers and dealers. We have to prove to technicians that their customers need IAQ products in the first place."

A main component of the program is the Model 1200 monitor. The monitor collects data (particulate, humidity, temperature, carbon monoxide) and can be ordered with a carbon dioxide sensor, too. Data are collected and sent via telephone to the AirAdvice data center, which can be accessed by logging on to the Web site (www.airadvice.com). A report is available online and is also e-mailed to the user.

The monitor is sold to contractors with one year of service, which includes unlimited use of the monitor and Web site for a single fee.

"Currently, our standard product sells to the trade for $739 with a hard carrying case and one year of service," said AirAdvice trainer Isaac Simpson. "The second year of service is $250, again with unlimited use. If you have multiple monitors, each one has a service fee.

"The ‘unlimited use' part means that when a monitor uploads its data, it uses a toll-free phone number. The data, which is very detailed, is stored on our servers. The contractor can run as many reports as they want," Simpson said. The company also provides Internet and telephone technical support.

"A contractor placing the device once per week could generate about 50 reports per year with a single device," Simpson said. "Fifty reports is an optimum number for them to get a very high return on each monitor they purchase."

He added that some contractors charge for the test and earn a profit, while others include it as part of a more extensive diagnostic service or as part of a premium maintenance service. "But they will have much better success if they do not charge for the test," said Simpson. "The test is an opportunity to identify problems that are in the homes of their existing customers."

The company currently has about 250 contractors in the United States and Canada signed up for the program, and approximately 2,500 monitors in the field. Customers are 90 percent residential, 10 percent commercial.

The monitor is not available for retail sales, except in very unusual situations. "We don't sell the device to the end user," said Simpson. "It is very rare if a contractor would sell the device to the end user.

"The test has to last a short duration so that corrective action can be taken. If the particle level is too high, we advise adding filtration or cleaning the ductwork. With tighter homes, humidity and ventilation are out of control in most homes - bringing out the possible need for additional humidity control and HRV/ERV equipment."

Simpson said that the biggest selling feature of the monitor is that it gets contractors to open a dialogue with homeowners on exactly what solutions they need to achieve acceptable indoor air quality. After that, it is up to the contractor to recommend changes to the existing equipment and/or suggest add-on equipment.

"We've done follow-up surveys with customers. They have been overwhelmingly satisfied with the report and think more highly of the companies that provided the report for them - raising the level of professionalism," Simpson said.

Any leads from customers who have called in or e-mailed AirAdvice are given to trained contractors. This way, AirAdvice can recommend a local contractor who has the equipment and has been through the training program. Crowder suggested that the program, when properly implemented, enables contractors to promote IAQ solutions for less than $7 per lead.

Training

Perhaps the most important part of the overall program is the training. Crowder said Simpson and his staff have been focusing on slowly moving technicians toward an IAQ-enabled business model.

"We meet with the dealers in the field and walk them through what we intend to do with their team," he said. "We are coming at them with a turnkey IAQ business plan."

Contractors are given training assistance through the first three- to six-week cycle. AirAdvice assigns someone to work with each contractor during that period. The company can also track the installation and startup of each monitor to ensure that the program is operating correctly.

"If we can get a contractor through that first cycle, we have them. If they fall off the program, it is usually within that time frame."

Training is also available via the Web and by phone. A list of training options is available at the company's Web site.

Crowder said the program is an ideal match for the slower seasons (spring and fall). "A lot of guys are losing money during the shoulder seasons and this program can give dealers full utilization of their technician pool," he said. "These are also high-margin opportunities."

Sidebar: An In-Home Product Test

As part of my research for this article I gave the AirAdvice program a test run in my own home. AirAdvice recommended placing the monitor in an area of the home that is used a lot throughout the day, so I located it in the basement rec room.

The test period ran from Nov. 26 until Nov. 29, a time when there were heightened levels of activity due to the Thanksgiving holiday. The monitor was placed against an interior wall at eye level.

On the last day of the test, I plugged the monitor into a phone line, pressed a switch on the monitor, and waited as it dialed the test results into the AirAdvice server. The data downloaded within a few seconds.

I logged on to the Web site and downloaded my report, which was also made available via e-mail. The seven-page report included charts and summaries from four major areas:

1. Microscopic airborne particulates.

2. Carbon monoxide.

3. Relative humidity.

4. Temperature.

Three of the four tests showed levels in the recommended or "comfort" range. The first test showed that microscopic airborne particulates levels were "elevated" during the test period. The conclusion was that the particulate levels could be improved.

I asked Isaac Simpson for his comments on the report, which he could access as soon as I sent the data in.

"We don't define normal in the report," he said. "We define low, intermediate, and unhealthy. Low is less than 10. Intermediate is between 10 and 40." Mine was repeatedly above 10 but below 40. I planned to change my furnace filter and monitor the air again, to see if corrective action could be taken without calling my local contractor.

The last line of the summary statement for microscopic airborne particulates should be of particular interest to HVACR contractors:

"Standard corrective actions to reduce particulate levels include: an HVAC system inspection and maintenance by a licensed contractor; enhanced ventilation and filtration; and personal behavior changes."

That last one may be the toughest.

- John R. Hall

Publication date: 12/22/2003