ACHRNEWS

Powerful Trends Drive Zoning

May 17, 2010
Jackson Systems’ WEB Comfort, a web-based, remote-access thermostat control system.


Some very strong and familiar trends are driving sales of zoning products. According to the manufacturers who responded to our request for information, the market is being driven by a combination of consumer needs, energy costs, and the expanding wireless technology scene. They also agreed that the biggest mistake HVAC contractors could make would be not to offer the systems.

And, oddly, new construction seems to be driving zoning sales - driving them toward the replacement market, that is. “Obviously new construction is a major driver of zoning systems,” said Justin Randall, product specialist, Aprilaire. “With new construction being down, a market segment that is relatively untapped is retrofit zoning.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a system replacement or new construction,” he said; “zoning makes for happy customers and increases profit per job.”

“The retrofit market is the fastest growing segment in the zoning market with the recent decline in new construction,” agreed Kurt Wessling, director of sales and marketing, Jackson Systems.

“We believe that there are several factors driving the sales of zoning systems,” said Wessling. “The first is categorized as increased education and awareness. Zoning has been around a long time now, and consumers and contractors are becoming more aware of its benefits.”

This, he added, has been accelerated by “dissemination of information from manufacturers and contractors alike via the Internet. Websites, blogs, and other social media outlets have facilitated the growth of education. Also, word-of-mouth referrals are helping to spread the benefits of zone control.”

Training also is critical because “Today’s HVAC technicians need to understand the dynamics of the air, from the point of entry at the return grille to its delivery at the register,” said Dennis Laughlin, president of Arzel Zoning Technologies. “It is critical that they grasp how airflow is generated, and the potential Btu capacity of the air that is provided by the equipment that heats, cools, and pushes it.” The zoning system orchestrates the system’s operation.

When should it be proposed? When a contractor is talking to customers about their comfort needs. “Many homeowners complain of hot and cold spots in different parts of their houses,” said Randall. “Often times the upstairs is too hot, while the downstairs is uncomfortably cold, or temperatures can vary from room to room due to sun exposure, wind, drafts, occupancy levels, etc.

“Many times homeowners aren’t aware there is a solution to improved comfort,” he said. “Contractors can add to their bottom line by offering retrofit zoning to customers who have complaints about inconsistent temperatures throughout the home.”

WIRELESS SAVINGS

Of course, it’s not just about comfort. Savings are playing a major role in the zoning market. “Homeowners are willing to put out the money to zone their HVAC system if it will help them save energy and money over the long run,” said Randall. “When you explain how a zoning system works to a homeowner, it’s easy for them to understand how energy savings can be realized.

“It makes sense to them to condition only the areas of the home that need it rather than treating the whole home as one,” he continued. “A good analogy is that you don’t have only one light switch that turns on all the lights in your house; you have a light switch for each room and you turn the lights on and off as you need them.”

In addition, “The creation of wireless thermostats and retrofit dampers has made it possible to apply zoning on projects that may not have been feasible before,” Wessling said. “The cost of adding new ductwork or running new wire has been eliminated in many cases.

“With the cost of new units rising due to new SEER minimums, equipment is becoming a less-attractive option for consumers,” he said. “Zone control allows the consumer to receive the benefits of individual temperature control and energy savings with a lower cost. The contractors can still enjoy good margins while adding to their total sale for the client. It is truly a win-win situation for both contractor and consumer alike.”

Once the comfort level is there, Wessling said, “they can actually offer zoning more often. We have found that many consumers still don’t know zone control is available to them. Just offering zoning always increases the chance for sales.

“This also gives added benefit to the contractor as they can be viewed as an industry leader and expert in their market. They can differentiate themselves from their competition by offering something the other guys won’t.

“Finally, contractors can post zoning materials on their websites and blogs. The contractors can also talk about it through the social media outlets such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. They can also utilize their local media outlets such as radio or newspapers,” said Wessling. “Writing or speaking on the subject of zone control also can help them establish their reputations as industry leaders and experts.”

Energy savings are the most obvious market driver to Richard Foster, president, Zonefirst. “Shutting off unused rooms or rooms that get too much air can save a lot of energy and homeowners are looking for ways to cut their utility bill. When you have individual driver and passenger temperature control in your car but not in your home, this makes the homeowner ask why,” he said.

“The contractor simply needs to include zoning on every proposal. Just like a car dealer goes down the list of options, so must the HVAC contractor. The problem is, the majority of contractors are still not sold on zoning or do not want to take the time to fix the duct system.”

Jackson Systems’ Z-600 zone control panel.

PRODUCT REFLECTIONS

Some of these trends are being reflected in the most recent products available. For instance, Randall said the Aprilaire Retrofit Zoned Comfort damper is installed through a cutout in the side of a 6-inch branch duct. “This damper provides speedy installation and operates with standard 24-V zone panels, minimizing system cost,” he said. “Reliability is ensured due to the damper’s field-proven ‘flexible-link’ drive system.” The damper also features an LED light to indicate the damper’s position.

“These trends are adequately reflected in our products that we have been developing over the past few years,” said Wessling. “We are constantly striving to improve the simplicity of our products. The more contractor friendly and easier our products are to install, the more the contractor benefits. This makes training easier and eliminates time spent on the installation.

“Secondly, we have been developing wireless products that will enable contractors to install zoning in applications that weren’t possible prior. Retrofit dampers are also helping cut the cost of installation.”

Inexpensive and readily available products are key, he said, to helping contractors sell zoning. “Also, we have been developing products that allow the consumer and contractor to monitor and control HVAC systems remotely via the Internet. This allows both parties to focus on energy savings as well as comfort.

“With the rising costs of energy, this is becoming another popular weapon in the contractor’s arsenal,” said Wessling. “All of our products are shifting to the ability to be controlled either wirelessly or through the Web. We see the trend of energy management systems growing even into the residential market. We have products available to help the contractor achieve this goal.”

Wireless technology also is growing at Zonefirst, which announced several products and features that facilitate wiring by simply plugging in the dampers and providing wiring for them. The company offered its first motorized Retro-Round™ in 2004; as of 2008, the Outlet Zone Damper now makes it easier to install zoning into existing homes.

“We also offer a wireless thermostat which eliminates the problem of running wires to the new zones,” said Foster.

Contractors can take advantage of these trends in several ways, he said. “The first step is to continue educating themselves on the latest products and technologies available to them in the zoning market. This will allow them to feel more comfortable.”

CONTRACTOR ERRORS

Contractors also need to help their customers take full advantage of these products without falling into the usual traps.

“The biggest mistake we see contractors make is simply not offering the solutions available to them and their customers,” said Randall. “You miss every shot you don’t take. If you never ask for the sale or never offer zoning, you’re not going to get any zoning jobs, which is a missed opportunity to contribute to your bottom line.

“Homeowners want and are willing to pay to be comfortable and save energy,” he said. “When you’re in the home, use that opportunity to offer zoning as a way to make the home more comfortable and efficient.”

It boils down to differentiation from competitors, which is the key to success in the HVAC industry. “Offer something no one else does. Be different. It’s insanity to think that doing the same thing over and over will ever yield different results,” said Randall.

According to Aprilaire, 88 percent of the customers it surveyed “would love to have different temperatures in different rooms or in different parts of the house,” he said. “Being the contractor that can talk about retrofit zoning and its associated benefits of total comfort in every room and guaranteed energy savings will easily differentiate you from the ever-growing crowd of basic heating and cooling guys.”

“We believe that there are a few mistakes that contractors make regarding these trends,” said Wessling. “The first is to ignore them altogether.

“Zoning is here to stay and will only grow in the coming years,” he said. “Not offering zoning to your clients will broadcast the image of being behind the times.” Contractors may also lose more bids, he said, due to the high cost of quoting two systems, “versus the competition’s bid of one unit and a zone-control package.

“Of course, lack of education will hurt you in many regards,” Wessling said. “Not staying up with the new technology and products available might result in missing more opportunities for sales.”

Also, not focusing on the energy and cost savings of zoning can be a big detriment, he said. “Consumers are concerned with their rising costs. Saving energy and eliminating installation and maintenance costs of a second unit could be a huge factor in the contractor landing a project.

Finally, don’t make up the customer’s mind without presenting them with the facts. “Assuming zone control is too expensive or too complicated is simply false.” Wessling said. “Assuming the consumer is not interested is also a mistake, costing the contractor opportunities to increase their sales with their client.”

In short, “closed minds often equal closed doors on great opportunities,” he said.

Foster agreed. “Not offering zoning as a solution at all, and doing the minimum instead of totally solving the homeowner’s comfort problems,” is a huge mistake. Contractors need to take the time to study “what exists and how it can be made better.”

For instance, find out as much as possible about additional weatherization work that may have been done.

“Chances are that an older home has newer windows and possibly better insulation,” Foster said, “so start with doing a load calculation. Then talk with the homeowner about their comfort throughout the home.”

Don’t assume what customers need, he said. “A number of surveys continue to show that homeowners want better comfort and energy efficiency. This goes beyond just the HVAC unit,” he said. “The duct system and balancing is often an issue.”

Some contractors are also driving sales. “Due to increased education of the contractor, zoning is being offered and installed more often,” Wessling said. “Zoning manufacturers have all increased their training. This has taken place by in-person training classes or sessions, online training modules, and webinars.”

Also, organizations such as North American Technician Excellence (NATE) and the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) have increased their focus and offerings on zone control training, Wessling observed. “As contractors get more comfortable with the zoning technology, they are offering it more to their clients.”

One way to ensure that homeowners get a balanced temperature, at the temperature they want, where they want it, and when they want it, is to zone the home. “Zoning is automatic with hydronic and in-floor radiant systems,” Foster said. “Zoning/VAV is designed in commercial office buildings, so why won’t residential contractors consider zoning on every HVAC job?

“It’s not about price, as far as the homeowner is concerned.”

Publication date: 05/17/2010