'Quality' Measures a Contractor's Worth

March 20, 2006
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It's time to add another abbreviation to our HVACR lexicon. QC/QI stands for "Quality Contractors/Quality Installations," and it's the creation of ACCA (the Air Conditioning Contractors of America). The contractor organization is holding its Annual Conference and Indoor Air Expo in San Jose, Calif., where QC/QI is being officially unveiled to the membership.

The overall goal of QC/QI is to "establish a raised bar" and improve core competencies that result in quality contractors, who then perform quality installations. It establishes "a uniformly accepted definition of quality" - a highly subjective word when it is not quantified. The entire package could help raise the bar for a major tricky area: indoor air quality (IAQ).

A coalition of contractors, OEMs, utilities, and industry associations collaborated to establish a set of nationally accepted definitions for quality contractors and quality installations. (For a complete list of participants, see the sidebar below.)

According to information that ACCA is sharing with its conference attendees, "Characterizing the attributes of a quality contractor (QC) and a quality installation (QI) is a critical first step in establishing the bar representative of core competencies expected of contractors in the HVAC industry." Establishing acceptable performance levels of the systems, in terms of comfort, IAQ, and efficiency, is not far behind.

THE WHY

"A significant market barrier to improving the quality of equipment installations and service in the HVACR industry is that most consumers and building owners/operators do not understand the benefits that a professional quality contractor and quality installation provide," states ACCA's Quality Installation Specification.

"Rarely do building owners/operators or residential consumers link problems such as uncomfortable humidity, high utility bills, high dust levels, and/or poor IAQ to a substandard design, improper equipment selection, subpar installation, or incomplete commissioning," the document continues. "Thus, consumers seldom demand a high performance standard from their HVACR contractors.

"This lack of knowledge causes consumers and building owners/operators to consider first price only when making purchasing decisions on HVACR equipment." Uninformed consumers also don't know what they're missing in terms of comfort and air quality, and the potential risks associated with accepting the lowest bidder.

"Of the 8.6 million unitary shipments reported by the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) for 2005, roughly 60 to 70 percent were for replacements," noted ACCA. "Many of these installations were the result of equipment failures during peak periods." During these peak service times, residential and business consumers "often demand service attention that cannot be fully met by normal contractor staffing. This issue is compounded by a shortage of qualified technicians, especially experienced during seasonal crunch times." The result: a rushed job.

"Furthermore, consumers generally tend to request only the level of comfort and efficiency delivered by their previous system," the document states. "Technicians have an incentive to focus more on the turn around time of jobs rather than on the quality of the job."

Do consumers plan for these emergency replacements? Generally, no.

So they are looking at the current state of their bank accounts, instead of projecting expenses into the future. If a replacement system is not sized properly for current conditions - for instance, if the consumer has had a new roof or windows installed since the old HVAC system was installed - the new HVAC system may produce unwanted amounts of moisture during the cooling season. Not only could this lead to uncomfortable living conditions (feeling clammy rather than comfortable), it could lead to health conditions if any occupants are susceptible to molds/fungi that may result from the uncontrolled latent cooling.

So, how was the consumer supposed to know about these potential risks? "The market currently provides no signal to the contractor or the homeowner that system performance is poor until the system fails," said ACCA.

The practice of hiring lowest-cost, lowest-quality contractors reaches all the way from the consumer, to the manufacturers who experience higher warranty costs, utilities that face escalating demand for power, and back to contractors who have to come in and clean up the mess, now with a much more skeptical customer. In short, the entire industry suffers, and has been suffering for a long time.

QUALITY CONTRACTORS

The QC side of the program focuses on how a contracting firm operates, protects its employees, and handles customer issues. "There are certain contractor attributes and minimum business practices that are necessary to fully support the installing/servicing technician's ability to install and maintain quality HVAC installations," ACCA says. These business attributes include:

Business prerequisites

  • Licensing.

  • Insurance.

  • Refrigerant certifications.

  • Code requirements.

  • Hazardous materials regulations.

    Supporting business practices

  • Adherence to industry standards and recommended practices.

  • System performance and evaluation.

  • Continuing education.

  • Safety programs.

    Customer satisfaction

  • Survey of customer needs and building requirements.

  • Interactions with building owners.

  • Complaint resolution.

    A QUALITY INSTALLATION

    The QI side of the program focuses on the actual installation - not the quality of the equipment itself - but how well that equipment is selected and installed. It has major impacts on indoor air quality.

    Conducting building heat gain/heat loss calculations, for example, helps ensure not only that customers aren't wasting energy, but also that their equipment is running long enough both to satisfy the thermostat and remove enough moisture during the cooling season, especially in certain climates.

    Duct leakage likewise can result in both energy and comfort losses; when conditioned air leaks out of poorly joined or installed ducts, entering unconditioned spaces, the system works harder than it otherwise would have to. When moist, unconditioned air (from attics or crawlspaces) enters duct gaps, it creates more of a latent load than the system was designed to handle. The result, depending on the climate zone, can be very poor air quality and very poor comfort.

    "Quality installation is more than just using high-efficiency products and systems," ACCA said. "Correct selection and installation of equipment and controls have a large impact on health, comfort, safety, and energy savings." Considerations of a quality installation include:

    Equipment aspects

  • Building heat gain/loss load calculations

  • Proper equipment capacity selection

  • Matched systems.

    Equipment installation aspects

  • Airflow across the indoor coil

  • Refrigerant charge

  • Electrical requirements

  • On-rate for gas- or oil-fired equipment

  • Combustion gas venting system

  • System controls.

    Air distribution aspects

  • Duct leakage

  • Airflow balance.

    System documentation and owner education aspects

  • Proper system documentation for the owner

  • Owner/operator education.

    "The specification has been written [so] that contractors may use these attributes to demonstrate their commitment to quality installations in the field," ACCA said. "OEMs may use these characteristics to highlight and encourage quality contractor practices, resulting in better equipment performance and durability; trainers may use these criteria to develop course curricula; utilities may integrate the recommendations into their incentive programs; and building owners/operators may use the elements to identify quality contractors and to ensure quality installations are received."

    In addition, "Quality contractors providing quality installations are in a superior position to dominate business relationships within their areas of operation and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace."

    Benefits to contractors include marketing, profit margin, reduced callbacks, better reputation, increased respect, and the demonstration of a "standard of care" in case of legal actions.

    Perhaps more importantly, "Consumer purchasing decisions will be based on the value offerings of QC and QI and not just on the price," ACCA pointed out. "Over time, informed purchases will produce an appreciation for the cost effectiveness of QC and QI." At least, it will give reputable contractors one more tool to quantify their potentially higher costs.

    Sidebar: The Next Steps in the Process

    After review and ratification by the ACCA board of directors, the association anticipates releasing the QI Specification for public review in early April. Comments will be solicited from contractors and all interested parties; ANSI recognition will be sought. The QI Specification Committee will resolve public review comments while ACCA continues to work with utilities and the EPA in developing possible pilot programs. These pilots, in implementing the HVAC QI Specification, will resolve difficulties and set the stage for broader implementation. Visit ACCA's Website (www.acca.org/quality/) to download more information on the QC/QI effort.

    Publication date: 03/20/2006

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