Smart HVAC: Contractors Differentiate, Thanks to Smart HVAC

October 8, 2007
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With a TSI Velocicalc Plus meter in hand, contractor David Richardson measures wet bulb and dry bulb temperatures from a supply register. The owner of Richardson Heating and Air Conditioning, Frankfort, Ky., believes in airside diagnostic testing, including basic static pressure and temperature measurements to full-blown airside diagnostics.

Smart HVAC is happening now. Call it an industry trend, if you want to, but know that contractors who have adopted and embraced ever-more sophisticated tools, equipment, and processes are currently ahead of the curve. These contractors, who believe in smart HVAC, are performing every type of diagnostic test on homes and commercial buildings. In the end, they are having eye-opening results, thanks, in part, to having and using every kind of diagnostic tool and equipment imaginable.

The best part? Homeowners and commercial building owners are not only pleased with their work, but are raving over the results they bring to the respective home or building. Another strong byproduct of smart HVAC is the fact these contractors are differentiating themselves from the competition.

Just ask Benjamin DiMarco, president of DiMarco & Associates, Cleveland. His firm is certified by the National Comfort Institute for air and combustion testing, and is also a founding member of the National Balancing Council. Better yet, DiMarco’s team is taking smart HVAC to the maximum.

“We incorporate everything necessary from a diagnostics and assessment standpoint to identify deficiencies not only in the HVAC system, but any other ventilation or air movement system in the home or building, and the building envelope,” explained DiMarco. “Once the corrective actions are put into motion, we provide commissioning services for measurement and verification purposes to ensure these measures are as effective as projected. We then implement an ongoing recommissioning plan to continuously verify performance.”

The primary reason for this approach, he explained, is because any system in any building that is installed or maintained incorrectly usually underperforms the system’s design intent.

“Consequently, consumers are receiving less than originally contracted for, which is why we see so many unhappy consumers - until we get involved,” said DiMarco. “Once we correct or optimize their systems and show them the measured improvements, we end up with very appreciative, happy clients.”

He added, “The primary benefit of optimized systems and buildings as a whole is predictability, which in today’s economic climate is hard to find.”

TEST AND YOU SHALL PASS

At Mechanical Service Co., the Virginia Beach, Va.-based smart HVAC contractor employs plenty of diagnostic tools, including psychrometers, digital clamps on temperature probes, infrared thermometers, magnehelic gauges, combustion analyzers, airflow hoods, and gas pressure test kits.

“We use these tools for proper diagnostics, service, and installation on all calls,” said service manager Steve Keeter. “Without these tools, it makes it much tougher to find and fix specific problems. Taking static pressures on every maintenance and service call allows us to monitor the duct system for any major changes, such as disconnected duct, crushed areas, dirty filters, or dirty coils.”

In Keeter’s estimation, proper charging of systems has become a major issue in this industry since the introduction of R-410A and high-efficiency equipment. “Without these tools, getting the proper superheat and subcooling is much more difficult and time-consuming,” he explained. “Installation of touch-screen programmable thermostats, electronic air cleaners, variable-speed equipment, dual-fuel applications, and zoning - all will improve overall operation and comfort for the homeowner.”

At Richardson Heating and Air Conditioning, located in Frankfort, Ky., owner David Richardson refers to his firm’s winning smart HVAC process as “HVAC System Performance Testing.”

“It has become our focal point in regards to the diagnostic processes that we use,” said the contractor. “The heart of HVAC System Performance Testing includes airside and temperature testing of the HVAC equipment and duct system, as well as combustion analysis for fuel-fired equipment.”

At Richardson Heating and Air Conditioning, the airside diagnostic testing ranges from basic static pressure and temperature measurements to full-blown airside diagnostics, where the actual field-measured efficiencies of the equipment and system are figured.

“The amount of information gathered from this testing is mind-blowing, as it takes you beyond the typical ‘look at the box’ mentality and makes you consider the other variables the HVAC equipment is subjected to in the field,” explained Richardson.

“By using flow hoods, thermal anemometers, digital manometers, and dry bulb/wet bulb thermometers, we are able to quantify the most important element of the HVAC business that is completely invisible to the customer: Btus.”

In addition to the airside portion, carbon monoxide and combustion testing come into play with any fuel-fired equipment.

“The ‘set the gas pressure, set the fan speed’ style of thinking for setting up fuel-fired equipment takes too many assumptions into account - safety and efficiency being two of those assumptions,” said Richardson. “By performing the combustion test, we know for certain the equipment is working as safely and efficiently as possible.”

As any practicing smart HVAC contractor will tell you, the whole purpose behind performing these series of tests is to ensure that “we are providing the customer that which we said we would,” said Richardson.

“The customer gets the added benefit that the system they purchased is actually operating as close to design conditions as possible,” he said. “It is a common mistake to think that when you perform a load calculation and duct-sizing calculation that all will automatically work as designed. Any design without verification is a guess at best. We, in turn, get customers who are raving fans that sing our praises to their friends.”

He quickly added, “One nice little side benefit is that our warranty claims have nearly disappeared since we implemented the steps to thoroughly commission the systems we install.”

Install manager Butch Wheeler (standing at left) gives a few installation tips to technicians at a training class held at Mechanical Service Co. Looking on (standing, right) is service manager Steve Keeter. In Keeter’s estimation, proper charging of systems has become a major issue in this industry since the introduction of R-410A and high-efficiency equipment.

HELPS THE SALES PROCESS

As a comfort consultant for Mechanical Service Co., Travis Klein appreciates smart HVAC, especially since most customers are amazed at air capture hoods, hot-wire anemometers, magnehelic tools, digital temperature probes, digital hygrometers, and other devices he introduces when performing a sales consultation.

“These tools are utilized to better identify why customers have certain complaints regarding their current home comfort system,” said Klein. “High indoor humidity and dust, excessive energy bills, hot and cold areas, strong airflow noises, and the like, can be attributed to poor airflow and an inadequate duct system. We can identify static pressure effects on airflow, duct leakages, temperature gains/losses through the ducting, and a variety of other factors that impact comfort. We use these tools to help a customer understand why equipment will not solve problems by themselves.”

In his estimation, this industry continues to tell people to buy the most advanced products available “and their headaches will be over.”

“Too many dealers rely on manufacturer marketing, ‘rules-of-thumb,’ and other antiquated methods to sell new systems. Unfortunately, the customer often ends up with a new system that works no better than the old one.

“No one tells the customer that SEER rating is determined in a laboratory under perfect conditions. They are sold a 19 SEER, two-stage system and they expect to save a fortune in energy costs. Their first few bills come in and they are not saving what they were assured they would. Of course, they were not made aware of the fact that they have a 30 percent return duct leak in a 130° attic. Mix hot with cold and we get tepid. Comfort did not change, energy savings is lost, and homeowners are unhappy.”

By incorporating diagnostic tools into its procedures, “we stand apart from the crowd,” noted Klein.

“Homeowners recognize that no one else seemed to pay as much attention to their needs, listened to their complaints, and really went the extra mile to determine what will truly make them happy,” he added. “Competing dealers are left trying to talk their way into a sale, or out of a corner, with no true credibility to rely on. They end up playing a low-price game with each other, while we command higher investments because we provide more up front, as well as in the future, for support.

“It gives us the ability to truly highlight why our investment is higher than all of the others, and how it is going to make the improvements the customer is asking for.”

On each and every call, the management team at Mechanical Service Co. believes in using the right tools for proper diagnostics, service, and installation. The management team includes (from left) new construction manager Phil Jones, president Jack Whitaker, and retail manager Jeff Marl.

HAPPY ENDINGS BRINGS PLENTY OF REFERRALS

Thanks, in part, to its diagnostic practices, Mechanical Service Co. is able to promote variable-speed air drives, programmable thermostats, zoning systems, and systems whose operation is influenced by humidity, as well as temperature, noted general manager Jeff Marl.

“Our goal is to consistently provide high-quality solutions that properly address homeowner issues and complaints. By doing this, we increase customer satisfaction and, for that reason, increase referrals and consumer loyalty,” he said. “By creating the best ‘system’ approach as a ‘package,’ we build a total solution that addresses all customer needs or wants. One example would be that if a duct system won’t meet our standard, we accept that sale only by replacing the duct, too.”

Marl added that since the company started measuring the supply and return static on every service call, “It made a huge difference for us.”

“Not only did it immediately generate more repair work and increase replacement leads, because it is the first thing we do at a home, we found problems that many technicians might have missed or spent extra time tracking because they were looking for a mechanical problem,” he said. “This also reduced the number of callbacks because it more accurately measures system performance.”

With customer satisfaction, customer referrals follow. It’s just another added bonus, according to Richardson and Klein. “Our customers have been our greatest source of advertisement and marketing,” said Richardson, with a smile on his face. “Many have been told for years that they had to live with the problems that they were experiencing, as these were ‘normal.’ Once they found out there really was a solution to their comfort problems, they were ecstatic. These customers are priceless for your company to have.”

He added, “We learned a long time ago that if we stayed in the sea of ‘box’ selling that we were accustomed to, we would drown. The way we keep our heads above water now is to focus on how we use the ‘box’ as a component in the systems we design and build, rather than focus on the ‘box’ being the system.”

Klein could not have agreed more.

“The overall sales system fosters referrals simply because every detail is accounted for and customers appreciate that,” he said. “When they see and feel that what they asked for is being delivered, they can’t wait to tell someone about how good a decision they made. Usually, a friend will ask them who they used to make a change because all of the estimates the friends have had so far are less than positive. The referral is given, an appointment is made, the consultation and diagnostics take place, and then the relationship continues. Customers are really able to make decisions they are most comfortable with because they have the proper information.”

DiMarco concluded that all of his business comes from referrals or word-of-mouth. “Very few companies do what we do, so we really have little competition at all,” he summarized. “We typically overdeliver what we projected for improved results for clients. When they had been used to receiving far less than what they were sold, it’s a ‘no brainer’ as to whom they’ll continue to do business with.”

Sidebar: A Favorite

One of the favorite smart HVAC test tools sold by Richardson Heating and Air Conditioning, Frankfort, Ky., is the low-level carbon monoxide monitor. “We feel that everybody deserves to own the best in carbon monoxide protection that is available, instead of having to settle for an over-the-counter, UL 2034-rated carbon monoxide alarm,” said owner David Richardson.

“The differences between the two devices are not even close. By the time a low-level monitor sees 70 ppm of CO, it is in a full-crisis mode immediately and cannot be silenced. The UL 2034-rated alarm is allowed to be exposed to these levels for up to four hours before alarming - and it can then be silenced again for another four hours.

“We believe in these monitors so much that we carry them for our own personal protection in the field - and if you are wondering if one has ever gone off during a call, yes, they have. The low-level carbon monoxide monitors allow us to offer our customers a level of protection in their homes they cannot find anyplace else.”

Publication date: 10/08/2007

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