Stricter Installation Standards

October 13, 2008
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Charging a cooling system with the correct amount of refrigerant is very important if the unit is to operate at peak efficiency. Under- or overcharging a system can adversely affect an air conditioner or heat pump. (Courtesy, Ritchie Engineering Company, Inc. - YELLOW JACKET Products Division.)


Studies estimate that more than one-half of all air conditioners in U.S. homes do not perform to their rated efficiencies due to improper installation; 62 percent are not properly charged, 50 percent are oversized, and 70 percent lack proper airflow over the coil. These improperly installed systems can reduce performance by as much as 30 percent, which means homeowners are not obtaining the energy savings or comfort they expect to receive with a new system.

Homeowners aren’t the only ones who suffer as a result of having their air conditioners installed improperly. Utilities must generate additional electricity to compensate for all the energy wasted through improper installations.

For these reasons, EPA’s Energy Star™ program decided to utilize the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Quality Installation Specification to start the HVAC Quality Installation (QI) program.

The goal of the program is to improve current HVAC installation practices, to deliver greater energy efficiency to consumers, as well as to reduce peak loads for utilities. ACCA’s ANSI-recognized HVAC Quality Installation Specification establishes the characteristics of a quality installation, as well as the acceptable procedures and documentation to demonstrate compliance. The new EPA Energy Star HVAC QI program already has one utility partner and others that are interested in implementing it.

HVAC product standards have increased over the years, but installation issues are keeping those products from delivering their rated performance, said Ted Leopkey, who oversees the Energy Star HVAC QI program. “Improper airflow, oversized systems, incorrect charge - all of these issues chip away at performance. We thought we could use the Energy Star brand to help contractors who provide QI with another way to differentiate their businesses and raise the bar of in-field practices.”

To that end, EPA conducted a pilot program from May through September 2007, with two utilities and a select group of contractors to see if using ACCA’s QI Specification would reduce installation problems. The program focused on five areas, including proper sizing of equipment and component matching; ensuring the correct refrigerant charge; ensuring adequate airflow to match refrigerant capacity; sealing ducts to minimize leaks; and verifying QI installation in the field.

CONTRACTOR INCENTIVE

Dallas-based Electric Delivery Co. (Oncor) participated in EPA’s pilot program for the QI Specification. It’s also the first utility in the country to roll out the program for its customers. The program is a good fit, said Garrey Prcin, senior program manager for Oncor, because it ensures that customers receive quality installations and lower energy costs while reducing the utility’s load and offsetting the cost of new transmission and distribution lines and generation.

In Oncor’s program, the two Energy Star QI incentives (one for 14 SEER-and-higher equipment and one for additional work that needs to be performed to bring the installation in line with EPA’s QI guidelines) will be paid to participating contractors.

“We can’t pay incentives directly to the customer,” said Prcin. “Our programs require that incentives have to be paid to a service provider, which is the contractor. We hope the contractor will use some of the incentives to help offset the increased installation cost.”

A third party will verify load calculations and other documentation for every system installed under the Energy Star HVAC QI program, but not every installation will need onsite verification. When contractors first sign onto the Oncor program, more of their installations will be verified onsite. The rate of onsite verification will decrease over time, as contractors prove they are installing systems correctly and meet the QI requirements.

If the third-party verifier finds a problem with an installation, the contractor is notified and together, they work to correct that problem. “Normally the ducts are pretested, and the customer knows ahead of time if there’s going to be an additional cost. If something comes up during onsite verification that doesn’t meet qualifications, everybody works together to get that squared away,” said Prcin.

So far, five contractors have signed up with Oncor’s Energy Star HVAC QI program, and those companies have taken the necessary utility-sponsored classes on load calculations, duct sizing, and airflow testing. “These contractors understand the need for this program, and they want to take the opportunity to go beyond selling just the box,” noted Prcin.

Oncor’s program has gotten off to a bit of a slow start, but that may be due more to the weather than acceptance by local contractors. Hot summer temperatures in Dallas this year meant that some contractors may not have been taking the extra time to qualify installations under the Energy Star HVAC QI program. Homeowners with no air conditioning are more concerned with obtaining immediate cooling, rather than making sure their ductwork meets QI guidelines.

Prcin believes that once the weather cools down, participating contractors will go back and verify at least some of those systems installed during the summer. “Our contractors anticipate having 200 units installed under the program this year, and those will be good, quality installs.

“This program isn’t going to be a fit for every contractor out there. We’re looking for contractors who want to go beyond just a changeout - we want those who are interested in building science.”

It is estimated that 70 percent of air conditioners lack proper airflow. Airflow in ducts can be verified with a mini vane anemometer. (Photo courtesy of Testo.)

TARGETING CUSTOMERS

Southern California Edison (SCE) also participated in EPA’s pilot program, and this utility will be rolling out its own Energy Star HVAC QI program next year. The reason why SCE decided to jump on board is simple, said Paul Kyllo, HVAC program manager, SCE. “If you look at California, 35 percent of our peak load is due to air conditioning, and that equates to about 19 megawatts. We have to have the infrastructure in place to service that load, and if that load is being operated more inefficiently than it should be, we have to generate power just for inefficiency.”

Contributing to that inefficiency is a range of improperly installed cooling systems, including homes that have significant duct leakage (at the extreme end, one system was recently tested at more than 60 percent total leakage), or systems that are oversized, often by a ton or more. Kyllo noted he has also seen many improperly charged systems in the field, and that affects performance as well. He’s hoping that the new QI program will dramatically improve the quality of cooling installations in the area.

Like Oncor, SCE’s program will not be mandatory. However, starting in 2009, the Energy Star HVAC QI program will be a requirement for rebate and consumer financing programs. “This is going to be difficult,” said Kyllo. “It will be a hard transition. In the past, we just gave rebates for the equipment, and there weren’t any requirements for the installation. It’s going to be a change in mindset for both the customer and the contractor.”

Once the California Public Utilities Commission approves SCE’s programs for next year, the utility will start offering training programs for contractors, so they can become familiar with Energy Star’s HVAC QI guidelines. Contractors will have to obtain training on the various aspects of the QI guidelines, including load calculations, refrigerant charge, and airflow, in order to be a preferred provider for SCE. As with Oncor, a third-party entity will verify documentation on all installations, we well as performing onsite verifications.

Advertising will explain to customers that in order to qualify for SCE’s programs, their newly installed cooling systems will have to meet the QI guidelines. Customers may still be able to qualify for utility rebates even if they don’t use a preferred provider from SCE. “We will need to come up with a process to review those systems installed by nonpreferred contractors,” said Kyllo. “We want to reward those contractors who install good systems and weed out those who are not installing properly.”

Getting customers to appreciate - and pay for - a quality installation will also require some work, said Kyllo. “Right now, customers usually want the cheapest, fastest system they can get installed. Until customers demand better quality, many contractors won’t be supporting it. One of our biggest issues will be to get customers to value a properly installed system. Then contractors will see it’s worth the extra time to make sure the system is designed and installed correctly. It’s going to be a hard process.”

Ray Isaac, chairman of the ACCA board of directors, noted that there is a strong interest in ensuring that HVAC systems are installed correctly, because about 40 percent of a home’s utility expense is spent on heating and cooling. “The ACCA QI Standard and QI Verification Protocols will provide the opportunity to look at the complete HVAC system installation and ensure it is functioning as it should.”

When an HVAC system operates as it should, all parties benefit, stated Leopkey. “Contractors experience fewer callbacks, utilities can reduce their peak loads, and customers pay lower utility bills, while getting better comfort from a system that may last longer.” He added that the pilot program was very successful, which is why it has now been rolled out to program partners (utilities), so they can develop successful ways to improve and verify the quality of central air conditioner and air-source heat pump installations.

VOLUNTARY PARTICIPATION

The Energy Star HVAC QI program is voluntary, and utilities have the flexibility to develop and implement their programs so that they best fit their management structures and regional settings. This could mean that some utilities may choose to withhold a customer rebate if the QI Specification is not followed, while others may opt to give an incentive to contractors who participate in the program.

Utilities participating in the Energy Star HVAC QI program will need to adhere to basic requirements, such as following installation guidelines, providing training to contractors, and performing system testing to ensure compliance (usually paid for by the utility).

In this program, contractors are not allowed to self certify that they’ve met the program’s guidelines. Those testing the systems - called verifiers - must be independent and objective individuals who possess certain skill sets and appropriate licensing. “The verifier’s role in a program like this is critical to the program’s success,” said Richard Dean, chairman of ACCA’s development committee for QI Verification Protocols.

Finding enough people who can verify HVAC systems is a challenge that must be overcome, especially as more utilities sign onto the EPA program.

“We’re currently working with ACCA, as well as the OEMs and contractors on who should be verifying the systems and what skill sets they need,” said Leopkey. “With the program ramping up, these people are going to be in more demand. There may also be areas in which this type of service doesn’t exist, and that’s another barrier we’re going to have to knock down. Ultimately, we will be working with our partners to help create this market.”

In-field verification of a newly installed system should take place as soon as possible after startup, so customers won’t be inconvenienced by repeated visits to their home. Energy Star’s HVAC QI program suggests that the testing be finished within five days of installation; it is recommended that the installing contractor be there during verification to learn of any problems that may arise.

If a problem is detected, the contractor is informed, and he or she has the opportunity to make the corrections necessary so the system meets the guidelines. Some fixes will be easy, such as adding more refrigerant to a system; others, such as replacing ductwork or resizing the system, will be more costly. The question of who pays to correct an installation will definitely need to be addressed in some situations.

“Obviously if a system fails on sizing, that’s not something that can be easily remedied, and we wouldn’t expect the contractor to fix that,” said Leopkey. “If that happens, then the consumer won’t receive the certificate saying they meet Energy Star guidelines. Adding ductwork can also be an expensive fix, and that would be an additional service the consumer would pay for. I would expect that the customer and the contractor would work it out.”

The bottom line, said Leopkey, is that contractors participating in the Energy Star HVAC QI program must act in good faith to ensure that each installation meets the requirements within their abilities. “We want our program partners to create an agreement for contractors who are participating in the program, so they understand what’s required of them. We want to set up the contractors for success.”

While it makes sense that utilities in two of the hottest states in the country - Texas and California - would be interested in Energy Star’s HVAC QI program, chances are good that it will start appearing in other areas as well. Leopkey noted that more than a dozen utilities have contacted him for information on how to implement the program, so performance testing may just be coming to a utility near you.

Publication date: 10/13/2008

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