ZoneFirst: Try Zoning Before Knocking It

May 21, 2007
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ZoneFirst president Richard Foster points out the value of the company’s new H3 zone control at the 2007 Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Expo in Dallas. Foster is convinced consumers want zoning, but he is not convinced contractors are offering it. “Why let a good profit opportunity get away?” he asked.

Richard Foster was definitely perplexed. “It continues to amaze me how the world is accepting zoning in so many ways, yet the residential and light commercial world of HVAC continues to ignore the many advantages forced-air zoning provides,” said the president of ZoneFirst. “Is it the product, the market, the installers, the perception of zoning, or what? Someone please explain it to me.”

Here is someone who has put on thousands of training classes regarding zoning over the course of the last 30 years, yet he believes he is still not reaching the masses. While some industry insiders believe zoning is catching on with contractors, Foster has his doubts.

“How many times do I have to hear contractors say, ‘Nobody wants it?’ ” asked Foster. “I come back to them every time and say, ‘Have you ever told them about it?’ I then get a blank stare like ‘Who, me?’ ”

Foster believes contractors are just not informing customers of zoning’s value. His research shows that zoning can save 25 to 30 percent on heating and cooling costs - “wouldn’t most customers jump at that chance?”

“Think if every home in this country was able to cut its energy demand that amount,” said Foster. “There’s a tremendous ripple effect from reduced emissions, greenhouse gases, energy use, and dollars back into the homeowner’s pocket. Al Gore would love us.

“This tells me that most of our industry is still just order takers,” he commented. “We wait for the phone to ring, and when somebody does need a new furnace or air conditioner, it’s only because it’s really cold or hot outside. Nobody sells anything. We, as an industry, are the worst salespeople.”

In Foster’s estimation, if contractors don’t care about raising the value of selling a comfort system versus just selling a furnace and/or air conditioner, “we, as an industry, will continue to suffer the price game.”

MAKE IT STANDARD

According to Foster, lack of product should not be an issue when it comes to zoning. Over the last 10 years, zoning competitors have “come out of the woodwork,” he said.

“Even the major OEMs are beginning to offer zoning systems. Sales of zoning systems continue to grow, but even if they double every year, it’s still less than 10 percent of the total furnaces, air conditioners, and heat pumps sold.”

Foster is convinced that consumers do want zoning because the public is buying it in other forms. “For years I’ve used the light switch analogy,” he said. “You have a light switch in every room. Why not a thermostat in every room? What costs more? Does it cost more to light your home or heat and cool it? Considering that, in most cases, over 60 to 75 percent of utility bills are for heating and cooling - zoning makes sense.”

In the Northeast, where hydronic systems have been the norm for many years, Foster said you wouldn’t find a boiler being installed without zone valves or circulators. “Look at any of the new radiant systems and the length many companies are going through to make elaborate prefabricated piping systems for zoning,” he said. “Considering a boiler costs more than a furnace, and copper costs a little more than sheet metal these days, you can’t tell me consumers won’t pay for zoning. They do on every hydronic system, so why should the plumbers have all the fun and make all the extra money?”

He answered his own question. “It’s obviously worth it to them. When they sell their systems, zoning isn’t an option. It’s typically included in a package price. Zoning is not an option. It’s the standard. So, why must it be an add-on to HVAC?”

IF CARS CAN DO IT...

Foster encouraged contractors to look at today’s automobiles.

“Anyone ever look at how many cars now offer individual driver and passenger temperature controls?” he asked to no one in particular. “Even car manufacturers, in their ads, are touting multizone climate control - and this is for a car that is basically one room and smaller than most bathrooms.”

As an example, Foster pointed to the TV ad for Jeep’s Commander. In it, there are two males driving over the tundra with a mummy frozen in the back seat. One male says to the other, “How’s he doing back there?” The other male responds, “Fine.” The announcer points out that the Jeep Commander now has multizone climate control. In this case, the males in the front are warm, while they keep the frozen mummy in ice in the third seat in the back.

“They’re not talking about the Commander for its ability to drive over the frozen tundra,” said Foster. “They are talking about the Commander and its multizone climate control.”

If zone control is an option in the car, it’s typically well over a $2,000 option, he said.

“So don’t tell me people won’t pay for zoning in a house,” said Foster. “They do zoning in the car. Customers will do zoning in the home, if you just tell them about it.”

MONEY TO BE HAD

While at a customer’s open house recently, Foster said he had an installer who just flat out said, “I can’t see zoning working on a forced-air system.” Even after relating all of the facts that zoning does work, he still was not accepting or even interested in zoning.

It made Foster think.

“Is the HVAC industry still so backward when it comes to accepting new ideas and concepts?” he asked. “I’d have to say so, since it takes the government to force us to sell high efficiency and get off mercury thermostats. It’s a shame that such a great industry places such little value on what we sell.

“Unfortunately, those who will read this are those who are typically the 20 percent of the industry who do place value on what they sell and hopefully do sell zoning.”

In his estimation, anyone who still believes zone damper systems don’t work have never tried one or taken the time to learn what it’s all about. “I’ve found that even some of the better companies installing zoning still only offer it on an as-needed basis,” he said. “If you think you’re doing such a good job, let me ask this: Is zoning listed prominently on all of your advertising, Yellow Pages, Website, literature, and quote forms? Are your sales people offering it on every new job, as well as retrofits/change outs? Is zoning sold as an option or included in the price of all of your quotes, just like the plumber on hydronic systems?”

ZoneFirst’s president said he has seen some good contractors selling zoning for $1,000 per zone, when it only costs them $300 per zone to install.

“Why let a good profit opportunity get away?” he asked. “Let’s be more like plumbers and car dealers and make some more money.”

Publication date: 05/21/2007

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