A Man for all Seasons
If this is Monday, then the vice president of Comfort Institute (CI) should be in Springfield, Mo. Or, is it somewhere in California? Or…
“Sometimes I don’t even know what day it is,” confessed Summers, who, on this particular day, was at the St. Louis (Mo.) Airport Marriott, to teach yet another seminar, this one titled, “How Today’s Contractors are Dealing With Comfort, IAQ, and Humidity … And Increasing Profits While Doing it.”
When you are on the road far too many days in a year, one can lose track of time - and important matters. In this case, prior to the 9 a.m. start of his informative talk in the Show Me State, Summers realized he failed to confirm a rental car at his next seminar stop. Therefore, while contractors at his class ate lunch at the noon break, Summers scrambled to his computer to lock in a vehicle from Hertz.
“The things you do,” he said with a smile.
TRAINING, SUPPORTSummers does a lot, along with Brendan Reid, president of CI, an international indoor comfort research, training, and consumer protection organization based in Bellingham, Wash. CI may have trainers and offices located throughout the United States and Canada, but Summers still does more than his fair share of teaching, instructing, and getting from one airplane to the next in a year’s time.
CI provides training and instruments on building sciences, IAQ, whole-house and air distribution diagnostics, and repair. Its Consumer Protection Division was created to provide homeowners with consumer information and tips, designed to cover many aspects of home comfort, including ways to reduce or completely eliminate common problems such as hot and cold spots, excessive dust, and excessive utility bills.
“Government and utility research has proven that most new ‘high-efficiency’ heating and cooling systems don’t deliver anywhere near the comfort and low utility bills they are capable of,” said Summers. “Comfort Institute is dedicated to informing North American homeowners about why this happens and how to avoid it. Of course, the key recommendation we make to consumers is to know how to pick the right contractor.”
At the same time, CI provides training and support to a network of independent comfort contractors across North America. These programs are designed to help member contractors solve system issues cited by homeowner customers. In the end, CI is trying to help contractors provide, as Summers put it, “the highest possible quality of heating and cooling service and installations, at the lowest possible competitive prices.”
CLEARING UP MISCONCEPTIONSDuring his one-day visit to St. Louis, Summers covered a ton of information for local area contractors who came to his Aprilaire-sponsored seminar. Summers led off with a quote from researcher Dr. James Cummings, P.E.
“Most people turn to air conditioning contractors to solve problems, such as comfort, humidity control, and moisture on ducts, air handlers, and diffusers,” he informed the room. “Air conditioning contractors need to be trained in building science because they are in the business of controlling the indoor thermal and humidity conditions.
“The solutions are not simple because buildings are complex systems, and the methods of space conditioning and providing ventilation impact humidity levels, pressure differentials, and airflow directions. Without understanding HVAC’s interaction with the building envelope, mistakes will continue.”
At the beginning of his crash course, Summers challenged three industry misconceptions. First, he disagreed with the notion that air balancing and blower door testing can only be done for free and that it takes too long to perform. He mentioned that contractors across the country get paid well to do testing every day, both on replacement calls and for solving problems.
“It’s all in how it’s presented,” he told his audience. “The majority of homeowners are concerned about comfort, dust, IAQ, mold, and utility bills - but not all.”
Summers presented ways to sell diagnostic testing to clients who complain about these issues, or who ask for a quote for new equipment, accessories, or duct cleaning.
Secondly, Summers struck down the misconception that an infiltrometer blower door is for utility programs or “just for finding leaks to sell caulking and weather stripping.”
“There are 11 distinct IAQ and HVAC applications for the blower door,” he declared, noting that, in the HVAC-related category, the instrument can measure air infiltration rates for Manual J, as well as demonstrate and measure duct leakage. “Test. Don’t guess.”
In regard to IAQ and dust, he said an infiltrometer can demonstrate garage, crawlspace, and/or attic-to-house “bad air” leaks. The piece of equipment can also demonstrate recessed can light and pull-down stairs leakage; diagnose mechanical ventilation needs; estimate dehumidification needs; and determine pressurization cfm requirements.
Last but not least, Summers expressed the value of flow hoods, knocking the misconception that they are “just for commercial air testing and balancing. In reality, they are needed for commissioning test-and-balance on new or renovated duct systems,” he said.
He also showed how a flow hood can be used to prove the need for active or passive returns in bedrooms, simply by taking two cfm readings: one with the bedroom door open and one with it shut.
KNOW YOUR STUFFSummers was quick to point out that system problems and issues cannot be solved strictly by equipment alone. “You must look beyond the equipment at the whole building,” he said, pointing out that the duct system, pressure boundary, thermal envelope, and ventilation system each play a part, along with the interactive effects.
He was somewhat sympathetic with today’s contractors, confirming that changes are running amuck and causing confusion as well as tough competition. Major changes that have surfaced include consolidation, support groups, sales trainers, and the Internet, not to mention the likes of Sears and Home Depot, which are now in the service business.
“A homeowner has many choices,” he said. “There is certainly competition out there. Building science knowledge and whole-house testing are proven ways for a contractor to differentiate himself or herself.”
His research showed that retail and home improvement studies consistently find that 80 percent of customers are “value buyers, who will pay more if they see the value.” Unfortunately, he added, the low price often does get the job. “If everything else is equal, the customer will buy the lowest price,” he said, noting that today’s contractor has to do more in order to stay ahead of the competition. “We all tell the same story. We sell good equipment. We are established. We do good work. We are drug-free. We have 24-hour service. And now a new problem: Everyone is selling 13 SEER.”
He gave a quick hint as to what contractors should be doing to separate themselves from the crowd. “You have to figure out what you are selling. Do you sell boxes or do you sell comfort?” he asked.
To illustrate his point, Summers used a three-legged stool to model comfort and IAQ. In his example, knowing each one of the “legs” - that being equipment, duct system, and thermal envelope - is important if contractors are to provide both comfort and IAQ. “So, today a good contractor should look at equipment problems, thermal envelope problems, and duct system problems,” he summarized.
HURDLING PROBLEMSIn regard to the first “leg,” Summers identified several problems associated with today’s equipment, including the idea of setting the fan switch to “on” with a variable-speed blower. He said it does improve circulation and evens temperatures, plus increases overall filtration. And, it will also increase sensible heat-cool from the unit at the end of a cycle. However, at the same time, there are unanticipated side effects, including increased duct leakage, possible increased dust, increased summertime humidity can be brought in, and the re-evaporation of humidity off the wet coil and drain pan at the end of an air conditioning cycle.
To prove his point, Summers brought out research - “The Impact of Part Load Air Conditioner Operation on Dehumidification Performance” - presented by Hugh Henderson, P.E., at the 1998 ASHRAE IAQ and Energy Conference. Summers asserted that bigger, indoor, high-efficiency coils have worsened the impact of constant fan, as they hold more water that re-evaporates at the end of the cycle, he said.
Another equipment problem he disclosed: Running at 400-cfm per ton or higher in humid climates. “Ten percent low airflow typically has only a 1-2 percent loss of capacity and efficiency,” he said. “Sensible goes down, but latent goes up. The benefit is more comfort.”
He said contractors should not worry about airflow on a/c in humid climates “down to about 340-350-cfm per ton.”
His third and final problem with equipment dealt with putting variable-speed air handlers in attics and crawlspaces in humid climates. He noted that there is minimal insulation in the cabinets, and the pull-through coil makes the blower section cold. Enhanced dehumidification controls often lead to greatly increased sweating on the unit itself, he said, as well as on the ducts and registers.
Summers presented many solutions to improve summer humidity control to compensate for these equipment problems, notably addressing the key source of the humidity: outdoor air infiltration and duct leakage.
EDUCATE, EDUCATE, EDUCATEWhen the topic was thermal envelope, Summers sounded perplexed concerning contractors’ habit of guessing air infiltration rates for Manual J. “We measure walls to within an inch, but then we guess at infiltration, which is equal to 30 percent to 40 percent of the load,” said the vice president of Comfort Institute (CI). “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Summers questioned the use of powered attic ventilators (PAVs). While the device is supposed to pump hot air out of the attic, what usually happens is that 10 percent to 20 percent of the air gets sucked out of the conditioned house below, through leaks in the attic floor.
“This causes higher - not lower - utility bills, increased dust in the home, combustion backdrafting and poor IAQ,” he explained. “There are better ways to reduce heat gain from hot attics.”
More food for thought? Not all air infiltration is fresh air.
“Research proves that less than 20 percent of air infiltration comes in through windows and doors,” he said. “The other 80 percent comes in from crawlspaces, basements, underground, walls, attics, and garages. Indoor air contaminants such as CO, radon, insulation fibers, and mold spores often hitch a ride in with the air. Pinpointing and sealing ‘bad air’ infiltration is an essential IAQ service.”
The trainer proved his point by going through numerous projects he has been involved in over the past few years.
Many research studies and extensive field investigations prove that air infiltration through attached garages is a significant source of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). This led him to the fourth fallacy he addressed: “A carbon monoxide alarm protects from CO.” Summers revealed that Underwriters Laboratories (UL)-listed alarms have been “dumbed down” due to pressure from utilities and fire departments, which were getting “nuisance” alarms.
“Today’s retail store alarms are virtually insensitive to chronic unhealthy lower levels,” said Summers. “An alarm cannot go off until exposed to over 70 ppm for four consecutive hours. While this may prevent death, it does not prevent health damages,” he charged. Summers recommended that contractors offer their clients low-level CO monitor alarms.
DEALING WITH DUCTSSummers spent more than an hour talking about duct leakage in homes. He noted that, in California, the state calls for mandatory duct testing and sealing on changeouts and new construction. Among other hints, he suggested doing smoke puffer demonstrations or testing for duct leakage. “Don’t overlook return air leakage,” he added.
Summers disclosed that researchers have determined that a 10 percent return leak from a 120° attic causes a 30 percent drop in the air conditioner’s capacity and efficiency. A new 16 SEER system connected up to a typical leaky duct system only performs at an 11 SEER level, he said.
However, in the big picture, he asked contractors not to look only at duct leakage. Although sealing is important, Summers said there are usually other duct problems to examine, too. In his experience, static pressure always goes up after sealing, sometimes just a little - or, sometimes a lot.
“Airflow may be already low,” he said. “The air conditioning system may have only worked because of return leaks.”
Some possible solutions include enlarging returns or, when most appropriate, duct replacement. Another needed step is air balancing. “But to be able to balance a system,” cautioned Summers, “it must first be made ‘balanceable.’ You can’t just pull out a flow hood and perform miracles.”
Translation: Balancing duct systems involves having ducts properly sized and airtight, having balancing dampers, active or passive returns in every room, and room-by-room heat-cool load, he said.
Even with new and/or repaired duct systems, and a high-efficiency air cleaner, many homes still have dust “issues,” he agreed. “You should be in the duct cleaning business because homeowners who have dust and IAQ issues are demanding it,” he said. However, Summers was not necessarily 100 percent sold on what duct cleaning provides.
“The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and Canadian research says it has little, if any, positive effect on airborne visible dust,” he said. “Once it’s in the ducts, it stays in the ducts.”
Summers asserted that fixing air infiltration through duct leaks, recessed can lights, and attic pull-down stairs, as well as resolving negative pressure problems, are far more effective ways to reduce indoor particulates. They are also profitable new “whole-house services to offer,” he said.
“Today’s consumers are tired of contractors who just sell band-aids for symptoms,” he observed. “Understanding how buildings really work as interactive systems, and knowing how to provide permanent solutions to problems, is the silver bullet for those HVAC contractors who want to stand out from the crowd.”
MUCH INFORMATIONBefore the day was over, Summers plowed through so much information at such a rapid pace, that more than a few heads were spining. John Ryan, County Heating and Cooling Co. (St. Louis), was just one attendee struggling to keep up with the valuable information. “He knows his stuff,” commented Ryan, who attempted to make sense of his written notes during a break.
In the end, Summers concluded that contractors should never forget that a house is a system. Therefore, in order to resolve IAQ and comfort issues in a home, a contractor should remember that it takes building science and air distribution knowledge, plus diagnostic testing, to produce the correct solution.
“It starts at the sales call,” he said, noting that the average sales call is 30 minutes in length and entails one close call, which means contractors are usually “hammering customers to buy today.” “People love to buy, but hate being sold. So we need to create a comfortable environment for people to buy.”
With a more customer-friendly sales approach, Summers believed that a contractor gains a consultant position in the customer’s mind, slows down the buying process, and a contractor can do a better job of sizing.” In his estimation, this equates to the creation of bigger and better sales, along with gaining the customer’s respect - not to mention “torpedoing the competition.”
The trainer proceeded to show some successful contractor proposals, crafted with the help of time-proven sales documents. “Contractors who are doing this are selling diagnostic testing to 40-60 percent of their ‘planned replacement’ equipment proposals at $150 to $250,” he said. “Eighty-five percent close, if they bought testing.”
Also know that seeing is believing, he offered. In other words, if a contractor shows a video (available from CI) on a laptop computer to a customer that visually points out the value of such testing, more times than not the customer will swing a contractor’s way regarding whole-house testing. At the same time, a contractor can explain the benefits. “The key is to offer 100 percent satisfaction guarantee on the testing,” said Summers. “If at the end the homeowner didn’t think it was worthwhile, they don’t have to pay.”
If a customer does not want testing done, Summers suggested having the person decline it on the final proposal or as a separate advisory. He also warned that a contractor should then take away the 100 percent satisfaction/comfort/right size guarantee.
In Summers’ case, he is trying to educate the contractor a good portion of the 365 days that make up a year.
Publication date: 01/29/2007