Joe Bertolucci of Affordable Heating & Air, Sacramento, Calif., noted, "If I'm going to sell a new air conditioning system, they're getting a new indoor coil and a furnace. When you give them too many choices, you kind of lose them in the tall grass."
Bertolucci said that up until January 2006, his two-man shop was selling "as much 10 SEER product as we possibly could." Once higher efficiencies became mandatory, customer education matched the need.
"You get a few questions, a little exasperation," he said of the process. "But once you explain it [higher efficiencies and the need for a matched system], customers can make better decisions.
"I have had one customer walk away from us because I told him we had to install a matched system," Bertolucci said. "He also wanted me to work without a permit."
"It seems like we spend half of our time educating," said James Kester of Colonial Plumbing and Heating Co., Colonial Heights, Va. "There are some houses that are in fairly good shape. With others, there is loss of airflow, and dust being pulled into the return."
Colonial has two people selling - that is, educating. "They like to talk," Kester said. "They love educating."
For contractors like Bob Forty, of Energy Services Air Conditioning and Heating Co., Naperville, Ill., the conviction of the need for best installation practices has come from the contractor's own learning experiences.
LESSONS UP THE CHIMNEYCustomer training has been consistent. Forty traces its current intensity back to the 1980s, when higher-efficiency furnaces started creating problems with masonry chimneys. "Everybody aimed the flue gases at the masonry chimneys," he recalled. "When we started learning about liners, we learned from a chimney sweep who was president of a national chimney sweep guild. He educated us about temperatures, what happens to masonry chimneys when you have an 80 percent AFUE furnace and the condensation freezes by the time it gets to the top."
In the late 1980s, Energy Services started hearing complaints of "water dripping down where the vent connector meets with the masonry chimney. I decided to do some research on how to deal with these complaints and what was happening.
"I sent letters to everybody that had anything to do with masonry chimneys and venting," he said. "No one wanted to take responsibility. I got a white paper from a vent manufacturer, [Selkirk] Metalbestos; it discussed all the ins and outs of how furnaces work and venting. Heat exchangers, when they fire up and cool down, are wet with chemicals, as well as water. When natural gas starts to condense, then you start having the rain in the chimney - acid rain in your chimney. Mortar and bricks, they don't like that. They don't hold up."
In early 1990 the contractor discovered chimney liners. "Only one company provided chimney liners," Forty said.
"We started installing chimney liners in early '91. Competitors told customers, you don't need it. Now, I've always been a strong believer that if you have the facts, you can tell the truth. Sometimes consumers just don't want the facts. I asked Carrier, and they came out with a brochure dealing with that issue. It took them less than a year. It gave tremendous credibility to what we were saying to people."
CHIMNEYS TO COILS TO CHARGELater on, the contractor had a problem with customers just wanting to replace the condensing unit instead of both the indoor and outdoor coils. "A lot of our competitors would do that. In 13 or 14 months, compressors would fail.
"You can't really get that indoor evaporator coil as clean as a new unit," he explained. "There's stuff residing in those little tiny capillaries; sometimes it breaks free and you can wind up with acid. Again I talked to Carrier about the problem: â€˜You guys are eating tons of compressors out there in warranty; educate the dealer and the customer. The customer, dealer, and manufacturer will come out ahead.' They came out with a brochure."
With the ongoing flow of legitimate information, "we can usually convince our customers," Forty said. "We have continuous positive customer feedback. They tell us that they appreciate the information. "We have been changing both coils 99.5 percent of the time for the past 20 years," Forty said. "It is not in the customer's best interest to do otherwise."
In this part of the country, most installations are upflow-downflow-horizontal basement applications. "Most equipment we've been installing since May (2006) has been both the furnace and air," Forty said, though as the heating season progresses, furnaces alone are starting to dominate. "No one knows what condition the indoor coil is in," he said. "You can assume that it'll be dirtier than the dickens.
"You've got to get into the habit now of changing the coil. If you're replacing an old system with a 410A system, you have to do it."
The company's Website, www.energyserv.com, offers information ranging from the technical (how the system works, what can go wrong, and product information) to the financial (rebates and money-saving tips), plus seasonal tips and IAQ information.
"Our customers keep coming back because we train them on what's new," said Forty. "The Website was basically designed as a backup to the sales presentation we would have."
The next problem he would like to see attacked on a larger scale are refrigerant charging procedures. "When we get techs in here, unless they've just come out of a school, they don't know what charging by superheat means or how to do it. It takes time. Plus you've got to buy a sling psychrometer.
"Presently, there's still a ton of air conditioners out there that weren't charged using the superheat method. When you really want to get the efficiency, you have to charge it precisely. I think that if all techs used the correct charging procedure, we, as a nation, would not use as much electricity, we wouldn't need the new power plants, and we could do without some of those peak plants. Make the machinery work as best as it can.
"When a consumer buys an air conditioning system, he expects that the person doing the work knows what they're doing and are doing it the right way. It'll take another 15 to 20 minutes to check for superheat. You need the right instrument and the right outdoor temperature."
Forty had an "aha moment" once after overhearing a couple of other contractors discussing their amazement at the high quality of R-410A a/c systems. "We didn't have 'em yet," Forty recalled. "One guy said, â€˜We're not having any compressor failures.' It just went into my subconscious." Later on, when he started installing PuronÂ® systems, the reason for that increased reliability struck him. "You're replacing the fan coil, indoor coil, and tubing. That's why!"
Publication date: 11/27/2006