In areas where professional contractors gather - at meetings of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), National Comfort Institute (NCI), or Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES) - a phrase is cropping up with more and more frequency. The “Quality Installation (QI) Standard” is an ANSI-recognized national standard that was initiated by ACCA and created with input from around the industry, to ensure that HVAC systems meet certain standards that promote comfort and energy conservation.
QI requirements are being increasingly embraced by local and federal governments, as well as by utilities, as part of an initiative to determine that an HVAC system is designed and installed to benefit the consumer.
Many utilities are in the early planning stages for a possible consumer or contractor rebate based on the QI requirements.
In this specification, the QI elements focus on the actual installation and how well the equipment is selected and installed, said Ray Isaac, 2008-09 chairman of ACCA. “Quality installation is more than just using high-efficiency products and systems. The correct selection of equipment, controls, and proper installation has a large impact on occupant satisfaction and energy savings.”
The guideline also helps raise the bar among contractors - or, as Wes Davis, ACCA’s manager of technical services, quoted John F. Kennedy at the National Comfort Institute’s National Comfort Team (NCI’s NCT), “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
“The contractor is critical to the installation, operation, and maintenance of the system,” Davis said. “There is a need for QI contractors, and they’re on the brink of an outstanding opportunity.”
CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF POOR INSTALLATIONSGreg Goater of Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning cited Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) statistics, noting about 7.1 million unitary shipments were reported for 2006. About 60 percent were replacements for existing systems, and the other 40 percent were used in new construction. “Many of the replacement installations were the result of equipment failures during peak periods,” he said.
“During these high-stress times, consumers want the heating or cooling restored immediately, so contractors feel pressure to install the new equipment quickly; many homeowners pressure their technicians to focus more on the turnaround time of the jobs rather than on the quality of the jobs.”
Some of the equipment went into new homes, where they were installed by “contractors using production-oriented compensation.” These jobs seldom receive the oversight they need to result in a quality installation, he said.
“The high-volume season and production-oriented construction market also create a market for poorly trained, unlicensed, or otherwise unqualified businesses or individuals to install HVAC systems,” Goater said. These contractors tend to cut corners to make a higher profit on jobs they underbid in the first place, in the name of keeping their volume of work artificially high, “and to offer prices and performance promises that are un-founded or imagined,” he said.
“Uninformed consumers are left to experience the inevitable inconveniences and expenses of poorly designed and poorly functioning HVAC systems.”
This, in turn, leads to manufacturers experiencing higher warranty costs, while utilities face escalating demands for peak-demand power production. “These low-budget contractors hurt the image of professional contractors and squander the benefits of a properly installed HVAC system,” Goater said.
NCI’s Rob Falke said, “The average HVAC system installed across America is operating at 60 to 65 percent of designed capacity.”
“Many efforts are already underway to promote installation of high-efficiency equipment that will perform optimally in the field,” said Isaac, a strong proponent for the QI effort. “While there have been successes, buildings are still more likely to have improperly installed HVAC systems than systems installed for optimized performance.”
A BETTER WAY“ACCA contractors saw a need for such a resource and set in motion the development of an installation specification for new construction and replacement markets,” Skip Snyder, president, Snyder Company Inc., said. “This specification is aimed at evaluating the quality of an installation.”
So, the association brought together a coalition of contractors, equipment manufacturers, utilities, and industry associations to collaborate and establish a set of nationally accepted requirements for quality installations.
March 23, 2007, was a landmark day: The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) recognized the QI Specification (QI Spec) as an American National Standard. According to Snyder, “This created an opportunity to improve the quality of HVAC equipment installations and to increase the professionalism within the HVAC trade.”
Over the last 25 years there has been a tendency to consider the HVAC equipment separately from the duct distribution system. Some contractors assumed the duct distribution was properly sized, sealed, and balanced.
Little consideration has been given to assessing the suitability of the duct distribution system when replacing an old or failed HVAC system to ensure proper airflow over the heat exchanger, tightness or leakage rate of the ducts, and the right volumes of air are delivered to the rooms based on space heating or cooling loads. The QI Spec details appropriate methods for measuring and evaluating the installation of these key components of the total system.
WHY NOW?“Poorly installed systems were likely because, while some of the necessary market conditions for a QI existed, those conditions were not sufficient to catalyze market transformation in the direction of QI,” said Isaac. “Today, key stakeholders have begun to identify both the necessary and sufficient market conditions that must exist for QI to become more common.”
These market conditions include:
• Stakeholder agreement on the definition of QI.
• QI verified and measured in the field.
• Supply-side market players able and willing to deliver QI (including the HVAC contractor’s sales staff, who often specify the equipment size and component selections).
• Building owners who value the benefits of QI and can identify and select QI in the marketplace.
Davis cited the following forces driving the HVACR market:
• Fuel prices are becoming painful, again.
• Concern about climate change, again.
• Easy information access for consumers.
“I see a lot of people moving toward performance-based operation,” he said. “Utilities are facing peak-load demands, and they will need to either reduce that load or build new plants. Part of the load-reduction solution is to encourage the use of higher-efficiency HVAC units, but the other part of the answer is to make sure those units are installed correctly.”
A confluence of circumstances is making this an ideal time to support the QI Standard. Chief factors are energy consumption and the push towards greener technologies, but there is also a need to differentiate among contractors now that the minimum efficiency levels have been set. Last but not least, there has been increased consumer understanding of “the system,” thanks to Internet information, and a need for contractors to keep up with customer knowledge.
As the economy enters an era of renewed energy awareness and concern about utility costs, there is increased urgency to install high-efficiency HVAC systems. This typically was addressed by raising the required minimum efficiency of the box, but many in the industry realize that this is not enough.
Richard Dean, president of Environmental Systems Associates, said, “A new 19 SEER unit installed incorrectly may be no more efficient than a standard SEER unit that was installed to the QI Standard.”
WIDESPREAD BENEFITSThe QI Standard offers a way for contractors to differentiate themselves from their so-called competitors, at a time when energy costs and environmental concerns are helping customers open their ears.
Having a document such as the QI Spec adopted into local codes, or required by utility rebate programs, can give reputable performance contractors ammunition against their less-qualified competitors. It helps contractors educate consumers on why the total system must be addressed. The QI Standard provides an objective, industry-accepted reference to validate the need for necessary HVAC system modifications.
Actions outlined by the QI Spec also have a direct bearing on the efficient transfer of heated/cooled air into the conditioned space. This in turn maximizes energy conservation.
More generalized benefits to the industry include reduced callback and warranty claims, increased consumer trust, and an improved industry image which, long term, can lead to better employment opportunities.
According to Goater, in a discussion of career paths among high school students, HVAC was chosen below morticians. “Our industry needs a boost, it needs to change its image, and it needs professionalism.”
The QI Specification offers “a nationally approved, industry-accepted, contractor-oriented measuring stick to promote technician professionalism,” he said. This credible resource “provides a way to tell the good contractors from the not-so-good contractors.
“This resource would be a way to measure a contractor’s concern about installation quality, their corporate professionalism, and perhaps their personal regard as HVAC industry representatives.”
For the consumer, benefits include a standard of care to judge actual contractor performance. Improved performance, especially with regards to ductwork and refrigerant charge, means optimized efficiency without having to rely solely on the efficiency of the box.
Contractors can purchase a copy of the QI Spec, or download a free PDF version, from the ACCA Website at www.acca.org/quality.