Mid-Atlantic Heating and Air, Salisbury, Md., is an average contractor in many respects. The residential-commercial contractor trains primarily through their distributor’s offerings. The office just got Internet connectivity last year. They have no Website. You might even consider them on the low-tech end of things, unless you see what they do on the job. Ductwork is always inspected, and if it needs fixing, its repair is bid on as part of the job. Room-by-room load calculations are performed for equipment replacements. High-efficiency systems are offered, in addition to lower-priced options.
When a customer like Lawshe meets a contractor like Mid-Atlantic, good things tend to happen. It all started when Lawshe bought a new home off the mid-Atlantic seaboard, one of 18 he has purchased and sold over the years. You could say he is an experienced homeowner. To him, the face of the contractor, Mid-Atlantic, is the installer he worked with, Mike Molnar.
RENOVATING A NEW HOUSEThe 1,800-square-foot, loft-type house has three bedrooms, three baths, and two living rooms (one upstairs). “That rascal [the upstairs living room] is only open 13 feet across the front,” Lawshe said. There are four duct runs: two in the living room, one in the bedroom, and one in the bathroom. Lawshe and his wife moved into the house in the winter of 2005.
“When we moved in, we’d spend all weekend insulating the house,” he said, realigning and restapling everywhere they could reach. “We butterknifed all around. We used three extra rolls, and I went through 12 tubes of expanding caulk. Then I backfilled with foam, all the way around on the base plates, caulk-foaming the edges. We got all the windows and doors tight, filled any area that was not filled. My wife was surprised that there was that much air.
“I put in 6-inch silverback around the water heater, and dropped the water heater temperature to 120°F,” he continued “We batted the walls, insulated the garage.” There also were two attics, an upper and a lower. “I took down the upper-attic decorative emblem, routed slots in it, and put it back in,” Lawshe said. “It got two 14-inch fans, hung with rope for sound dampening” - an old Navy trick, he said. “I dropped a 20-inch fan down below.” He was also getting clean insulation from dumpsters, just discarded from other new home projects in the neighborhood.
“I offered the builder money to put a Carrier unit out here; they said no. We wanted to pay for the upgrade.” Still, the builder said no.
For better or worse, the house was built as it was originally designed with a builder-grade heat pump. After the ducts were put in, “nothing got tested.”
In the end of the neighborhood’s development, “on this block alone, the builder went through five air-heat subcontractors,” Lawshe said, and a number of insulation companies. “I feel sorry for the neighbors, because they’re not experienced in buying houses. We got no upgrades because of inflation.”
Lawshe tests everything, and measures it with hard numbers. He knows that you can’t control what you don’t measure.
“As a quality assurance officer in the Navy, I have a tendency to keep records,” Lawshe said. “In 2005, we moved in. That year I took all the bills; between the gas and electric, we paid $409.52 a month for utilities. Electric was $9.95/kW, propane was $2.09/gallon.”
In 2007, this homeowner had a propane furnace installed. Utility bills dropped to $230.30 monthly.
LOTS TO FIXIn 2008, Lawshe called Mid-Atlantic for a bid on that top-of the-line Carrier Infinity heat pump system he’d had his eye on from the start. When installer Mike Molnar heard about the homeowner’s problems, he set to work to find solutions for them all. And find them he did.
“They like doing the hard jobs,” Lawshe commented about Mid-Atlantic. “They’ll recommend doing the insulation and that sort of thing. They back up all the stuff they put in.
“When Mike came in here, he knew we had to look at all areas,” Lawshe continued. “He went upstairs and cut a hole in the floors.” He couldn’t see where the bathrooms were ducted. “They [the original installers] put a little sheet metal in with no insulation,” Lawshe said. “From what Mike perceived, it looked like it was trunked backwards.”
Sixteen-inch flex duct was originally used for delivery. “They put it up in the attic connected to a triangular box,” the homeowner said. “Flex was crammed in the wall; it had to have been sat on to fit in there.”
The home had a dead space above the master bedroom. “Across the bottom, every so often there would be a gap in the insulation,” he said, “and you could see the drywall. The builder said it needed to breathe. They had left it open so they could go in and out, and they didn’t finish it.”
On closer inspection, Molnar and Lawshe found that the clothes dryer hose had been run down into the wall, attached to the bedrooms downstairs as ductwork to the upstairs.
In the utility room, a 2- by 2-foot access panel showed that there was no insulation and plywood for one opening. “It would just go underneath the floor, trailed its way to the open areas. Air was blowing underneath through the floor.”
Mid-Atlantic tore out everything except register locations and sheet metal ducts under the floor. “Most stuff we upgraded to 6 inch,” Lawshe said. It took 100 man-hours and cost about $3,000, and was all done in ductboard.
Total costs ran around $14,000 for the dual-fuel heat pump, furnace, ductwork, and labor. “I got the greatest people in the world to put it in,” Lawshe said. “We got the works, a two-stage furnace and a two-stage heat pump. We got quality. We went to the top.”
Neighbors started coming over to check it out. “I started watching when they came in from next door. They measured everything, ceiling heights and all.” How could these energy costs be so different from their homes?
The 16.5-, 20- to 22-SEER efficiency, plus a truly top-of-the-line installation, is how. Over a seven-month period, “our meter reader was awestruck,” Lawshe said. From May-November 2008, utility costs averaged $112.08 per month.
“I’ve worked on nuclear subs in the Navy for 20 years, and done quality assurance for pumps and piping systems,” Lawshe said.
“I’ve built exhibits for the Smithsonian - one for the Hope Diamond was the last one. I redid the elephant in the main rotunda. I’ve built a lot of things, and made a lot of things.
“‘Harry Homeowner’ did a good portion of this stuff himself,” he said.
“One year I did a complete changeout with light bulbs, even those in the refrigerator and freezer - 56 total, for a $25 per month drop in the electrical.” But he still appreciates the thorough workmanship and professionalism of a contractor like Mid-Atlantic, and the capabilities of the newer technologies that contractor installed.
“My wife has really bad allergies, asthma, and all that stuff. Even the high and low swings affect her healthwise. Not this year. It’s so regulated, she doesn’t feel the swings. If you close off registers, it’ll slow down and still maintain the temperature to the thermostat. When you put it on the heat pump side, it has humidity control for the cold side of the house. We set humidity for the lowest increment; before we had the heat pump, we would set the household temperature for 72°/69°. When we got this heat pump, we set the thing on 77° and were extremely comfortable. Now in winter months, I’m running it 70°; otherwise it would be 72°.”
We can’t expect a homeowner this adventurous to stop at this house - not with all the new technology out there. “For my next trick,” he said, “I’m going to go to Maine and go geothermal.”
And for contractors who don’t think their customers are interested in the latest bells and whistles, just remember: You don’t know who’s like Lawshe until you start asking.