The recent spate of federal tax credits and rebates from utilities and manufacturers has resulted in a tremendous number of 95 percent-plus AFUE furnaces being installed. Homeowners purchasing these high-end furnaces usually expect to see a fairly large reduction in their utility bills, as well as a greater level of comfort in their homes. Unfortunately, these customers will not obtain the benefits they paid for if their furnaces have not been installed properly.
According to Energy Star, improper installation can reduce system efficiency by up to 30 percent, resulting in higher utility bills and possibly shortening the life of the equipment. Various studies have estimated that more than one-half of the furnaces and air conditioners in the United States perform poorly due to one or more installation issue, which can include improper airflow, incorrectly sized equipment, and duct leakage.
Michael MurphySweet, president/owner, Todd’s Heating and Cooling, Boise, Idaho, isn’t surprised that so many furnaces are installed incorrectly, as he has seen more than his share of leaky ducts, lack of insulation, and undersized ductwork. “Contractors who just install a 95 percent efficient furnace without performing some kind of energy analysis along with it are not truly giving their homeowners a 95 percent efficient furnace. Installing a high-end furnace on a leaky duct system does the customer no justice.”
WHOLE HOUSE APPROACHTo make sure customers receive the comfort and efficiency they’ve paid for, it is necessary for contractors to look at the whole house as a system, noted MurphySweet. “Just because the furnace was tested at the factory to be 95 percent efficient does not mean the homeowner will achieve that efficiency if the furnace has been installed improperly or the home has not been weatherized properly.”
Whole-house solutions that include energy audits and weatherization lead to total customer satisfaction, said MurphySweet, which is why he established an Energy Analysis Division last year. The division helps customers achieve better performance with their existing equipment and peak performance with new equipment. “Our whole goal is to gain customers for life and in order to do that, we have to win them over with trust and honesty.”
Approximately 75 percent of the furnaces installed by Todd’s Heating and Cooling are 95 percent-plus AFUE, and every one of these customers first receives an energy audit, which includes a blower door test, infrared camera images, and a physical analysis of the ductwork. “We crawl into the crawl space and climb up into the attic and go through their ductwork in order to discover how their system is working. Then we give them a complete analysis of how their house is breathing as a system, how it lets the weather in and lets the conditioned air out. We provide them with good concrete evidence such as IR pictures, followed by a detailed scope of work assessment.”
The scope of work may be extensive and include the need for ductwork repairs, insulation, and a new furnace, but MurphySweet stressed that not everything has to be done at once.
“Sometimes homeowners just can’t afford to do everything on the list, and that’s OK. We prioritize the list from most important to least important, and then they have an opportunity to peck away at the list. Maybe they’ll have us fix their ductwork this year, then add insulation next year, and by the time they need a new furnace, we can specify a smaller system because we’ve tightened up their house.”
While this whole house approach has helped customers achieve the comfort and energy savings they’ve paid for, it has also been beneficial for Todd’s Heating and Cooling. As MurphySweet noted, retrofits used to average between $3,000 and $4,000, and now the average is between $7,000 and $8,000. In addition, the company has grown from 12 employees to 35, and more growth is expected.
But there are even greater benefits for MurphySweet. “With the energy solutions we now offer, we are able to keep all our employees busy year-round, while showing people in our area how to be responsible with the resources we still have available to us. I think that’s a huge benefit.”
MEASURE, TEST, RECORDScott Robinson, president, Apple Heating Inc., Ashtabula, Ohio, is also committed to ensuring that his customers receive the efficiency and comfort they expect when they purchase a 95 percent-plus AFUE furnace. “Older furnaces were simple and less efficient, but they were much more tolerant of bad ductwork and poor airflow. Today’s high-efficiency furnaces are very sensitive, and if there are problems with airflow, they can become susceptible to heat exchanger failures.”
Ensuring new furnaces receive proper airflow is a regular part of the installation process with Apple Heating Inc., and its technicians always measure the external static pressure of the system and inspect the ductwork for problems. “We regularly encounter undersized ductwork, unsealed ducts, incorrect fittings, and systems that block off portions of components such as coils, heat exchangers, and filters. These can all cause measurable external static pressures that are too high, resulting in systems that don’t operate efficiently or provide adequate comfort,” said Robinson.
Most of the time, duct systems can be improved with a new return air drop and supply plenum, said Robinson, while some systems may need additional supply and/or return ducts. Many times the ducts need to be sealed and insulated, while other times, an all new duct system is required.
“We insist on making the repairs that we feel are required for the system to operate properly and not cause premature failure of system components such as heat exchangers and compressors,” said Robinson. “We know that when we install a new furnace, we are responsible for the system operating properly and safely. If the duct system is bad enough that not fixing it will compromise the system too much, we will refuse to install the furnace if duct improvements are not included.”
Once Apple Heating consultants employ ACCA Manuals J, D, and S and the necessary duct repairs are made, they can correctly determine which high-efficiency furnace best suits the homeowner’s needs. After installation, technicians perform a certified start-up, which includes measuring and recording the temperature rise, the combustion efficiency, external static pressure, and from that, the delivered efficiency of the furnace.
The results of all these efforts are very few callbacks and totally satisfied customers who refer Apple Heating to their friends and family. “When you sell a furnace, the key to the whole process is trust,” said Robinson. “If customers don’t trust you, they don’t believe you. If they believe you when you say their ductwork needs to be fixed or else they’re going to be unhappy, then that makes it easier for them to invest the money.”