Consumers are more well-informed than ever, and as a result, they often seek out products that are considered to be the best or most efficient in their class. For this reason, many only consider highly fuel-efficient cars, Energy Star labeled refrigerators, or televisions rated as top performers in consumer magazines. While this principle may work with other types of products, it does not always apply to the purchase of a high-efficiency heating and/or cooling system.

That is because HVAC equipment works in concert with the rest of the house, so if homeowners are to receive the improved comfort and energy savings they’ve paid for, it is first necessary to make sure the whole house functions as a system. This includes making sure that the HVAC systems are sized, designed, and installed correctly; that there is suitable insulation and ventilation in the home; and that the ductwork is properly sized and sealed.

By utilizing a whole-house approach — also known as home performance contracting (HPC) — contractors can ensure that the high-end systems their customers have purchased end up providing safe, healthy, comfortable, and energy-efficient environments.

Company Culture

For Steve Lauten, owner, Total Air and Heat, Plano, Texas, analyzing the entire home before installing new equipment is just doing business as usual. That’s because ever since his father started the residential/light commercial business back in 1957, the company has always focused on providing total energy and comfort solutions for customers.

“We’re very much against trying to sell a 20 SEER system without making sure the house has the correct ductwork and the ability to move air around properly,” said Lauten. “We routinely tell customers that they’re better off rectifying their ductwork issues and getting their existing system to deliver its rated capacity before we start worrying about whether they need high-efficiency equipment. Our attitude is that prognosis without diagnosis is malpractice.”

To properly diagnose the issues in a home, Lauten’s salespeople closely examine the ductwork, making sure it is sized correctly and using smoke pencils to check for leakage. If the salespeople believe there is an IAQ problem, they will place an Air Advice monitor in homes free of charge for three days to pinpoint issues with particulates, VOCs, and/or humidity control. They will also walk around the home, looking for dirty carpets, which may indicate the home is out of balance.

Depending on the interest of the customer, Lauten has other equipment that can dig a little deeper into a home’s condition, including duct leakage test equipment, infrared video inspection cameras, and HomeEnalasys machines, which measure and analyze a home’s HVAC system.

“We explain that just installing a new system without looking at the rest of the house is like getting a new heart without making sure the arteries are sound — you can still have a stroke or bleed to death. We have the ability to tell customers exactly what’s going on in their homes as long as they are willing to make the investment in doing some tests.”

Lack of insulation and attic ventilation are the two biggest issues that Lauten frequently encounters. Duct leakage is also problematic, as builders in the area often use walls for return air chases, and they tend to leak rather badly. “We mastic all the connections that we touch, and we strictly use R-8 insulation on our ducts. Typically 80 percent of the duct leakage is around the equipment itself, so we offer to seal around the boots and connections.”

Even when customers have been told about the problems with their homes, some still prefer to install high-efficiency equipment without fixing the underlying issues. In those rare cases, Lauten requires homeowners to sign a waiver stating that they have been told about what should be fixed and that they will hold his firm harmless for any resulting problems. “All we can do is try to educate them. We show them pictures, try to appeal to their common sense, and talk in terms they can understand. But ultimately it is their decision.”

One-Stop Shop

Estes Services, Atlanta, ventured into home performance contracting in 2001, and general manager John Waldorf noted that the company has evolved over the years so that it now offers testing, diagnostics, HVAC, plumbing, electrical, insulation, and envelope and thermal bypass sealing. The company is also certified to participate in numerous energy saving programs, such as Quality Assurance (QA), LEED, BPI, EarthCraft, EarthCents, and Home Performance with Energy Star. “We have found our niche, and that is being a one-stop shop for homeowners who want to improve the comfort and savings in their home.”

Thanks to local utilities and government agencies, homeowners are now more aware of how they can benefit from the whole-house approach, said Waldorf. “Most of our customers are interested in comfort first, and saving energy is a nice side effect. They are beginning to learn that they don’t have to live with uncomfortable areas within their home. They are starting to understand that HVAC is not a separate entity but an integral component of the house.”

When Waldorf discusses whole-house solutions with customers, he emphasizes the benefits in this order: Comfort, safety, health, and “oh, yeah, by the way, you can and will save some money on your energy bills.” Most customers, he notes, are receptive to this approach, as it shows that he truly cares about helping them achieve their goal, versus selling them an expensive box. It also helps mitigate the concern over price.

“For customers looking to upgrade the efficiency of their house, the initial investment is going to be greater than that of simply changing out boxes. However, when you factor in the reduction in energy consumption of the retrofitted house with new, correctly sized HVAC equipment and compare it to the cost of just replacing boxes, the whole-house approach wins hands down every time.”

Another benefit to offering HPC is that the results are measurable. As Waldorf noted, for years, the HVAC industry promised homeowners savings through the use of SEER comparisons, yet customers were not seeing the promised savings. “With HPC, we test before work is performed, as well as after the work is performed. We use a number of software programs that factor real energy costs, usage, and the improvements made to the house to determine a customer’s energy consumption reduction, so the homeowner receives a real return.”

Providing those realistic expectations has resulted in customers who are happier, more satisfied, and quicker to refer Estes to their friends, said Waldorf.

“Another benefit is that our employees who have attended whole-house training are happier and more confident that they now can provide customers with a better diagnosis and solution to all of their comfort issues. Offering HPC has definitely been beneficial for our company.”

Publication date: 6/18/2012