DENVER — Not even a late spring snowstorm could dampen the enthusiasm of those attending Affordable Comfort Institute Inc.’s (ACI) “Make Your Mark” National Home Performance Conference and Trade Show. Throngs of attendees took part in numerous educational and networking events that were designed to promote awareness of issues related to creating healthy, comfortable, sustainable homes.

The recently held annual conference attracted dedicated home-performance and weatherization professionals who were interested in learning more about how buildings use energy and how building materials and appliances affect resource efficiency, air circulation, and moisture. These themes were reflected in the 20-plus learning tracks, which featured workshops ranging from energy audits, to heating and cooling systems, to water conservation, and more.

Tracking HVAC

The heating and cooling track included sessions on everything from properly sizing HVAC equipment, to identifying energy savings opportunities such as brushless fan motor upgrades, to exploring the processes involved in zoned HVAC systems. There were also several sessions detailing the benefits of ductless mini-split systems, which are popular in the home-performance contracting (HPC) industry.

In the session titled, “Simplified Space Conditioning Systems,” presenters Bruce Manclark, director of training, Fluid Market Strategies, Portland, Ore., and Duncan Prahl, architect, Ibacos Inc., Pittsburgh, devoted a significant amount of time to the benefits of “De-Ducting Your Home.” As Manclark noted, “De-ducting requires less quality management than duct fixing and duct sealing. Most large-scale duct programs, usually offered through local utilities, probably don’t do enough to ensure high quality throughout the program.”

Prahl added that ductless heat pumps make homeowners happy, because they supply hot air in the winter, and the new super smart diffusers warm the floors during the cold winter months. “Ductless heat pumps work well, because they have no control wiring, no dip switches, no jumper wires, no ducts to screw up, and there is no need to add refrigerant. In addition, they entrain the room air very well, and their efficiency goes up at part-load conditions.”

In the session titled, “A/C Systems Best Practices: How to Evaluate and Optimize Peak Performance,” Jim Bergmann, chief technical officer, TruTech Tools, Akron, Ohio, pointed out that seven out of 10 cooling systems do not have the correct airflow or refrigerant charge, resulting in systems that are operating at 40-80 percent of potential capacity and efficiency. These problems often occur due to inaccurate and uncalibrated gauges, he said, as well as technicians simply not doing a complete diagnosis or analysis of the system.

“For a few hundred dollars, these problems can be corrected, resulting in a 25-50 percent increase in delivered cooling capacity,” said Bergmann.
“Unfortunately, technicians usually don’t measure or confirm airflow, and airflow must be correct in order to set the refrigerant charge properly. Technicians also resist inspecting and cleaning indoor coils and blowers. Basically, there is no disciplined, thorough approach, and too many rely on bad habits, shortcuts, and rules of thumb.”

Bergmann said contractors need to invest in better tools and technology for their technicians, as well as provide training to help them understand the science behind refrigeration. “Provide step-by-step tune-up procedures that work every time. This includes cleaning the blowers and coils before adjusting the refrigerant charge, as well as educating customers about proper cleaning and maintenance. Don’t walk away from a system delivering only 65 percent of its rated capacity.”

HPC Roadmap

HPC can be challenging, as no two homes are the same, homeowners have limited resources, and decisions are often based on aesthetics and emotions, said Sydney Roberts, director of applied building science, Southface Energy Institute, Atlanta, in the workshop titled, “Whole-House Approach with a Half Wallet.” “Industry professionals need to provide homeowners with a roadmap of solutions that are energy-efficient, healthy, durable, and affordable. The goal should be to lay things out in order of priority and always leave some work on the table to do in the future.”

Her co-presenter, Kyle Haddock, vice president of business development, EIC ComfortHome, Newark, N.J., noted that successful home-performance contractors identify with customer issues, such as high energy bills, cold rooms, and damp basements, and then prioritize the services to be performed and set up an action plan. “Always begin by looking at the energy bills, so you can understand the customer’s usage. Then educate them about how they can alter their energy usage through the use of simple items, such as CFLs [compact fluorescent lights], faucet aerators, and low-flow showerheads.”

Once homeowners are committed to altering their energy usage, home-performance contractors should move on to diagnosing and correcting health and safety issues, said Haddock. “This includes making sure all combustion appliances are in safe working order, as well as identifying moisture-generating sources and areas of uncontrolled humidity.” After that, it’s time to tune up the HVAC equipment and improve the air distribution system, followed by air sealing the attic and the basement.

These steps often take place over time, but once they are finished, it is necessary to stop and take inventory, said Haddock. “A lot of changes have been done to the envelope, so it is time to use diagnostic tools to confirm moisture problems that may be connected to the new envelope. Managing moisture is essential for health, safety, durability, IAQ, and comfort. Remember, the best customers are those who are healthy enough to tell their friends about you.”

Once moisture issues are identified and fixed, it is possible to move on to insulating the attic, improving the efficiency of the HVAC systems, adding programmable thermostats, and balancing the distribution system. After that comes air sealing the windows and doors, improving the insulation levels of sidewalls and floors, and, finally, replacing the windows. These steps, performed in this order, said Haddock, provide a useful roadmap for home-performance contractors and their customers to follow, eventually culminating in a comfortable, safe, and healthy home.

Another session, titled “Contractor or Consultant Model?” looked at various roadmaps for running a successful home-performance business. The panel of consultants and contractors came to the conclusion that with the consultant model, which usually involves giving advice but not performing the actual work, it is difficult to reach out to customers for additional work. With the contractor model, where the company actually performs the home-performance work on the home, it is possible to reach out and touch customers multiple times.

That is why Amanda Godward, owner and chief energy engineer, Ecotelligent Homes, Farmington, Mich., decided to become a fully integrated HPC firm. “We started just doing energy audits, due to financial constraints, but now we do everything from the initial audit to all the work in-house. As a consultant, you can come up with solutions, but you don’t do the job. And many customers don’t go further than the audit, if you don’t do the work. As a contractor, you can see the results.”

Godward noted that it is often easiest to add ventilation, air sealing, and insulation to a company’s offerings but that HVAC is complex and difficult to add. “It takes a long time to build an HVAC base, which is why the HVAC industry is a prime business model for HPC — those contractors already have an established customer base.”

Judging by the large number of HVAC contractors attending the ACI Conference, it seems many of them are coming to that same conclusion.

Publication date: 6/10/2013