I’ve been there before. It’s 3 p.m. on a cold Friday afternoon in January. You get a no-heat call from a client who has small children or an elderly family member, and you come rushing to the rescue. You change out the furnace in the allotted time, maybe you even upgrade their old furnace to a new 95 percent condensing type, and all is well in the heating world. Yet, you have to ask yourself, did I feel significant drafts in the basement, by the doors, or near the windows? Did I notice all the major areas of heat loss that caused the snow to melt off the roof prematurely? For calls like this, I get it. In an emergency situation, clients usually agree to address their emergency need and worry about tightening the building envelope later. However, when time allows, good practice these days should go much deeper.

Furnace Upgrade

Ryan Rex
Ryan Rex

As global warming continues to play games with our climates, making the outdoor temperature minus 2?F one day and 68? the next, we should take what we know about heating design and go back to the drawing board. Adding more heat to a space to correct a heat loss issue may not be the correct course of action.

If you get a call to upgrade a furnace, or make a recommendation to do so, there’s much to be considered in terms of good design practice. People are more concerned with energy loss than ever before. Air leakage is the No. 1 problem with American homes. People are throwing money out the window each year. Keeping this in mind when estimating a furnace upgrade, you could add an alternate cost to make improvements to the building envelope. This practice will be more competitive in the market and present you as a more versatile contractor in the eyes of your clients.

Let’s examine what we call the building envelope. It’s defined as the interface between the interior of the building and the outdoor environment, including the walls, roof, and foundation. Minimizing heat transfer through the building envelope is critical for reducing the heating and cooling loads, thereby decreasing energy consumption and spending. Thinking in terms of furnace sizing, tightening a building envelope can reduce the amount of energy required to heat a space. By minimizing air leaks and heat loss, you can provide a very competitive package for your clients. Just don’t forget to add a cost for a fresh-air inlet on the return duct.

Sealing up the house will correct many problems, but take away its ability to breathe, and you may create different ones. For example, I once had a service call for an HVAC system in a condo having a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes Gold certification. The space was certified with less than 200 cfm of air leakage based on the blower door testing and associated calculations. The return ductwork was installed with a 4-inch fresh-air vent per minimum code requirements. The installing contractor made the mistake of installing a damper on the fresh-air vent. During the winter, mold began growing on the inside of the kitchen windows resulting from an accumulation of steam created during cooking. I found the damper on the fresh-air vent was closed. When I asked, the homeowner had closed the damper on the fresh-air vent to reduce the draft and save money. Cutting off the airflow to the house did the exact opposite. This is an extreme case, so don’t let my example discourage you. Tightening up a space is the right thing to do, and it gives the homeowner the chance to get fresh air ducted into their home the correct way.

Pricing for a blower door test with infrared scanning can vary. Combined, they usually have an average cost between $400-$800. This investment will potentially earn the client a two- to three-year payback when paired with a smaller, more efficient furnace. It’s a practice that will keep the client’s house more comfortable for longer periods of time, and make you look like a genius.

One way to differentiate your company in the market is to get training from the Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI) to personally execute the testing and redesign. There are many levels of BPI training, but I’d recommend becoming a Building Analyst. The training includes lessons on building science, combustion safety, blower door testing, energy analysis, and home-performance assessments. Being HVAC contractors, we all have experience with these subjects, but sharpening your skills also gives you the opportunity to sharpen your pencil for tighter bids. Once completed, you’ll have the knowledge to identify areas of improvement within the client’s home and the ability to explain to homeowners how they can further reduce energy usage and costs.

You can effectively increase your bottom line by reducing the furnace size needed to heat the house, and can make a few hundred additional bucks by performing the analysis yourself. This is also a nice opportunity to change out the air conditioner, even if you have to come back in the spring to pressure test, which may provide a good opportunity to sell a service contract.

Following the home analysis, which should include the blower door test and infrared testing, you can essentially “GC” the project and maximize your profit for the project. By performing a load calculation using Right Suite, you can provide proof that the heat load for the house has been decreased, therefore reducing the size of the equipment. Good estimating allows you to take a bit off the top for the client, while the smaller equipment should give you an edge to put the new equipment in at a faster pace, getting you to the next call a bit earlier.

Publication date: 4/28/2014 

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