Jack Sine
Jack Sine

What is a super tech? A super tech is one who eats, sleeps, and breathes HVAC. He may be a contractor, manager, or technician, but, above all, he is a perfectionist. And his greatest enemy is the callback. If that sounds like you, then you may be a super tech, too.

The Cost of Callbacks

Everyone agrees that a callback is a bad thing, but most have not invested the time and effort to discover just how expensive one truly is. Of course, the expense will vary somewhat from contractor to contractor and area to area, but the cost is probably much higher than most HVAC professionals think.

Brian Leech, owner, Service Legends in Des Moines, Iowa, committed himself and his 27 employees to finding out the scope of the average callback. “I knew the cost of callbacks was expensive,” said Leech, “but I never tried to calculate it. I sat down and identified the areas affected by a callback, and the more I worked at it, the more I found that every aspect of the business is affected, all of the overhead and more.”

But he didn’t stop there.

“The term unrealized potential means you don’t only look at the cost of the callback, but also the lost profit you would have earned during the time of the callback.”

Leech didn’t just sit down with a calculator to come up with the number. “I wanted my employees to take ownership of this task,” he said. “So, I prepared materials and we closed shop for a day and took on the cost of callbacks as a team project.”

Leech and his staff figured out the actual cost of a callback for a van, and the total cost of the callback based on the technician level who was assigned the error. The average cost? Give or take $3,000. That’s a lot of incentive for reducing callbacks.

Minimizing Callbacks

Leech insisted service techs must take ownership of their callbacks. He does this with a carrot-and-stick approach. Not only does he grant them ownership of the callback program, he also provides them with incentives. “We instituted more training directly related to the specific problem that caused a specific callback. Next, we gave financial incentives and paid days off for the employees with the fewest callbacks. The ones with the most were placed on probation for two months.”

After six months, his team reduced callbacks by 77 percent.

A Thorough Approach

Leech’s program offered his company great results. There are other contractors and managers out there developing innovative programs to minimize callbacks, as well. One of the major things they are fighting is the propensity of technicians to take shortcuts, perhaps because they feel pressure to get more work done in a day.

Bill Brown, HVAC instructor, Brownson Technical School in Anaheim, California, said: “Some technicians get to the field and start taking shortcuts because the right way is too difficult, too time consuming, or because they feel they are under pressure to get on to the next job. For instance, instead of measuring suction line temperature, a technician will wrap his bare hand around the pipe and judge by feel. We call it the cold-beer test. That kind of shortcut is unacceptable at any time, but especially now with the SEER standards to meet.”

Of course, this kind of work habit leads to callbacks and makes the technicians less productive.

Combustion Checks

Contractors would benefit from requiring technicians to utilize a simple combustion check on heating systems. Adolfo Wurts, engineering manager at Fieldpiece Instruments Inc., said more than 90 percent of a field technician’s work with combustion efficiency occurs during a combustion check.

“The technician is looking to make the heating system run efficiently,” he said. “To do that, he doesn’t need to perform a full, time-consuming combustion analysis. He needs to make sure the system is running within the manufacturer’s specs, and those include targets for three or four measurements, depending on the manufacturer.

“The process doesn’t require a lot of time and it doesn’t need the expensive instrumentation that combustion analysis does. Unfortunately, many techs just wing it, and that leads to loss of performance and efficiency and creates more callbacks. A good, dedicated combustion-check meter should switch between natural gas, No. 2 fuel oil, and propane and include a pump and a high-temperature thermocouple for insertion into the flue. Calculate the percentages of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and excess air. More importantly, they cost much less than combustion analyzers and are easier to use.”

A/C Analysis

To assure an air conditioning system is running at top efficiency, a technician needs to perform superheat/subcooling and evaporator airflow analyses. Brian Arthun is another super tech who hates callbacks. He is a service technician for Select Heating and Air Conditioning in Orange, California.

“We recently won a contract on a six-story office building,” he said. “They had not been happy with their previous contractor, and for good reason. They had 65 condensing units in the building — mostly split systems and a couple of packaged systems. Using the Fieldpiece Guide Analyzer, I did due diligence on all of them to see how they were running. Of the 65 units, only three were close to spec. The rest, except for one, were badly undercharged. A couple of them needed 10 pounds of refrigerant. The one that wasn’t undercharged, was overcharged by 15 pounds. We had to weigh the excess refrigerant out.”

Sometimes a super tech must rely on his instinct and experience as well as his tools to avoid a callback. Mike Christensen is a service manager for Weatherite, a Walnut, California-based commercial HVAC service and maintenance company. Recently, Mike and one of his technicians had just completed a repair on a 5-ton cap tube system and had evacuated the system before weighing in the charge per the panel weight on the front of the unit. After they weighed in the charge and waited for the system to stabilize, their instinct and experience told them that the system was running below its 5-ton capacity because there was a small delta T of approximately 13?F. Much to his surprise, he had to add 3 pounds, 4 ounces of refrigerant to the package system. He had never heard of a 5-ton package system needing that much extra refrigerant over what was stamped on the nameplate. To verify his work, he checked the charge again, measured the temperature split, and used the Target Evaporator Exit Temperature test on his Fieldpiece Guide Analyzer to make sure the system was running optimally. So by combining a well-thought-out team-oriented approach, it might just be possible to tame the costly callback and assure customer loyalty.

Publication date: 8/25/2014

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