It’s no secret among HVACR contractors that their average customer’s ductwork is inefficient, dirty, and often defective. That’s why Duct Dynasty columnist David Richardson, a former HVAC contractor who now serves as a curriculum developer and trainer at the National Comfort Institute (NCI), spends much of his time teaching contractors about duct renovation — a method used by progressive contractors to repair ailing duct systems. The repairs are guided by diagnostic testing using instruments such as a manometer, magnehelic gauge, infrared thermometer, air flow hood, smoke puffer, and more to determine system pressure — much like how a doctor checks blood pressure. In a nutshell, the renovation identifies which portions of the system need work and which don’t.

“It basically takes lemons and turns them into lemonade,” Richardson explained. “The workmanship [on ductwork] is very substandard, so this actually gives contractors a way to increase net profits by fixing issues created by other contractors.”

Contractors adding duct renovation services to their repertoires can improve both the contractor’s bottom line as well as their reputation as a high-end HVAC contractor. But, Richardson stressed, customers have to be made aware of its benefits, and the renovation itself must be done correctly.

Why Renovate?

Many contractors have a tendency to neglect their customers’ ductwork, Richardson said, so even if customers have had multiple contractors working in their homes before, there’s a good chance none of them has taken a thorough look at the ductwork, which is often the top energy waster in the home and a major source of IAQ issues. Duct renovation, when done right, can present a nearly untapped revenue source for forward-thinking HVAC contractors.

“If a guy does not understand that cause-and-effect relationship, they could go in and make a house absolutely dangerous,” Richardson said. “For any contractor looking to get into home performance, this is the perfect first step.”

Michael Hartman, president, Thos. E. Clark Inc., Silver Spring, Maryland, said his company looks at duct renovation as a solution to ensure their customers’ comfort and health while separating itself from the competition, especially now that customers are more informed about their homes’ HVAC systems than ever before.

“Prior to earning our System Performance and Duct Renovation certifications from NCI, we never asked the customer if he or she had any rooms that were too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer; we were ignorant to the process of testing and repairing duct deficiencies,” Hartman said. “Seeing the look on a customer’s face when we ask if anyone has taken static pressure readings or performed any air diagnostics is priceless. When we repeat the NCI motto, ‘If you’re not testing, you’re guessing,’ we immediately put ourselves in a different category. The customers love it.”

Mark Pippin, owner, Pippin Brothers Home Services, Lawton, Oklahoma, first began looking into duct renovation in 2001. “Most contractors assume the ductwork is OK, but it is clearly not,” he said. “By doing this work, our callbacks are very low, and our customer comfort is off the charts.”

Eric Robnett, owner, Home Energy Experts, Reno, Nevada, said duct renovation is “an opportunity to show our clients how we can improve their comfort, efficiency, safety, and health, and it also sets us apart from the blow-and-go box swappers that are just bidding equipment replacements with empty promises.”

Selling Duct Renovation

Since ductwork is out of sight, it is often out of mind, which makes it difficult to convince customers that repairs are needed. But getting customers directly involved in the testing and inspection process lets them discover issues on their own, which is often all that is needed to push them over the edge to invest in duct renovation.

“We put the instruments in the customers’ hands,” Richardson said. “The biggest thing is to shut up and let them discover some things. You have to stop being a salesman and start being a guide. The customers are uncovering these issues in their own homes.”

Robnett said testing is the best way to show customers how duct renovation would benefit them. “By testing what the clients currently have in the home and sharing the results with them, they can see for themselves why they are having comfort, efficiency, health, or repair cost issues. It actually makes them smarter than our competition.”

Pippin agreed getting customers involved in testing is key.

“We get customers involved in the pretest to determine the leakage,” Pippin said. “You measure the amount of air coming out and the amount going back through the ductwork. These numbers are supposed to be equal but rarely are. Based on the readings, you can tell the homeowner which rooms are most likely uncomfortable, and they are amazed you know this.”

Avoiding sales-speak is also advisable, in addition to thorough testing, Hartman said. “By determining how much airflow each room requires versus what is actually being delivered, we are able to tell customers exactly what needs to be done to make the home more comfortable and the system more efficient.”

Finally, it is extremely important for contractors to explain duct renovation in terms homeowners can understand.

“The worst thing you can do is get technical,” Richardson said. “It has to be simplified. Some guys try to prove how smart they are instead of focusing on the true issues and how they can help.”

Advice for Others

For residential contractors interested in adding duct renovation to their list of services, Robnett, Pippin, and Hartman offered a few sage words of wisdom.

“I would say if [contractors] are not doing this, they really should not be in this trade,” Robnett said. “If your goal is to please your customers, this is the most important part of a forced-air business.”

“Once you know how bad the existing system is — and they are like this nationwide — it’s not fair to your customers not to provide a fix,” Pippin said. “The big players are really having a challenge with this because you cannot do one to two changeouts per day; in most cases, it takes two to four days to perform a changeout. They have a hard time charging for the time it takes to fix the ductwork, which is sometimes more costly than the equipment. You are not competing against everyone anymore, as you are offering a system changeout.”

Hartman was more frank. “Make the decision to do it, and then do it,” he said. “Call NCI. HVAC business owners should get certified. Don’t procrastinate like I did. Don’t dip your foot in the pool. Jump in with both feet. Make the investment to get your techs trained and equip them with the necessary tools to start testing every system they touch. Once you get to that point, it’s all downhill from there.”

In the end, duct renovation is “about breaking habits that have been ingrained in the industry for decades,” Richardson said. “It helps to open the doors to other things that need to be done. It’s a win-win for everyone — the customers win, and the contractors win.”

Publication date: 10/20/2014

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