Dirty filters can negatively impact IAQ, reduce system efficiency, and even lead to premature equipment failure.
Dirty filters can negatively impact IAQ, reduce system efficiency, and even lead to premature equipment failure. Proactive HVAC contractors incorporate filter replacements in maintenance agreements and offer customers monthly subscription services.

In a residential forced-air system, the filter shields HVAC equipment from becoming dirty and damaged while also protecting occupants from problems associated with poor IAQ. Replacing filters regularly and properly can help minimize or even eliminate IAQ concerns, yet many homeowners forget to do it or simply aren’t aware they should be changing their filters between maintenance visits. To remedy that, forward-thinking HVAC contractors are training technicians, educating customers, and even providing filter-delivery services on behalf of maintenance customers.

Consumer Awareness

Poor IAQ can have potentially serious consequences, said Ben Hubbert, owner, Champion AC, San Antonio. “When you have an old filter, or a filter with too low of a MERV rating, particulates will still flow through the system and may enter the air cycle. Breathing in particulates and allergens can cause sneezing, a stuffy nose, and, in some cases, even intensify an individual’s susceptibility to catching the flu or other illnesses,” he said.

More and more homeowners are aware of these consequences, which is why they are becoming increasingly cognizant when it comes to maintaining clean filters.

“There is definitely more consumer awareness of furnace filters,” said Dave Knight, co-owner and director of sales and marketing, Thornton & Grooms, Farmington Hills, Michigan. “I believe this is due to media attention around sick building syndrome and the benefits of IAQ, better marketing from manufacturers and dealers, the code changes from more than a decade ago requiring filters to be placed external to the furnace, endcap presence in big-box stores, and increasing maintenance-agreement customers.”

Once a customer’s had a problem related to or caused by a filter — including allergies, freezing coils, or tripped limit switches — they are generally much more aware, said Ken Thorpe, manager, Powder River Heating and Air Conditioning Inc., Sheridan, Wyoming. “Unfortunately, we still see several homeowners who only change their filters after there has been a problem,” he said.

Mike Agugliaro, co-owner, Gold Medal Service, East Brunswick, New Jersey, acknowledged many homeowners don’t know when or how to replace their filters.

“Most homeowners know there is a filter; however, nearly 50 percent don’t know how often to change it, or they forget,” he said. “We find that most system breakdowns are from a failure to change the air filter and then starting the unit for air conditioning, which causes the inside coil to freeze up or the blower to fail. That’s why we offer a membership plan; that way, we can remind homeowners when it’s time to change a filter, why it’s important, and we offer to do it for them, that way it’s done right.”

Knight also said signing up for maintenance plans can help ensure filters are being replaced at the right time. “Replace too soon, and they are spending more than they need to,” Knight said. “Wait until the filter is loaded, and they put undue stress on the equipment and waste energy and money on inefficient system operation. We recommend customers sign up for our Comfort Protection Maintenance Plan. With this program they can rely on our service professionals to replace their filters at the proper time.”

Common Mistakes

In addition to forgetting to change filters altogether, homeowners often make mistakes when choosing and installing their own filters.

“The biggest mistake our techs see is that people do not understand their systems, or the previous HVAC contractor did not go through and explain the maintenance the homeowners need to provide,” Hubbert said. “A lot of customers don’t realize we don’t change your filters once a month. We try to educate them on extending the life, regular maintenance, filter programs, and filter replacement plans. The biggest thing we see is they don’t know they’ve had a filter in a return in a room that’s been in there for three years.”

“The biggest mistake we see is the use of a high-density 1-inch air filter — 3M Filtrete is the most prevalent,” Knight said. “These types of filters restrict too much airflow back to the furnace in most applications, which results in more frequent repairs, shorter equipment life, and reduced performance. Similarly, we see dealers install air filters without making the necessary changes to the duct system, such as proper size duct, proper location of the filter, radius fittings, and the use of turning vanes. Without the correct duct system modifications, the filter will be less effective and potentially cause the same issues mentioned for the 1-inch high-density filter.”

“The 90-day 1-inch filters bought from the big-box stores are very restrictive,” agreed Jon Sells, Jon’s Plumbing & Heating Inc., Mount Vernon, Ohio.

Some other mistakes homeowners make, said Paul Sammataro, owner, Samm’s Heating and Air Conditioning, Plano, Texas, are installing the filter backward and following manufacturer-recommended filter replacement dates.

“We explain the date is deceptive,” Sammataro said. “We explain how a filter sold nationwide can’t have the same 90-day replacement date in Maine during the summer as it does in Texas, for example.”

Agugliaro said it is common for customers to go for the lowest price instead of the best solution, or they assume every product is the same.

“Lower-grade filters may impede the efficiency and actually create issues instead of doing what they are meant to do — keep the unit clean,” he said. “To have the best air, homeowners need to have an expert help them make the best decision for their families; from a newborn to a grandfather, needs vary when it comes to air quality.”

Homeowners also sometimes attempt to “clean” a disposable filter, which is made to be thrown away, Thorpe said. They also sometimes install “top-notch filtration” in faulty ductwork. “The filter is only as good as the rack you are installing it in. If you have gaps around the rack, the air will bypass the filter or eliminate its effectiveness,” he said.

Thorpe recommended changing the filter more often than needed. “It is like the oil change on your car — it is the cheapest maintenance you can do for a system that costs thousands of dollars to replace and hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to operate,” he said. “Make it work as efficiently as possible to save the most money on your utility bill.”

Best Filter for the Job

Selecting the right filter depends on numerous factors, including contractor or homeowner brand preference, MERV rating, the homeowners’ needs, and more.

“We use several brands of filters and other products to improve IAQ,” Knight said. “At a minimum, we recommend the Trion Air Bear MERV 8 media air filter, which does a nice job of protecting the equipment and removing medium-sized airborne particles. It’s easy to change and find lower-cost replacement filters. We also use the Carrier Infinity Air Purifier — ideally as part of a complete Carrier Infinity system — which is a combination MERV-15 media filter with electronic air cleaning technology that improves the capture rate and then a ‘kill’ technology for bacteria, spores, and microorganisms. In addition to filtration, we offer products from Global Plasma Systems that actively improve IAQ by introducing negative ions into the air stream that proactively attack viruses, bacteria, odors, VOCs [volatile organic compounds], mold, and smoke.”

To find the best solution, Knight said his team asks customers numerous questions in addition to educating them on the value of good IAQ. “We then provide them options based on this information and let them choose the IAQ package that meets their wants, needs, and budget.”

Sammataro recommended pleated high-MERV filters from Honeywell, Aprilaire, and Glassfloss. “Based on their concerns, we match the type of filtering system they have or want with our recommendation.”

Hubbert said he tries to make sure customers are getting the best value for their money.

“Home Depot and Lowe’s are selling pleated filters for $10-$15 each, or even up to $20 each,” he said. “They’re only a pleated filter — it’s just a little higher MERV, but not to the point where you’re going to get a return on that investment.”

Agugliaro said it’s important not to install a filter that will restrict airflow, which can reduce system efficiency. “We use and recommend either a [Lennox] Healthy Climate or Air Defense filter with a minimum of a MERV-10 rating,” he said.

Like Knight, Agugliaro said his techs assess customers’ needs in relation to allergies and health issues in order to determine the best filter for the job. “In the end, the level of products and treatments we provide is based on the level of air the homeowner wants to breathe. From filter to air cleaner to air purifiers, there are different levels of treatments and products we can use to improve the overall air quality. Customers spend a lot of time in their homes breathing air that is trapped inside, so it’s important to invest in a quality product.”

Thorpe also said the best IAQ solution depends on the occupants’ needs. “It is all about communication,” he said. “Ask lots of questions and understand what their needs are — do they have pets, do they have allergies, what are their expectations from their filtration system, do they currently use some sort of portable room filtration system, and do they understand the benefits of whole-house filtration?”

Thorpe prefers to install a more expensive filter in his customers’ homes. “For our ‘standard’ pleated filters, we use the Farr 30/30s,” he said. “We get some complaints, as these filters cost a bit more than the hardware/discount store versions, and they have to be changed more often, as they actually work to take pollutants out of the airstream, but that is the point, right?”

Battling Poor IAQ with Knowledge

When it comes to helping customers improve IAQ, technician training and consumer education are vital.

For Knight, training comes in several different forms. “We bring in manufacturers to explain their products and answer our questions and implement personal use of products so our people get to experience the benefits they provide. We read trade journals; we assign our technicians research projects and have them present to the rest of the team; we use Carrier’s online training — in particular, the Carrier Healthy Air Expert certification; and we require our technicians to become NATE [North American Technician Excellence]-certified. It’s an ongoing process really to keep up with the changes in technology and the demands of our customers as they expect us to be professionals.”

The key to solving IAQ issues, Thorpe said, is for HVAC technicians, installers, and sales people to look at homeowners’ HVAC equipment as systems made up of multiple parts.

“The furnace/air handler is only one part of the system,” he explained. “The ductwork, grilles and registers, flue, combustion air, thermostat, and filter are also parts of the system — each one working properly and being properly designed is critical to the entire system working properly.”

In order for homeowners to understand the importance of IAQ and using the correct filter, contractors are finding that knowledge is power. “When you go in and explain your services and walk customers — especially new customers — through each filter and why they are what they are, it gets people thinking about changing them more,” Hubbert said. “That’s really helped us get more maintenance agreements on what they have and what they need. They have a better idea of what sizes they need as they have all the documentation.”

To make it especially easy for his customers to replace their filters with the appropriate products, Hubbert is launching a program to ship filters directly to customers’ doorsteps. “Our customers can purchase filters online, and they show up at their residences,” he said. “By getting the right serial numbers, we can customize each order for the homeowner. We’re scheduled to launch that service in May.”

Training and education of both the technician and the homeowner has helped Agugliaro better serve his customers. “We provide a healthy home survey, which allows our technicians to be experts, and we provide ongoing training for best practices. Our experts are trained to ask questions about the people in the home and to educate the customer about the solutions we offer for any IAQ issues. For our company, it is not just about the sale; our core purpose is serving customers and helping them feel comfortable and safe in their homes.”

Top-tier contractors aim to ensure customers have the best indoor environment possible while also maintaining their equipment, but making sure customers are doing their part between maintenance calls is an ongoing battle. Through education, contractors are hoping to change that.

“People don’t change their filters,” Hubbert said. “In a city like San Antonio, you’re talking about devastating your coil. We try to educate as much as we can, but we still get 10 new customers a day who don’t change their filters. People know they need to do it, but they don’t keep track of it. It’s one of those little check marks that doesn’t get taken care of.”

Publication date: 3/2/2015

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