If the fact that the latest U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Energy Star programs now require a whole-system approach to HVAC installation and maintenance is any indication, it’s clear that overlooking the tightness of the ductwork will impact total system performance. Nobody understands this better than Reliable Comfort Inc.

When Aaron Ruddick and his two brothers first began their HVAC business back in 2001, it was all about selling dependable equipment at reasonable prices. Using this simple formula, the brothers were able to attract enough customers to keep the doors open. But they knew they could do better.

They began talking to other HVAC contractors — the ones that were doing much better than simply OK. The brothers attended industry workshops, went to the big tradeshows, and stayed informed on the latest industry trends. And over the next decade or so, they implemented many of the best practices and business strategies that they found to be indicative of successful HVAC businesses across the country. Today, Reliable Comfort Inc. is one of the largest residential HVAC contracting companies in the Columbus, Indiana, market.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned along the way was that their business growth was contingent upon delivering solutions, not just products.

“No matter how good the equipment or how low the price, we found that it was simply not enough to sell boxes,” said Ruddick. “Homeowners aren’t coming to us for new products; they’re looking for solutions to real problems. And we’ve learned that means going well beyond the box.”

Embracing this philosophy didn’t happen overnight. It took years of trial and error. It took training from respected professionals in the industry. And it took loyal customers like Denise, who depends upon Reliable Comfort for her own home comfort and energy savings.

Ever since Denise moved into her rural country home in Bartholomew County, she was plagued with high energy bills and uneven temperatures. Soon after buying the house, she placed her first call to Reliable Comfort and had them upgrade the antiquated heating system that came with the property. After a discussion regarding her needs and concerns at the time, Ruddick suggested she replace her old furnace with a 13-SEER heat pump system and a 15 kW backup heater.

“At the time, this system was rated high for efficiency and promised a significant reduction in energy use compared to her old system,” said Ruddick. “For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, it never met those expectations.”

Each winter, Ruddick would get a call from Denise concerned that her electric bill was still too high. So he would jump in the company truck, drive to her home, and check to make sure the equipment he sold her was running properly. It always was. But she was always dismayed at the size of her energy bills.

Around the same time, the government began offering tax credits for high-efficiency gas furnaces, and Reliable began selling a lot of high-end 95 percent efficiency-rated systems.

“And just like with Denise, we would get calls from customers complaining that their new systems did little to lower their energy bills,” said Ruddick.

So the Ruddick brothers decided to find out why these high-efficiency systems were not performing as expected. They learned about many of the intricacies associated with a whole-system approach to energy efficiency — how an energy-efficient box won’t delivery efficiency on its own and how duct systems play a significant role in the overall performance of an HVAC system. So when Denise called Ruddick later that year, he told her that he knew how to solve her energy-efficiency problem.

“Frankly, I was skeptical that leaks in my ductwork could be behind my rising energy bills,” said Denise. “Other contractors had blamed the problem on a number of issues. Over the years, I had spent a substantial amount of money on fix-it projects — from having my roof redone, reinsulating my attic, encapsulating my crawl space — all a failure in fixing the problem. But Aaron assured me that this would do the trick. He told me about a new aerosol-based sealing method that would allow his team to quickly seal my entire duct system without having to cut into my walls or even remove the insulation from around the ducts.”

In just about 20 minutes, the duct sealing process accomplished what years of misguided fixes were unable to do. The final report said it all: The leakage rate was reduced from 750 cfm to less than 25 cfm. More importantly, Denise could immediately feel the difference.

“The air coming out of the registers is now much stronger than it was before,” said Denise. “I don’t hear the furnace clicking on and off as often, and now the rooms at the end of the house that were always colder than the rest of the rooms are just as comfortable.”

And her energy bills?

“After adjusting out the baseload lights and appliances portion of the bill and including calculations to adjust for differences in weather, we found that Denise’s heating bill is now 45.1 percent lower than in previous winters,” said Ruddick. “Given these facts, we were able to determine that Aerosealing the ductwork had actually cut her winter heating bill in half.”

Since this first “experiment,” duct sealing has become a major part of the Reliable Comfort business.

“About 40 percent of our duct sealing business comes as an add-on service when we install new equipment,” said Ruddick. “The other 60 percent follows a home energy test, where we can actually prove to the homeowner that leaks are robbing the home of energy and comfort. Offering the ability to provide an airtight air distribution system may not have been part of our original business plan, but, thanks to proper training and new innovative solutions, we see it now as the path to customer satisfaction and our growing business success.”

Brendan Reid is co-founder and senior partner of the Comfort Institute, an international home performance research, training, and consumer protection organization.

Publication date: 4/30/2018

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