The Horrors of Hodgepodge HVAC
Contractors ask homeowners questions in order to find a solution to their comfort woes
A contractor walks in the house, and there it sits: the tower fan. Further advancing into the home, there’s an unplugged space heater. Heading upstairs to the second floor, another tower fan. Now sweating, the contractor turns down the hall, and it’s there, staring him dead in the eye: a window a/c unit. The horror … the horror.
Some contractors may simply see these items as creature comforts in a customer’s home. For those looking to address whole-home energy efficiency and comfort, however, these items can be terrifying. With trends in home-performance contracting shifting to performance as opposed to simply higher-efficiency equipment, contractors are left with the challenge of breaking the hodgepodge cycle of heating and cooling.
A hodgepodge is a mixture of dissimilar or diverse ingredients — a jumble of sorts — and contractors run into these consumer-based heating and cooling solutions all the time. There are multiple approaches to dealing with the hodgepodge, and Chris Hunter, owner of Hunter Super Techs in Ardmore, Oklahoma, knows to stop and ask questions before diving in.
“The first thing I do when I see consumer-based solutions related to heating and cooling in the home: I ask the customer why they are there, and I try to find out why the items were purchased in the first place,” he said. “Was the unit not sufficient to provide enough comfort? Does the customer prefer air blowing on them? Some people like a fan even though the system more than adequately keeps them cool enough.”
Along with questioning homeowners, Hunter trains his crew to hone in on energy efficiency. That is when they work on a home utility breakdown. The goal is to find out how much more customers’ utility bills have increased since purchasing and using the hodgepodge heating and cooling items and then showing them the savings they could achieve with a more efficient system design.
“We will compare a 14-SEER unit to a 25-SEER unit to help make our point with the customer,” said Hunter. “We ask what the average utility bills run and then use approximate savings with each new unit to show that the savings of the higher-efficiency units will, in fact, help pay for the cost and the payments when financed.”
The company doesn’t rely simply on new units for home performance efficiency and comfort, they also factor in duct sealing, testing and balancing, and attic insulation.
“When figured over a 10-year financing, the lower-efficiency, lower-cost unit will typically end up costing the customer more money to run monthly,” Hunter said. “Add the monthly payment with the extra utilities, and the lower-efficiency unit will typically cost a customer somewhere in the range of $3,000 to $6,000 more over 10 years.”
Travis Smith, president of Sky Heating and Air Conditioning in Tualatin, Oregon, agrees that asking questions is the place to start. He considers the hodgepodge equipment as a hint to hidden customer discomfort. One of the main reasons to hide these discomforts is cost.
“Before performing a load calculation, we ask what areas are too hot or too cold, have humidity issues, air quality issues, noise issues, as well as how the customer uses the home,” Smith said. “After we perform the load calculation, we often find more issues that a homeowner didn’t mention because they feel every time they mention something, it will add to the cost.”
To help overcome cost issues, Smith trains his staff to not only do proper load calculations, but also to evaluate proper duct design and sealing. The company does an in-house duct design training and sends its sales team to multiday duct-design trainings. To further assist with training, Smith practices what he preaches. He lives in a high-performance, air-sealed home with solar, upgraded insulation, duct sealing, and heat recovery ventilation (HRV) systems, to name a few of his practices. The company often uses Smith’s house to train and learn about whole-home efficiency.
With Sky Heating and Air Conditioning taking into account the entire home with properly trained sales teams and technicians, the cost decision to improve efficiency and comfort falls into the hands of the customers.
“We are not there to fix a problem or to ensure overall comfort, we are there to provide solutions,” Smith said. “If the customer feels the price is adequate for the solution, they move forward. If they don’t move forward, either the problem is not that bad, or we have not built enough value.”
Although some contractors address this cost hesitancy with a step-by-step process executed in phases, Smith is concerned that customers with broken equipment will be placed in an all-or-nothing situation.
“If we need to replace a broken 4-ton system and do so with a 3-ton system right away, then do the insulation and air sealing that would make the house only need the 3-ton system later, well that really is a problem,” he said.
For customers not in dire need of a new system, Smith recommends that contractors offer performance upgrades to the customer before the existing system breaks.
Magic Touch Mechanical in Mesa, Arizona, has found success using the phased approach to home-performance contracting for its customers. This success has come from jumping in with both feet to the home-performance market. The word “hodgepodge” no longer exists in this company’s vocabulary.
“Ten years ago, we were an HVAC company with a home-performance department,” said Rich Morgan, president of Magic Touch Mechanical. “Now, we’re a home-performance company with an HVAC department. I’ve been preaching for years that HVAC companies that don’t adopt and embrace home performance will be left behind and passed up by the contractors that do. Simply changing the box without addressing the whole-home’s comfort, efficiency, air quality, health, and safety is a thing of the past.”
Morgan warned that online equipment sellers and installation laborers are pushing the installation expertise that used to elevate the HVAC technician into a commodity. He explained that the future expertise of an HVAC company rests in its ability to offer knowledge, testing, service, and performance results. These are what Morgan considers the new differentiators, and his company has gone after it wholeheartedly.
“Home-performance contracting was a complete game changer for Magic Touch Mechanical,” said Morgan. “We jumped in with both feet. It was scary and expensive for years, and we made our fair share of costly mistakes in the process. However, at this point, we’ve established ourselves as a market leader in one of the hottest markets in the country.”
When entering a home, Magic Touch Mechanical staff will ask many of the same questions Hunter and Smith do, especially when seeing consumer- purchased heating and cooling products. If deficiencies are found, then the company begins to explain its home energy audit services. After the customer understands what is involved and how the company tests, two appointments are made: one for the test and a second for the results.
“On the second visit, we come back with a comprehensive audit report complete with digital pictures, thermal images, a list of deficiencies found, and an action plan complete with pricing, estimated ROI [return on investment], and SIR [savings to investment ratio],” said Morgan. “Our energy audit report lists deficiencies and recommendations by order of importance. Those with the greatest effect on the customer’s comfort or efficiency and provide the most immediate results are listed as high priority. We start there, and they become believers.”
Not every customer is receptive to the message of home-performance contracting, but the message is getting louder as HVAC contractors continue to embrace it. Those who use the hodgepodge as a springboard to address energy efficiency and customer discomfort are finding success, and those who aren’t … only time will tell.
Publication date: 9/17/2018