“We’ve got dust bunnies all over the house.”
“The kids are always sniffling.”
“I’m tired of dusting.”
Cue the HVAC contractor to the rescue. With the right training and the right customer education, IAQ can be a contractor’s golden opportunity to take advantage of potential sales without the added effort of recruiting new clients.
“It’s always more difficult to add new customers, and I don’t think that’s any different for a contractor,” said AJ Smith, vice president and general manager of Global Pro Comfort, Honeywell Homes (soon to become Resideo). “A savvy contactor can grow their business by selling to existing customers.”
IAQ starts with letting people know there’s a solution to their air quality issues. Jim Patterson, president at JB Solutions Inc. and owner of Orchard Valley Heating and Cooling in Southampton, Massachusetts, said in terms of customer awareness, it’s often word-of-mouth.
“We get clients who come to us specifically because of what we were able to do for their friends,” Patterson said. “People with chemical sensitivities, with allergies, or with environmental problems like ‘sick building syndrome,’ where the house is just not built right.”
Since IAQ isn’t something you can see or feel right away, Patterson and his techs make an effort to show the tangible signs of what the building’s shortcomings could be, and it becomes part of the educational process with the homeowner.
“We do a walk-through of the basement or attic,” he said. “I’m scanning the house with a thermal imager, checking are the windows rotting, looking for odors ... taking pictures if there’s something that needs to be addressed. After that, I start talking equipment, talking about their family’s needs and desires.”
Lee Downing is the owner at Aire Serv, 35 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee; the company just received Aire Serv’s 2018 award for Franchise of the Year. In Downing’s service area, awareness of IAQ among homeowners is on the rise — although they may not call it by that term. A lot of it is due to good marketing, he said.
“More and more people are calling for duct cleanings, calling in to make the air better,” said Downing. “They say ‘my kid is sick all the time.’ There’s a lot of push from service providers, pushing a more natural way of healing, so you don’t have to go to the doctor all the time and take all these medicines.”
For many of Lee’s customers, the conversation starter is dust.
“When we’re in the home, we’re doing a total comfort diagnosis,” he said. “We’re looking for dust in the ductwork, on the evaporator coil, in the blower housing.”
An average cleaning will take 5 to 10 gallons of dust out of someone’s ductwork, Lee said. The worst he’s seen was about 20 gallons. Lee keeps photos like that on hand. Then, he explains what that means for the homeowner: shorter life of their system, breakdowns, and paying more to the utility company. His team keeps their eyes out for other signs too.
“We’re looking at countertops: Do we see nasal sprays? Are kids home from school?” he said. “Part of the question is, ‘Do you or your family suffer from asthma?’ We say, ‘If we had something that could help that, would you be interested?’ and we show pictures: ‘This is a product we have that could help solve your problem.’”
IAQ solutions are as individualized as the issues that require them. The majority of Patterson’s work is with system replacements, where he’s dealing directly with the person to be using it.
“New is if [a customer] is building ‘the’ house; they bring us in for the design part,” said Patterson. “The spec house ... there really isn’t much emphasis on air quality; it’s all about numbers.”
Patterson, located in the Northeast where the winters are long and the building codes stringent, gets a lot of calls for ventilation: moisture on windows or mildew on walls. Seasonal allergy relief comes in second.
“Ions are nature’s natural cleansing agent,” he said. “We recommend a couple kinds of ionization machines; it attacks mold and viruses and eliminates them. It also clumps the particles so the filter can do a better job.”
For a filter, he recommends the Perfect 16 HEPA filter from IQAir.
“I always start with a high- to mid-grade filter, then move up to a HEPA filter if they want better quality,” he added.
Rob Minnick, CEO/president at Minnick’s HVAC, Plumbing & Insulation, Laurel, Maryland, believes that IAQ is not something you can solve with a specific device; it’s part of a bigger conversation.
“If someone called me requesting a humidifier or dehumidifier, I would dig a little bit deeper and ask them to tell me more — what concerns are they having — because I want to make sure I’m giving them the correct offering to solve the problem,” he said. “Let’s say they say, ‘It’s dry in here.’ We say, ‘Understood; have you ever had a humidifier before, and has it solved the problem in the past?’”
If they have not, they’ve usually been told by others that it will solve the problem, Minnick said. At this point, he’ll come out and do an evaluation, free of charge, to let the customer know what their options are. Often, he said, there’s an underlying structural issue that needs to be addressed first.
“What we have found with testing the past 14 years is, the air gets dried out because of science 101: Hot air runs to cold,” he explained. “All that warm air in the house is just running outside, the unit has to keep coming on, and it’s drying your house.”
Minnick does a lot of retrofit work. Before he switched to a whole-house approach to IAQ, he used to go out and install a humidifier — only to be told, when he went back out two or three years later, that the device hadn’t solved the issue at all.
“I tell vendors, it’s not the product itself,” Minnick said.
Rather, it’s home construction that’s to blame.
“The existing homes are not fit for those [devices], because there are so many air changes that it’s never going to be able to keep up,” he said. “You would need eight or nine humidifiers to do it, actually. You fix the source, otherwise customers don’t reap the rewards in the long run, because it didn’t solve the problem.”
At Minnick’s, specific IAQ products come after those adjustments are made.
“If we encapsulated the attic … now the attic is like a conditioned space, and we’ll put a dehumidifier up in the attic,” he said. “We’ll put a humidifier in the house if they’ve got a hardwood floor or a lot of built-ins.”
At JB Solutions, Patterson ran into an inefficient system and invented a couple fixes in-house.
“We noticed an issue while treating the drains: When you’ve got water and air, slime grows in the air handler,” he said. “Over time, the gunk clogs the drain. It’ll back up into the basement, or if it’s in the attic, it’s even worse. Plus, you’re blowing mold spores — nasty stuff.”
The typical treatment was a chlorine tablet in the pan; it dissolves after a week, though, and the cycle would start again.
The HVACIV, Patterson’s first solution, is a 3-gallon tank of environmentally friendly biocide, with an electric board that takes controls from the thermostat and decides when to inject the fluid into the pan, treating the water on an ongoing basis so contaminants can’t grow.
From there, Patterson modified the HVACIV to create a circular cycle that reuses, cleans, and refills the water in a flow-through humidifier to make the device more environmentally (and budget-) conscious.
“I did the math. A bottle of water was going down the drain a minute!” he said. “We have clients where it runs nonstop, and that’s almost 200 gallons a day.”
THE GROWTH FACTOR
On the company website, Aire Serv has a page dedicated to IAQ.
“If we sell a complete IAQ system with an a/c system, on an average install, it increases our margins by 20 percent,” Lee reported.
Yet Lee is one of very few contractors in his area who regularly offer it. He chalks that up to lack of education and understanding.
“There are a lot of technologies out there; it’s confusing,” he said. “And they don’t have a place to get the product.”
“A lot of that comes down to understanding the market and understanding the technology that’s out there, kind of being an expert in the use of ... dedicated outdoor systems, VRF systems, chilled beams,” said Dennis Mueller, product engineering section manager at Modine Mfg. Co. “These things are at a higher engineering standpoint, and therefore require more capability. You can differentiate yourself based on how you pull all these things together, so the end user has a better product.”
Granted, many new home builders don’t really want to look at better filters and better air quality; their goal is to build house after house after house. But if older homes tend to be leaky, brand-new homes with tighter construction mean less natural ventilation and more demand for IAQ as the first residents settle in.
“There are so many systems out there that don’t have IAQ added on to them that it really provides an opportunity for contractors,” said Smith. “It’s something that wasn’t and still isn’t put on as a base install system. [Home builders] are trying to deliver a cost-effective and energy-efficient solution, but the downside is the IAQ. When that starts to impact their comfort, the natural progression is to offer them something to achieve their comfort goals as well.”
Patterson’s approach is to work directly for homeowners and architects.
“There’s a lot of focus on keeping the house warm or cold but not the humidity or the health quality,” he said. “Every design that I look at with a client, I try to address it with the different pieces of equipment we offer.”
That approach does take more work — for example, thermal imaging and looking at the whole envelope of the house. But for Patterson, it’s been a great growth factor.
“Obviously, every component increases your margin … if you’re adding on a HEPA filter, you add $1,000, so the sale goes up 20, 30 percent,” he said.
Additionally, the need for ongoing maintenance will mean additional sales for contractors.
“It’s smart business because it’s guaranteeing me I’m going to be at a client’s house spring and fall for tuneups,” Patterson said. “It’s helping the homeowner; if they don’t need it, we’re not going to sell it to them. It keeps the wheel of business turning. Many of our clients come back year after year, instead of just, ‘Here’s your furnace, good luck.’”
Publication date: 11/12/2018