Three Tips for HVAC Contractors Taking On the School Market
Industry sectors in the HVACR market are vast and diverse. Projects span from swapping out a thermostat to designing and installing brand new systems for multimillion-dollar buildings. The key for contractors is choosing a market. For some contractors, schools are the way to go, while others cringe at the thought. There is money to be made, though, and for contractors considering the school market, here are three tips to navigate the new territory.
DEFINE THE BUSINESS
Contractors have to decide what type of school business they want to pursue. Subsets in the school HVACR market include new construction, retrofit, mechanical, controls, and more.
“You have to figure out what kind of contractor you want to be,” said Rich Bodwell, owner and president of ISS Mechanical, Orlando, Florida. “If you want to be in new construction with a general contractor, then you need to find one or two in your area and develop a relationship with them.”
While defining his business, Bodwell found that the mechanical work in schools was good, but with the emerging trends toward building controls, there was something missing in his company’s skill set.
“We were trying to do the controls in the school buildings, but ISS Mechanical isn’t a controls company,” he said. “It’s not who we are.”
So Bodwell sought out and purchased a controls company — Control Systems Specialist Inc. Since 1985, the company has focused on the engineering, installation, and servicing of direct digital controls (DDC) energy management.
As owner and president of this new company for the past three years, Bodwell has found that the controls side of the school market — not the mechanical sector — is what fits best for his companies.
KNOW THE DIFFERENCES
When talking about school jobs, two levels often come to mind: K-12 and university. Though seemingly there would be an abundance of variation in the two sectors, Richard Cramer Sr., chairman of Dee Cramer in Holly, Michigan, said that is not the case.
“I spent 50 years in the industry, and to me, there is no difference between K-12 and university work,” he said. “We build our ductwork the same and use the same people on both project types.”
Cramer acknowledged that there is some difference in dealing with the owners, be they public or private, but that depended individually on each school. He further explained that the differences between retrofits and new construction are the same for all construction and that the school market is not unique in that factor either.
Although the differences between school types aren’t apparent, there is a distinctness to completing school jobs as opposed to other types of HVACR jobs. According to Bodwell, the pace of school work is fast and nonnegotiable.
“Every school job has a set end date,” he said. “You have to consider that school work has to be done before school opens on that set date. Kids are coming, teachers are coming, and you have to be out of there.”
These end dates are so hard and fast that contractors will often end up working long hours and weekends during the summer season to complete the jobs on time. Bodwell cautioned contractors looking into school projects that it is imperative they have enough people to staff the contracts that are awarded to them.
Another difference in working at schools is the need for special clearance when students are on the property. Contractors have to check with their individual districts to comply with all rules regarding students, and their employees must be cleared to be there for any installs, scheduled maintenance, or service calls.
MAKE A PLAN
Despite the rules and variances, schools are customers, too, and contractors should engage them as such. The relationship may be different, but it is still imperative that contractors understand the expectations and make plans to meet or exceed them.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is providing new inlets to this sector with its concentration on energy savings and IAQ in schools. The agency released The Energy Savings Plus Health: Indoor Air Quality Guidelines for School Building Upgrades along with an Energy Savings Plus Health Checklist Generator.
“These guidelines are a resource that equips school districts to integrate indoor air quality protections into school energy efficiency retrofits and other building upgrade projects,” according to the EPA. “School districts starting the building retrofit process will be able to optimize energy efficiency upgrades without compromising occupant health. The guide provides information on key issues to consider during energy efficiency retrofits, HVAC projects, and other building upgrades so that energy use and costs can be reduced while improving health. It offers information on chemical contaminants and potential health risks to watch for as well as assessment protocols and recommended actions to ensure that energy upgrade projects promote health.”
In examining the checklist generator, there is a complete section devoted specifically to HVACR opportunities for improvement. Although used as a guideline for the school administrator, contractors could use the information as a jumping-off point to prepare a plan for helping their customers during the project. The guidelines suggest that the following steps be completed and addressed.
- Conduct an assessment to evaluate the existing HVAC system components in accordance with minimum inspection standards of ASHRAE/ACCA Standard 180, ASHRAE handbooks, or other equivalent standards and guidelines. Evaluate building heating and cooling loads after planned modifications and HVAC equipment capacities for sensible and latent loads.
- Repair, modify, or replace equipment to ensure that existing HVAC systems operate properly. Ensure there is a scheduled inspection and maintenance program for HVAC systems in accordance with ASHRAE/ACCA Standard 180.
- Properly size and install any necessary new HVAC equipment.
- Ensure new HVAC systems have a minimum of MERV-8 filters installed upstream of all cooling coils and wetted surfaces, in accordance with ASHRAE Standard 62.1 requirements.
- Remediate mold in air plenums and ductwork.
- Follow the guidelines provided in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Technical Manual (Section III Chapter 7 Legionnaires’ Disease) to protect against bacteria growth in HVAC systems and mechanical equipment.
- Install higher-efficiency filters in new HVAC systems (MERV 11 or higher) upstream of all cooling coils and wetted surfaces, if feasible.
- Increase filter efficiencies in any existing HVAC systems (highest MERV rating possible based on equipment specifications).
- Employ filtration and gas-phase air cleaning strategies to further improve IAQ, in conjunction with source control strategies and maintaining minimum ventilation rates.
For school administrators, this list is a lot of work. But for HVACR contractors, it is an opportunity to guide customers through the technical work. Using this information to partner with the school for these upgrades could be a revenue stream for new installations as well as maintenance contracts.
Publication date: 12/17/2018